A chord is a combination of three or more different notes. Most music consists of chords, often with a corresponding melody. Chords can be played on instruments that can produce multiple notes simultaneously, such as the piano, guitar, and ukulele. Many other instruments can produce only one note at a time.

1. Characteristics

Chords can be categorized according to different criteria:

Number of chord notes

A chord consists of three or more different notes. Chords can be named according to the number of different notes in the chord by using the terms triad (3), tetrad (4), pentad (5), hexad (6), and heptad (7):

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Triad is the only term used regularly. Chords consisting of four or more notes are usually referred to as four-note chords, five-note chords, six-note chords, and seven-note chords instead.

It is common to double some chord notes. For example, on a guitar you often play all six strings, even if a chord consists of three notes. It does not alter the number of notes in a chord when some notes are doubled.

Harmonic and broken chords

Chords can be harmonic or broken. In a harmonic chord, the notes are played simultaneously, whereas in a broken chord, the notes are played one after another:

Harmonic and broken chords

A broken chord is also called an arpeggio. In general, the notes are played from the bottom up, but the notes can be played in any order. Even though the notes are played individually, they are experienced as a coherent chord.

Close and open position chords

Chords can be in close position or open position. In close position, the notes are placed as close as possible to each other. In open position, the notes are separated, leaving room for one or more chord notes between them:

Close and open position chords

All the above chords are the same chord comprising the notes C, E, and G. The last two chords are in open position as there is room for the notes E and C between the notes in the second last chord, and G and E between the notes in the last chord.

The note from which a chord is built and named is called the root note. If the root note is the lowest note, the chord is in the root position. If a chord note, other than the root note, is the lowest note, then the chord is in inversion. In the above example, chords number 2 and 4 are in inversion.

2. Triads

A triad is a chord comprising three different notes. Triads are the most common types of chords, and a lot of music uses triads only. There are four basic types of triads: major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

Major triad

A major triad (also called a major chord) consists of a root note, a major third, and a perfect fifth. The distance between the notes is a major third and a minor third. Below is a C major triad:

Major triad

A major triad usually has a happy and consonant sound. It is common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a major triad is the root note with a capital letter, if necessary followed by an accidental. Some examples of major triads are D, B, and F.

Minor triad

A minor triad (also called a minor chord) consists of a root note, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. The distance between the notes is a minor third and a major third. Below is a C minor triad:

Minor triad

A minor triad usually has a sad and consonant sound. It is common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a minor triad is the root note followed by the letter ‘m’, or in jazz, sometimes a hyphen. Some examples of minor triads are Cm, A, and Fm.

Diminished triad

A diminished triad (also called a diminished chord) consists of a root note, a minor third, and a diminished fifth. The distance between the notes is two minor thirds. The chord corresponds to a minor triad with a lowered fifth. Below is a C diminished triad:

Diminished triad

A diminished triad usually has a tense and dissonant sound. It is relatively common in classical music and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a diminished triad is the root note followed by a small circle or the text ‘dim’. Some examples of diminished triads are Bo, Edim, and Co.

Augmented triad

An augmented triad (also called an augmented chord) consists of a root note, a major third, and an augmented fifth. The distance between the notes is two major thirds. The chord corresponds to a major triad with a raised fifth. Below is a C augmented triad:

Augmented triad

An augmented triad usually has an open and dissonant sound. It is primarily used in jazz and, occasionally, in classical and popular music.

The chord symbol for an augmented triad is the root note followed by a small circle or the text ’aug’. Some examples of augmented triads are C+, Daug, and C+.

Final remarks

All four types of triads comprise two-thirds. For example, a minor triad consists of a minor third and a major third. A minor third is the distance of three half steps, and a major third is the distance of four half steps, where the first note is not included in the count.

To find the notes in a minor triad, you need to count three half steps upwards from the root note and four half steps upwards from the next note. The number of half steps is the same regardless of the root note. Below is a minor triad with F as a root note:

Half steps

If a chord is in the inversion or open position, the notes must be moved so they are a third apart, before the chord can be identified. Below is a C major triad in inversion and open position, which is moved so the notes are a third apart:

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Use the chart below to remember the four triads. The column ‘Half steps’ shows the distance measured in half steps between the notes in the chord.

Name Symbol Composition Half steps Example
Major C Root note, major third, and perfect fifth 4 + 3 Major chord
Minor Cm Root note, minor third, and perfect fifth 3 + 4 Minor chord
Diminished Co Root note, minor third, and diminished fifth 3 + 3 Diminished chord
Augmented C+ Root note, major third, and augmented fifth 4 + 4 Augmented chord

3. Seventh chords

A seventh chord is a triad with an added seventh. Seventh chords are common in both classical and popular music. There are five common types of seventh chords: dominant seventh, major seventh, minor seventh, half-diminished seventh, and diminished seventh.

