#98 Chord Symbols Explained: How To Work Out The Notes For ANY Chord

harmony & theory Nov 29, 2020

In this week's free online saxophone lesson you'll be learning how to understand chord symbols, and quickly work out the notes for ANY chord. Too many of my students are still flummoxed by simple chord symbols, so I thought it was time we got it sorted! 

Be sure to pick up your free chord symbols PDF cheat sheet, which has got the formula for working out ANY chord symbol, in two different ways. Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are available at the bottom of the blog.


What is a chord symbol?

  • a chord symbol is a shorthand notation to tell you what the chord is in a song
  • chord symbols of various types have been around for a long time, and even Bach used figured bass, which is a kind of chord symbol


How can I work out the notes of a chord from the chord symbol? (2:05)

  • method 1 (you have to know the notes of all your major scales): use the scale degree formula for each chord, e.g. 1, b3, 5, b7, and apply it to the major scale of the root note of the chord
  • so in the above example, if the chord was Dm7, you take a D MAJOR scale, and flatten the 3rd and 7th degree. That gives you the notes for Dm7 (D, F, A,C)
  • method 2 (you don't need to know your major scales for this one): From the root, go up the specified number of semitones between each chord note
  • for example, a major 7 chord has gaps of 4, 3 and 4 semitones, so if you wanted to know B major 7, you'd go up 4 semitones (D#), then up 3 semitones from D# (F#), and finally up another 4 semitones from F# (A#). The notes of a B major 7 chord are then B, D#, F#, A#


How do I know what scale degree or intervals to use for different chord types? (21:45)

  • you can refer to this chart to work out the notes for ANY chord, using either method


What about slash chords? (19:47)

  • if there's a chord with a slash then another note, just play the chord from the top, and the SINGLE bass note for the bottom note


So that's it for this week, I hope you enjoyed learning how to decode chord symbols the easy way! Don't forget to get your free chord symbols PDF cheat sheet. Print it off and keep it on your wall for easy access. Until next week, keep practicing smart and I'll see you later! 

Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps

0:00 - Intro and titles

0:58 - how to get your free pdf and more

2:05 - triads

2:18 - major triads

4:12 - minor triads

5:12 - diminished triads

6:04 - triads recap

6:30 - common 7th chords

6:58 - major 7th chords

9:16 - dominant 7th chords

10:28 - minor 7th chords

11:50 - half diminished (minor 7 flat 5) chords

13:25 - 7th chords recap

14:13 - unusual 7th chords

14:29 - diminished 7th chords

15:01 - minor-major 7th chords

15:49 - extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths)

18:10 - add2, sus 4, 6th chords

19:47 - inversions and slash chords

21:45 - summary

22:56 - sign off

24:17 - end music


Video Transcript

Hi i'm pro saxophonist jamie anderson. You're watching get your sax together, and on this week's lesson you're gonna learn how to work out the notes of any chord.

Welcome back to another get your sax together sax up your sunday lesson. So often when i teach my students they want to be able to improvise - they want to be able to understand chords - but they don't know how to work out the notes. Now your first port of call is to go to my playlist on harmony in theory for beginners that's going to take you from zero to hero literally in four easy lessons. Now part two is the one that you really want to be focusing on for this lesson so the first thing you want to do is go and check out that episode, but i know not everybody wants to do that, so in this lesson i'm just going to run straight through how to work out the note of any chord using two simple methods.

Now just before we steam into that, i'm going to give you some free goodies. As usual, first of all, there is a pdf with all the chords written out and all the notes, and that is available on the link below, and it's at get your sax together dot com forward slash chords. Forward slash chords, for that awesome pdf with the notes for all the different chord types. Second thing you can do if you're a beginner on saxophone - i've got a deluxe finger chart with the fingerings for every note - all the alternatives and all the altissimo notes. You can get that at get your sax together dot com forward slash finger chart. And finally, if you haven't already watched it, please do go and check out my free one hour saxophone success masterclass, where i run through a bunch of useful stuff. It's 60 minutes of solid teaching that i would teach any one of my pupils you can get that at get your sax together dot com forward slash masterclass. Okay, i'm off script for this lesson so anything can happen i'm probably gonna be bumbling my way through it but let's give it a go and we're gonna start by learning about triads.

The first genre of chords we're going to deal with are called triads. Triad means three and a triad is a three-note chord. One two three. Simple as that. The chord symbol for a major triad or just a major chord is the root letter on its own. Just the note name on its own - nothing else - that means play a major chord. So if you were reading a chord chart and you saw Ab you would just play a straight Ab major chord. I'm going to teach you two methods of working out the notes of all these chords.

