This article is about jazz notation and chord symbols, which for the moment may still seem very mysterious to you… Indeed, if you are starting to take an interest in jazz, and you come from classical or world music, you have probably not yet had the opportunity to read chord charts such as those found in the Realbook, for example, that well-known collection which contains most of the great jazz standards. On the other hand, you may already have notions of harmony, or you may have even studied classical harmony at a high level.
Whether you have these notions at a high level, or are as yet uninitiated, you will in any case have to study a little jazz harmony, since the system is totally different from harmony in classical music: it’s another way of approaching things. This is logical since it is a different type music… It should be specified that the chord symbols sometimes vary according to the musicians and their preferences… I will try to show you the main possibilities which are the most widely used. I want to make it clear that I am focusing on notation in this article, and while I am also trying to supplement it with some harmony elements to be able to explain chord symbols, I am not expanding on the jazz harmony in itself which deserves another article in its own right.
First, I’ll just set the context. Understanding the chords is necessary to be able to improvise in jazz, because all the standards charts are made using different chord types that you have to know, and therefore know how to read. Each standard uses a sequence of chords that forms the harmonic basis of the tune. As I said in my article on listening, a standard is made up of a melody and a sequence of chords that repeats itself in a loop, upon which we try to improvise.
What is a chord? It is a layering of thirds. The difference between a minor and major chord will be in the nature of the third: if it’s a major third, the chord will be major, and if it’s a minor third…the chord will of course be minor.
Regarding jazz notation, you should know that each chord is represented by a letter. (I use fixed Do.)
Do = C
Re = D
Mi = E
Fa = F
Sol = G
La = A
Ti = B
The root note of the chord can be sharp or flat. To the letter which indicates the fundamental of the chord will therefore be added a # or a b.
For example, a C sharp major chord would be notated as: C#
A D flat major chord will be notated as: Db
For now, we’ll talk about perfect chords; that is to say with a perfect fifth.
We have seen that the chord can be minor or major, depending on the nature of the third.
If it is major, nothing is added to the letter and any accidental (# or b).
C major = C (notes: C-E-G),
F sharp major = F# (notes: F#-A#-C#)
A-flat major = Ab (notes: Ab-C-Eb)
If the chord is minor, with a minor third, there will be a small “m” or “-” after the letter, or “min”
C minor = C- / Cm / Cmin (notes: C-Eb-G)
G sharp minor = G#- / G#m / G#min (notes: G#-B-D#)
B-flat minor = Bb- / Bbm / Bbmin (notes: Bb-Db-F)
So far, we have seen 3-note chords, i.e. root – third – fifth, without a 7th (this would be the case in a more pop or classical context), or when the 7th is not specified. In jazz, we mainly have chords with 4 or more notes.
When we add a 7th to our three-note chord, it can be major or minor.
When the 7th is minor, we simply find the number 7 after the letter of the chord.
We have two scenarios:
The seventh is minor while the third is major. This constitutes a dominant chord that will resolve to the 1st degree. We’ll call it “7th chord”
C seventh or C7 = C7 (notes: C-E-G-Bb)
G seventh or G7 = G7 (notes: G-B-D-F)
If the third of the chord is also minor, we will have chords of type “minor 7”
C minor 7 = C-7 / Cm7 / Cmin7 (notes: C-Eb-G-Bb)
G minor 7 = G-7 / Gm7 / Gmin 7 (notes / G-Bb-D-F)
The major seventh is written as follows: maj7 or Δ or Maj7
If the third of the chord is major, it will be a so-called “major 7” chord
F major 7 = Fmaj7 or FMaj7 or FΔ (notes: fa-la-do-mi)
C major 7 = Cmaj7 or CMaj7 or CΔ (notes: C-E-G-B)
If the third is minor, we speak of a chord “minor major 7”
F minor major 7 = F-maj7 / Fm(maj7) / Fmin(Maj7) / F- Δ / FmΔ / FminΔ
C minor major 7 = C-maj7 / Cm(maj7) / Cmin(Maj7) / C-Δ / CmΔ / CminΔ
(notes: C-Eb-G-B )
In place of the 7th in a chord with 4 notes, we can also have the 6th.
The major 6 chord will be written with a 6 after the chord letter.
C major 6 = C6 (notes: C, E, G, A)
The minor 6 chord contains a minor third and the sixth
C minor 6 = Cm6/ C-6/ Cmin6 (notes C, Eb, G, A)
So far we have looked at minor and major chords with a perfect fifth.
We also have other types of chords that you will come across in charts for jazz standards.
The diminished chord, with a diminished fifth, can also be looked at as a stack of minor thirds.
For example, the C diminished chord will be written Cdim or C°.
The notes that make up this chord are: C – Eb – F# – A.
The minor 7 flat 5 chord is a minor 7 chord with a diminished fifth (without a perfect fifth).
This chord is notated Bm7b5 or BØ. The notes that make up this chord are B-D-F-A. This is the chord that is used often as the subdominant in a minor context; it is the second degree, found in the famous II-V-I minor jazz cadences, so IIØ -V-Imin.
The sus4 chord, a 7th chord with the suspended fourth, therefore has no third. It corresponds to the chord of 4/6 in classical, except that in jazz it does not resolve and is considered as such…
Notation: Gsus4 / G7sus4 / G7sus (notes: G-C-D-F)
There is also the sus2 chord, with a suspended second = Csus2 (notes: C-D-G)
The C/F chord “C major bass F chord” is, as the name suggests, a C major chord with a different bass from the root of the chord. In this case, the bass is F. The bass chord can contain three or more notes.
C chord with F in the bass = C/F (notes: F, C, E, G)
Bb maj7 chord with C in the bass = Bbmaj7/C (notes : C, Bb, D, F, A)
If the fifth is augmented, this will be an augmented chord.
Caug = C+5 or C#5 ( notes: C-E-G#)
If chords are followed by numbers 9, 11 or 13, we speak of enrichments. This is the sequence of stacked thirds I told you about at the beginning of the article.
In maj7 or min7 chords, we will replace the number 7 by 9, 11,13, depending on the color you want to bring out above the basic chord. In this case, we will very often remove the fifth.
In 7th chords, 9s, 11s and 13th may be altered, becoming sharps or flats. When playing the 11th or 13th, the 9th is often also played)
G7b9b13 (sol-si-fa-lab- mib)
G7#11 (sol-si-fa- a-do#)
G7b13 (sol-si-fa-la- mib)
There are still other chords, the list is long.. But I think I have listed the main possibilities. Do not hesitate to let me know of any oversights and I will complete the article!!
I hope the chord symbols in jazz are now a little clearer to you. If you liked the article, feel free to click on the facebook link to share it!