Dominant seventh chord

A dominant seventh chord is a major triad with a minor seventh. The chord consists of a root note, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a minor seventh. Below is a C dominant seventh chord:

Dominant seventh chord

A dominant seventh chord usually has a tense and progressive sound. It is common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a dominant seventh chord is the root note followed by the number seven. Some examples of dominant seventh chords are E7, A7, and F7.

Major seventh chord

A major seventh chord is a major triad with a major seventh. The chord consists of a root note, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a major seventh. Below is a C major seventh chord:

Major seventh chord

A major seventh chord usually has a soft, fluid and directionless sound. It is common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a major seventh chord is the root note followed by the symbol ‘Δ’, ‘Δ7’, or the text ‘maj7’. Some examples of major seventh chords are CΔ, BΔ7, and Cmaj7.

Minor seventh chord

A minor seventh chord is a minor triad with a minor seventh. The chord consists of a root note, a minor third, a perfect fifth, and a minor seventh. Below is a C minor seventh chord:

Minor seventh chord

A minor seventh chord usually has a soft and sad sound. It is common in classical music and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a minor seventh chord is the root note followed by the text ‘m7’ and in jazz sometimes ‘–7’. Some examples of minor seventh chords are Dm7, A7, and Fm7.

Half-diminished seventh chord

A half-diminished seventh chord is a diminished triad with a minor seventh. The chord consists of a root note, a minor third, a diminished fifth, and a minor seventh. Below is a C half-diminished seventh chord:

Half-diminished seventh chord

A half-diminished seventh chord usually has a tense and dissonant sound. It is primarily used in jazz and, less often, in classical and popular music.

The chord symbol for a half-diminished seventh chord is the root note followed by ‘ø’ (a circle with a stroke through it), ‘ø7’, or ‘m7(5)’. Some examples of half-diminished seventh chords are Cø, Eø7, and Cm7(5).

Diminished seventh chord

A diminished seventh chord is a diminished triad with a diminished seventh. The chord consists of a root note, a minor third, a diminished fifth, and a diminished seventh. Below is a C diminished seventh chord:

Diminished seventh chord

A diminished seventh chord usually has a tense, dissonant, and dense sound. It is common in classical and popular music, but especially jazz, in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a diminished seventh chord is the root note followed by ‘o7’ or the text ‘dim7’. Some examples of diminished seventh chords are Co7, Ddim7, and Co7. Please note that some write diminished seventh chords without the number 7, i.e., the same way as diminished triads.

The diminished seventh in the diminished seventh chord is enharmonic to a major sixth. In the example above, the note B is enharmonic to the note A, and should be notated as a diminished seventh, so the notes fall a third apart, as in the above example.

A diminished seventh chord is enharmonic to several other diminished seventh chords, as each note in the chord can form the root note of a new chord. For example, Co7 is enharmonic to Eo7, Go7, and Ao7. Usually, the bass note determines how the chord is interpreted.

Final remarks

All five types of seventh chords consist of a triad and a seventh. For example, a major seventh chord consists of a major triad and a major seventh. A major, minor, and diminished seventh fall respectively 1, 2, and 3 half steps below the octave.

In addition to the five common types of seventh chords, there are four seventh chords that are sometimes used, especially in jazz. These are:

  • Minor major seventh chord (minor triad with a major seventh)
  • Augmented seventh chord (augmented triad with a minor seventh)
  • Augmented major seventh chord (augmented triad with a major seventh)
  • Diminished major seventh chord (diminished triad with a major seventh).

Use the chart below to reference the five common types of seventh chords.

Name Symbol Composition Example
Dominant seventh C7 Major triad with a minor seventh Dominant seventh
Major seventh CΔ Major triad with a major seventh Major seventh
Minor seventh Cm7 Minor triad with a minor seventh Minor seventh
Half-diminished seventh Cø Diminished triad with a minor seventh Half-diminished seventh
Diminished seventh Co7 Diminished triad with a diminished seventh Diminished seventh

4. Sixth chords

A sixth chord is a triad with an added sixth. Sixth chords have been especially common in jazz since the first half of the 20th century and classical music from the 19th century. There are two common types of sixth chords: major sixth and minor sixth.

Major sixth chord

A major sixth chord is a major triad with a major sixth. The chord consists of a root note, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a major sixth. Below is a C major sixth chord:

Major sixth chord

A major sixth chord usually has a soft and ambiguous note that resembles both a major and a minor. It’s been especially common in jazz since the first half of the 20th century, and classical music since the 19th century.

The chord symbol for a major sixth chord is the root note followed by the number six. Some examples of major sixth chords are A6, G6, and G6.

Minor sixth chord

A minor sixth chord is a minor triad with a major sixth. The chord consists of a root note, a minor third, a perfect fifth, and a major sixth. Below is a C minor sixth chord:

Minor sixth chord

A minor sixth chord usually has a minor-like and dissonant sound. It has been especially common in jazz since the first half of the 20th century, and classical music since the 19th century.