The first method is based referring to the notes of the major scale that you would use for the root note of that chord. So what's a root note? The root note is the note that the bass plays, it's the lowest note of the chord at the bottom of the band and it is the home note of the chord. It's the main note of the chord - it's called the root. You would take the major scale for the root of that chord and you'd play the first, third and fifth notes of that scale to get a major triad. So if we were in C - one, beside two, three, miss out four, five. One, three and five of the major scale from the root of that chord is a major triad.

The second method is just the number of semitones that you're gonna go up chromatically to get to the next note of the chord. So let me explain that. We're gonna start with C and then you're gonna go up four semitones to get to the next note of the chord. One two three four, which is an E, and then you're gonna go up three semitones, so i start with the next semitone up which is F. One two three gives us a G. C-E-G. So the formula if you like of a major triad (in the number of chromatic semitones that you go up) is four and three.

The next triad we're going to cover is a minor triad. The chord symbol is a lowercase m or occasionally a dash. That is the chord symbol for a minor chord, a lowercase m or a dash. Now if you were using the major scale method as a reference it would be one, flat three, and five, which means that you take the first note (of the major scale from that root) but when you get to the third note you flatten it by one semitone. Now if we're in C that would give us an Eb, and the fifth, so that gives us our minor triad: one, flat three, five. Whereas a major triad was one, three, five. So we flattened the third to get that minor triad. In terms of the number of semitones this time, it's one, two THREE, one two three FOUR. So it's three-four to get a minor triad. 

The third type of triad i'm going to teach you is less common but i'm going to teach you anyway, and it's called a diminished triad. The chord symbol for a diminished triad is a small circle after the note name. Using the major scale method you'd use the first, flattened third and flattened fifth of the major scale from the root. So if we were in c again we go c d e, we'll flatten that, the fourth note of c major is F, the fifth note of c major is G and we'll flatten that as well. So that gives us C, Eb and Gb. Quite a spooky sound the diminished triad. In terms of our semitone, method you go up three. One two three, and three again, one two three.

So, let's revise the three main triads .

Major triad: one three five. Intervals four and three. Minor triad: one flat three five. Intervals three and four. And a diminished triad one flat three flat five. Intervals three and three.

Now triads are mostly used in pop music and simple music, country music, things like that. Obviously there's no set rule, you have seventh chords in pop and you have triads and jazz, but as a general rule triads are used in pop, and the next type of chords, seventh chords, are used more in jazz. So let's talk about seventh chords.

What's the seventh chord? It's quite simple, you take your triad and you add the seventh note of the major scale from that root, at the top. Let's go through the different types of seventh chord starting with major seven. Now when we're talking about seven chords it's very important to get the terminology right. Don't just say seven when you mean major seven. They're completely different chords okay?

So major seven - the chord symbol for a major seven chord is either a triangle, or you can write the words m a j short for major, and then an uppercase seven. Let's use the scale method. You'd use one three five, it's the same as a major triad, and then you add the seventh note of the major scale (from that root), which in the key of C is a B. That's the seventh note of c major - one two three four five six seven is a B. One three five seven gives you a major seven chord.

Now this method can be applied across any key of course. Let's say we're in Ab. You take the first third fifth and seventh notes of Ab major and that is your Ab major seven chord. Ab, C, Eb G, and it's the same across all the other 12 keys. Take the first third fifth and seventh notes of the major scale - that's a major seven. Now using the intervals method - this time we've got four three, same as a triad, and then another four. Four three four gives us our major seven (chromatic semitone number of intervals between each note).

Okay, now this means that you don't need to know all your major scales to work out the notes. So for example let's take F#. Okay, you don't know what F# major is so you just go up four three four. So the first semitone up is (G), the next one above the root, so you've got F# and then you go G, two three four, gives you A#. Another three - one two three - gives you C#, One two three four - E# officially, or F. That gives you your F# major seven. Okay so that's how you work out the notes of any chord using the intervals method.

Let's move on now to a dominant seven or seven chord. As i said before, very important to differentiate between a major seven chord and a seven chord - they're different chords. A seven chord is short for dominant seven. Okay, what we've got this time is - the chord symbol is just the seven on its own. Just seven. So Ab7, Eb7, C7. The scale method - if you started your major scale from the root of the chord it'll be one three five, major triad, and then this time instead of the seventh you flatten the seventh by one semitone. One three five flat seven. Using the intervals method for a seven chord it would be the same as a major triad to begin with, so four and three, but this time it's going to be another three to get to the flat seven. One two three. Okay - four three three is the formula to get a dominant seven or seven chord.