The chord symbol for a minor sixth chord is the root note followed by the text ‘m6’ or in jazz sometimes ‘–6’. Some examples of minor sixth chords are Gm6, E6, and Fm6.

Final remarks

Both types of sixth chords consist of a triad and a major sixth. For example, a major sixth chord consists of a major triad and a major sixth. A major sixth falls two half steps above the perfect fifth.

A major sixth chord consists of the same notes as a minor seventh chord. For example, the chord C6 (C, E, G, and A) consists of the same notes as Am7 (A, C, E, and G). Likewise, a minor sixth chord consists of the same notes as a half-diminished seventh chord.

Usually, it is the bass note that determines how the chord is interpreted. If the bass note is C, normally the chord is interpreted as a chord with C as the root note (e.g. C6 and not Am7).

Use the chart below to reference the two common types of sixth chords.

Name Symbol Composition Example
Major sixth C6 Major triad with a major sixth Major sixth
Minor sixth Cm6 Minor triad with a major sixth Minor sixth

5. Suspended chords

A suspended chord is a chord where the third is replaced by a perfect fourth or a major second. Suspended chords are relatively common in both classical and popular music. There are two types of suspended chords: sus4 and sus2.

Sus4 chord

A sus4 chord consists of a root note, a perfect fourth, and a perfect fifth. The chord corresponds to a major triad where the third is raised a half step. Below is a C sus4 chord:

Sus4 chord

A sus4 chord has an open and unresolved sound. It is relatively common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a sus4 chord is the root note followed by ‘sus4’, or merely ‘sus’. Some examples of sus4 chords are Csus4, Dsus, and Csus4.

Sus2 chord

A sus2 chord consists of a root note, a major second, and a perfect fifth. The chord corresponds to a major triad, where the third is lowered two half steps. Below is a C sus2 chord:

Sus2 chord

A sus2 chord has an open and unresolved sound. It is used in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a sus2 chord is the root note followed by ‘sus2’. Some examples of sus2 chords are Dsus2, Bsus2, and Gsus2.

Dominant seventh sus4 chord

A dominant seventh sus4 chord is a sus4 chord with a minor seventh. Below is a C dominant seventh sus4 chord:

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A dominant seventh sus4 chord has an open, unresolved, and tense sound. It is relatively common in classical and popular music in most parts of the world.

The chord symbol for a dominant seventh sus4 chord is the root note followed by ‘7sus4’, or at times merely ‘7sus’. Some examples of dominant seventh sus4 chords are F7sus4, A7sus, and C7sus4.

Final remarks

Suspended chords differ from other chords by not having a third. It is the third in a chord that determines whether the chord is a major or minor chord. Therefore, suspended chords are neither major nor minor chords.

Suspended chords have a tense sound because the third is replaced by a different note. Suspended chords are usually continued to a major or minor chord with the same root note as the suspended chord. This way, the tension in the chord dissolves:

Suspended chord and major chord

A sus4 chord consists of the same notes as a sus2 chord with a root note a perfect fifth below. For example, Csus4 (C, F, and G) consists of the same notes as Fsus2 (F, G, and C). Usually, the bass note determines how the chord is interpreted.

Use the chart below to reference the two common types of suspended chords.

Name Symbol Composition Example
Sus4 Csus4 Triad with a perfect fourth instead of a third Billedtekst
Sus2 Csus2 Triad with a major second instead of a third Billedtekst

6. Extended chords

An extended chord is a seventh chord that is extended by one or more notes above the seventh. There are three different extensions:

Extension Interval Name
9 Major ninth Ninth chord
11 Perfect eleventh (including major ninth) 11th chord
13 Major thirteenth (including perfect eleventh and major ninth) 13th chord

All seventh chords can be extended, but the most common extended chords are major seventh, dominant seventh, and minor seventh chords. Below is an example of the three different extensions (highlighted with green notes) for each of these chords:

Extended chords

The extensions are the same regardless of which seventh chord that is extended. Note that there is a third between all the notes and that the seventh and any underlying extensions are included in the chords, even if it is not indicated by the chord symbols.

Extended chords consist of many different notes, and therefore they usually have a dense and dissonant sound. Since the 18th century, extended chords have been mainly used in jazz and some popular and classical music.

In practice, one or more notes are often omitted from extended chords to avoid a very dissonant sound, and because it is not always possible to play all notes simultaneously. The following notes are omitted:

  • Chords with a ninth are sometimes played without a fifth.
  • Chords with an eleventh are often played without a fifth. Dominant eleventh chords are often played without a third and a fifth. A dominant eleventh chord without a third and a fifth corresponds to a major triad with a bass note a whole step above the root note of the major triad. For example, the C11 chord corresponds to B/C and notated as such.
  • Chords with a thirteenth are often played without a fifth and an eleventh.