The third type of seventh chord is called a minor seven. So we've got major seven, seven, and now minor seven. The chord symbol for a minor seven is a lowercase m and then a seven or it can be a dash and then a seven. There are the two different ways of writing a minor seven. Occasionally you even see a small m i n, short for minor seven. That is the chord symbol from minor seven. Now this time it's like a dominant seven but we're going to flatten the third as well, so if you were starting on a root (and we're going to start on c again), if you were doing a normal c major scale the third note would be an e but we're making an e flat, that's a flattened third. We've got the fifth and we've got the flattened seventh as well. So C Eb G and Bb. Root, flat third, fifth, flattened seventh - in reference to the major scale that you would normally get from the root. That's the key. Let's look at it in intervals now. It's gonna be, you've got your root and then you go up three and four that gives you your minor triad from before and then another three to get the flattened seventh.

The fourth and last common type of seventh chord i'm going to teach you is called a "minor seven flat five", or half diminished - they both mean the same thing. Half diminished or minor seven flat five. Now when you call it minor seven flat five i think you know where this is going already it's already spelt out in the chord symbol. The chord symbol for a minor seven flat five, you can have two different chord symbols. One is the same as a minor seven but then add a small flat five after it, or you can have a circle with a diagonal line through it. they're the two chord symbols for a minor seven flat five or half diminished chord. Using the scale method (based on the major scale that you would normally have from the root of that chord) we're gonna have the root, flat three, flat five, and flat seven. Root, flat three, flat five, flat seven. Now using the intervals method that would be three, (one two three), another three, (one two three) and you can see that gives us our diminished triad from before, and then one two three four. So three three four are the number of semitones between each chord note of a minor seven flat five. That's a less common chord type, minor seven flat five, nice sound though. It's usually used in two five ones to a minor key but we're not talking about functional harmony today!

Let's have a quick recap of those four main seventh chord types. Major seven is one three five seven, natural seven, and the intervals are four three four. A seven chord or dominant seventh chord is one, three, five, flat seven and the intervals are four three three. A minor seven chord is one, flat three, five, flat seven and the intervals are three four three, and finally the minor seven flat five is one, flat three, flat five, flat seven, and the intervals are three three four.

Those four seventh chords are going to be the vast majority of the seventh chords that you need to know and there's only four of them so it's not too bad. However i'm going to give you two more seventh chords just for the sake of completeness.

The first one is a diminished seventh. The chord symbol for a diminished seven is a circle followed by a seven. So for this one we take our diminished triad, which is three three or flat three, flat five, and then you're going to add the sixth note - that would be from that major scale, which in this case from c is A. It's got that spooky sound. So in number of semitones it's three three three, which gives it that real spooky sound.

The other worthy mention in the seventh chords is a minor triad but with a major seventh. The chord symbol for a minor major is simply a small m or a dash followed by a triangle. So minor major, or sometimes you'll see a minor with a natural seven. So that would be root, flat three, five, major seven, and that's got a really lovely sound to it. That is called a minor major chord, minor major. You don't hear this chord very often but it's a very distinctive sound and for example you can hear it at the end of the james bond theme it's got that spooky spy feel to it.

Now let's get into extensions. Sometimes i'm sure you've seen chord symbols that say either a 9 11 or a 13 on it but there's only seven notes in the major scale, so how does that work? Let's break it down. It's really quite simple. Let's start on our c scale, one two three four five six seven eight, then nine is the same as the second, ten eleven is the same as the fourth, twelve (and i think this is going off my keyboard on screen) thirteen, A, is the same as the sixth. So 9 is the same as 2, 11 is the same as 4, and 13 is the same of 6 - based on the major scale from the root of that chord.

So why do we call it 9 11 13 and not 2 4 and 6? Very good question and the reason is these extensions, when they're named 9 11 and 13, the implication is that they're floating at the top of the chord they're extended up, that's why they're called extensions. So the ninth, eleventh and thirteen of a chord they get added to seventh chords as higher extensions in the chords. So for example, if you had a c7, there's c7, if you had a c9 you would add a D on top. Now these extensions can be altered, flat or sharp, you can have a flat nine which means taking that ninth and flattening by a semitone, or a sharp nine, which means taking that nine and raising it by semitone. So if we have basic C7, one, three, five, flat seven, there's the ninth which is d. To make that a sharp nine you make it a d sharp. That's quite a funky sound i'm sure you recognize that. You could also have a flattened ninth. Basic seven chord, there's the ninth let's flatten it to Db. There's a flat nine chord. Now the same is true of the other extensions, however you don't flatten the 11th because if you flatten the 11th you just get the third of the chord, so the 11th is just sharpened. When you get to the 13th, which is A, if you have a sharp 13 well that's just the flat seventh of the chord, so you don't get that either, you only have flattened thirteenths or sharpened elevenths, or elevenths or thirteenths. The ninth can be flattened or sharpened.

The twist in the tail is sometimes you do have chords with a two, a four, or a six. So in pop music you'll often have a major triad add two. Now the implication of that is that the the two is kind of in the middle of the chord not stuck at the top of the voicing so a major add two, which would just be a triad and then then you write add two, would be like a normal triad and then you add the second note, which is D, and that gives you that nice open, poppy sound which you hear so often in pop music. When it comes to four, you get sus four chords. That's short for suspended fourth. Now what that means is instead of the third in the chord you play the fourth and that is called a sus four. You just write sus and then four, so Csus4 would be c, the root, the fourth, and the fifth, and it gives that sound. Quite often the the sus4 is resolved to the three like that. And finally, when it comes to the sixth, often in jazz the home key, instead of being a major seven, is a six chord, but it's not the same as a thirteenth chord. When you say a thirteenth chord that means it's an A seventh chord with a thirteenth. A sixth chord is a major chord and you just add the sixth note of the scale, so one, three, five, there's our home major triad, let's add the sixth, A. That's a six chord.

The last thing we've got to cover with chords is when you have a different bass note from the top chord. Sometimes these are called slash chords and sometimes these are called inversions. Now all you do is you have your main chord symbol, you have an angled slash, and then you have a note at the bottom, what that means is play the top chord and the bass note is the note underneath the slash. For example if we had C over E, you would take a normal C chord, one three, five, and you would put an E in the bass. Now in this case that's just an inversion of a normal chord. So quite often you'll just have let's say an F chord over C - now the bass note is also one of the chord notes and it's just an inversion of the chord, however when you get more complicated harmony you have triads over bass notes which are not in the chord at the top. So for example let's say we had D/Eb. Okay we get our D triad one three five and we add an Eb bass. Or you could have D/C#, or D/C, or D/B or D/Bb, or you could have any bass note over that chord. That opens up a whole world of harmony. So when you see a slash, you just play the chord at the top and the bass note, as a single note, at the bottom. So if you have D/C there's your D triad, you don't put a C triad at the bottom . You don't have two triads, you just have the chord at the top and then a single bass note underneath, that's very important to remember.

So that rounds off this week's lesson teaching you how to play the notes of any chord. Remember there's two different methods. If you already know the notes of all your major scales, which i highly recommend you do, (and if you want to practice your major scales you'll find two videos linked in the description - part one and part two - are fantastic ways of practicing your major scales, and all the major scales are written out there as well so it's a great resource.) So first of all i would highly recommend that you learn your major scales - if you know your major scales you can use method one which is learn what the notes of the chord are in relation to the major scale that you would normally have starting on that note.

So just as a quick reminder, if you had a major seven chord you would have one three five seven, if it was a dominant seven it would be one three five flat seven, if it's a minor seven it would be one flat three five flat seven and if it was a minor seven flat five or half diminished it would be one flat three flat five flat seven - compared to the normal major scale from that root - that's the important bit.

So i hope you enjoyed this week's lesson - bit of a different one this week - off script, just vibin' it, and not a note played on my saxophone. Get your sax together with no sax - that is an interesting concept, but hey! I'm up to my neck filming and editing my Total Tone Mastery course right now. That's gonna be out in december i hope. It's awesome, it looks so amazing, that's why the set behind me looks a bit different this week because i'm shooting my course. Anyway, super important, now you know exactly how to work out the notes of any chord using two different methods.

Thank you so much for watching as always, i really really appreciate you watching, i appreciate your support. If you've bought me a coffee thank you so much i really really appreciate it. If you want to buy me a coffee you can do so using the link in the description. Give the video all the usual good stuff - thumbs up, like, subscribe to the channel if you're a first time watcher, and click the bell icon to be notified when i go live or when i release new videos. And i release videos at 7am uk time every sunday - saxing up your sunday. I don't know what i'm doing next week i'm just vibing it week by week at the moment but i'm sure it's going to be pretty cool. Thank you once again, and remember, practice smart and enjoy your music. See you later!

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