Below is an example of extended chords played on the piano, with some notes omitted and the other notes spread out between the left and right hands. The chords are the same as in the previous example, but they sound very different:

Extended chords voicing

When playing chords on the piano, you often play one or two notes with your left hand and the remaining notes around middle C with your right hand. This is also the case in the example above. The order and position of the notes may vary as needed.

7. Altered chords

An altered chord is a chord in which the fifth, ninth, eleventh, or the thirteenth is raised or lowered a half step relative to the chord’s normal structure. There are six different alterations:

Alteration Interval
(5) Lowered fifth = diminished fifth
(5) Raised fifth = augmented fifth
(9) Lowered major ninth = minor ninth
(9) Raised major ninth = augmented ninth
(11) Raised perfect eleventh = augmented eleventh
(13) Lowered major thirteenth = minor thirteenth

Diminished and augmented triads are examples of altered chords because they correspond respectively to a minor triad with a lowered fifth, and a major triad with a raised fifth. Below are a few examples of the most common altered chords:

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Altered chords usually have a very dissonant sound due to the alterations. Since the 18th century, altered chords with over four notes have been used in jazz and some popular and classical music.

In chord symbols, alterations are noted with an accidental and a number in parentheses, as shown in the table above. When there are several alterations in the same chord, they are written one after the other. Some examples of altered chords are D7(9), B9(5), and G7(913).

Alterations differ from extensions in that no notes are implied. Therefore, any sevenths and extensions must always be specified in the chord symbol immediately before the parenthesis with the altered notes.

There is a specific altered chord called an alt chord, which is relatively common in jazz. The chord is a dominant seventh chord with an altered fifth and ninth, and its chord symbol is the root note followed by ‘7alt’ (e.g. G7alt). It is up to the musician to decide whether the fifth and the ninth should be raised or lowered. Thus, the chord can be played in four ways: G7(59), G7(59), G7(59), and G7(59).

Exercise

Exercises

Chords » Pentads

8. Other chords

There are a series of other chords that are used frequently. These are:

Added tone chords

An added tone chord is a chord with an added note. There are three types of added tone chords: add9, add11, and add13, that indicate that a major second, a perfect fourth, and a major sixth respectively, must be added to the chord:

Added tone chords

As a general rule, added tone chords are triads with an added note, but all types of chords may be added to any note mentioned and thus become an added tone chord.

The chord symbol for an added tone chord contains ‘add9’, ‘add11’, or ‘add13’ at the end. Some examples of added tone chords are Fadd9, G7add11, and G9add13. The three added notes may instead be specified as add2, add4, and add6.

Unlike extended chords, added tone chords contain no implicit notes. For example, the chord Cadd9 contains the notes C, E, G, and D, while the chord C9 also contains a minor seventh (the note B).

Power chords

A power chord consists of two notes only: a root note and a perfect fifth. The chord has no third and is therefore neither a major chord nor a minor chord:

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Power chords are common in rock music and usually played on the lowest strings of a distorted guitar. The root note is usually doubled by playing both the root note, the fifth, and the octave in the chord.

The chord symbol for a power chord is the root note followed by a 5, or sometimes the text ‘omit3’. Some examples of power chords are A5, Gomit3, and F5.

Tone clusters

A tone cluster is a chord comprising at least three notes a second apart. Tone clusters are fully notated with all notes or by notating the top and bottom notes connected by a vertical line, which indicates that all notes in between must be played.

Tone clusters

A tone cluster usually has a muddy and very dissonant sound. Since the 20th century, it has been primarily used in jazz and classical music. You can play some cluster chords on the piano by pressing down on all the notes with the palm or forearm.

9. Chord inversions

The lowest note in a chord is called the bass note. If the bass note is the same as the root note, the chord is in a root position. If the bass note is different from the root note, the chord is in inversion.

Triads have two inversions. If the third is a bass note, the chord is in 1st inversion, and if the fifth is a bass note, the chord is in 2nd inversion:

Chord inversions

Seventh chords have three inversions. If the third is a bass note, the chord is in 1st inversion. If the fifth is a bass note, the chord is in 2nd inversion, and if the seventh is a bass note, the chord is in 3rd inversion:

Seventh chords inversions

All chords can be inverted. The number of possible inversions corresponds to the number of chord notes other than the root note. Only the chord’s bass note determines the inversion. The position of the other notes in the chord has no significance.

If the root note is not the bass note, the bass note of the chord is indicated at the end of the chord symbol with a slash and capital letter. This applies to inversions and when the bass note is a non-chord tone:

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Chords with a changed bass note are pronounced in different ways, e.g. ‘C slash D’, ‘C over D’, and ‘C with a D in the bass’.