Although it's generally easy and simple to read (and play) chords in sheet music, there are a lot of little details that can be confusing. And to make matters worse, the way chords are specified in the sheet music are not always the same.
This section is to fill in the details, telling you the different ways the same chords can be specified, and to help give you the knowledge to figure out, and play any chord that you might see in sheet-music or lead-sheets.
First and foremost, you need to know where the chords are shown, and which chords to play.
Here is an excerpt from a piece of sheet-music music, where a guitar player is to use a capo, which makes the guitar chords to be different from the piano chords:
In a piece such as this, the guitar chords are shown on top, and the piano chords are below the diagram with the squares and dots.
With the KeyMusician Keyboard, we play the piano chords. If you played the guitar chords in this particular piece, it would sound strange.
The diagram with the squares and dots, shown in sheet-music with many chords, shows a guitar player the fingering needed for the chord. It is not useful for us.
If no capo is necessary for the guitar, the piano chord names and the piano chord names are the same, and these chord names are shown above the chord fingering diagram.
The chords are normally shown in sheet-music above the solo (singing) part.
Here is a sequence of chords from sheet-music:
The first part of the chord description, is the letter-name of the root-note of the chord. It can have a flat (b) or sharp (#) sign immediately after it. It is normally (but not always) a note from the key-signature's scale.
In the diagram above, “G” is the root-note of the first chord, “E” is the root-note of the 2nd chord, and “A” is the root-note of the 3rd chord.
When the root-note of the chord appears by itself, it implies that the chord is a major chord. If the root-note name has a lower-case “m” after it, it indicates the chord is minor. Sometimes, instead of just an “m”, they will spell it out a little more, as “min”. Sometimes they will spell out major as “maj”.
The chords in the above diagram are G-major, E-major*, and A-minor.
*The second chord (above) is a slash-chord, which in the case shown in the diagram, means “E-major, with a G-sharp played in the bass (below the chord).
A simple, basic chord, is made up of the root-note, the 3rd note of the scale up from the root-note (called the third-interval), and the 5th note of the scale up from the root note (called the fifth-interval).
If the notes counted-up from the root-note are a major scale, the 3rd note will be a major 3rd. If it were a minor scale, the 3rd note would be a minor 3rd. I'm sure you've heard of major and minor chords.
But there are other types of chords, and they have different rules for forming the 3 basic notes of the chord.
Here is a description of the types of basic chords:
A major chord is indicated by just the root-note letter-name, by itself, with no trailing number. The note-letter name can have a flat or sharp after it.
A minor chord is indicated by the root-note letter-name, followed by a lower-case “m”. The note-letter name can have a flat or sharp after it.
A suspended chord is indicated by either “sus”, “sus4”, or “sus2” following the root-note letter-name.
It is neither major or minor, but wants to resolve to a major or minor chord. It is suspended, waiting to become major or minor.
Both “sus” and “sus4” mean the same thing, namely, the third interval has been raised to the 4th note of the scale (rather than the 3rd note of the scale).
The “sus2” means that the third interval has been lowered to the 2nd note of the scale.
C suspended (suspended-4th implied)
A diminished chord is indicated by “dim”, or a “º” (degree-sign) following the root-note letter-name.
It indicates that the third interval is a minor 3rd, and that the fifth interval has been lowered a half-step. In other words, both the third and the fifth intervals have been diminished.
C diminished with E-flat in the bass
An augmented chord is indicated by either “aug” or “+5” following the root-note letter-name.
An augmented chord has its fifth interval raised a half-step, but it implies nothing regarding the third interval.
C-sharp 7th with an augmented 5th
A flatted-5th chord is indicated by “-5”, or a “b5” (flat-5th) following the root-note letter-name.
A flatted-5th chord is the opposite of an augmented chord, and is formed by lowering the chord's fifth interval by a half-step. As with the augmented chord, it implies nothing regarding the third interval.
A minor 7th flatted-5th
These chords are made up of basic chords, with other intervals (or notes) added. They have more than 3 notes. One or more intervals may be added to the chord (indicated by the note-number-of-the-scale interval), or a note may be added in the bass, as done in a slash-chord.
Here are the different types of composite chords:
A slash-chord is indicated by a slash (“/”), followed by a note-letter name. The same thing is indicated by a chord name, with a parenthesized expression below it, indicating a note-letter name, followed by “Bass”.
It means to play the indicated chord, with the single indicated note (past the slash, or in the parentheses below), below the chord.
Slash-chords can be used to build chords you can't currently do with the built-in chord functionality. For example, I have seen a chord in sheet-music: “Cm(add2)”. This means to play a C-minor chord, but add the 2nd note of the scale. You can add the 2nd (above the root-note C) by doing a “Cm/D” chord.
C diminished chord, with an E-flat in the bass
A-flat major, with a C in the bass
Sixth chords are indicated by a root-note letter-name, followed by the number “6”. It means, that in addition to the basic chord, a 6th interval (above the root-note letter-name) to the chord.
A major 6th
Seventh chords are indicated by the name of any of the basic chords, followed by the number 7. It means to add the 7th note of the scale above the root-note to the basic chord specified in front of the 7. These chords have 4 notes.
There are 3 kinds of 7th chords, illustrated below with a C chord:
Dominant 7th (C7)
Major 7th (Cmaj7, or CM7)
Minor 7th (Cmin7, or Cm7)
These chords are also a little more complicated, in that in addition to specifying the basic chord the 7th is added-to, you need some way of indicating whether a major-7th is used, or a minor-7th is used.
Here are the rules:
If only the root-note letter-name is specified (it can have a flat or sharp), followed by a “7” (a dominant 7th), then a major chord is specified, with a minor-7th added.
If the root-note letter-name is specified (it can have a flat or sharp), followed by a lower-case “m”, it is a minor chord, with a minor-7th added.
If the root-note letter-name is specified (it can have a flat or sharp), followed by an upper-case “M” (or “maj”), it is a major chord, with a major-7th added.
E-flat major-7th, D minor-7th
(E-flat major, with a major 7th) (D minor, with a minor 7th)
(a B major chord, with a minor-7th added)
Ninth chords, are 7th chords (in all their variations) with a 9th-interval (9th note up the scale from the root-note) added to them. There are 5 notes in these chords.
They are indicated the same way as a 7th chord, but with the digit “9” instead of a “7”.
Eleventh chords, are 7th chords (in all their variations) with an 11th-interval (11th note up the scale from the root-note) added to them. There are 5 notes in these chords.
They are indicated the same way as a 7th chord, but with the digits “11” instead of a “7”.
Thirteenth chords, are 7th chords (in all their variations) with a 13th-interval (13th note up the scale from the root-note) added to them. There are 5 notes in these chords.
They are indicated the same way as a 7th chord, but with the digits “13” instead of a “7”.
Examples From Sheet-Music
Here are a number of examples of chord sequences taken from sheet music, with their interpretation (in text form) below the graphic:
The chords in the above graphic, are: “E-flat 11th”, “B-flat major with C in the bass”, “C major”, “F minor”, and “A-flat 11th”.
The chords are “C minor”, “F minor 7th”, “G 7th”, “C minor”, “A-flat major”, “D-flat major”, “G 7th”, “C minor”, and “C minor with the 2nd note of the scale (from the root note) added”.
The chords are “F major”, “C 7th suspended”, and “C 7th”
The chords are “B 7th”, and “B-flat major 7th” (a B-flat major chord, with a major-7th added)
The chords are “C minor 7th” (C minor, with a minor-7th added), and “F 9th”
The chords are “D major”, “C diminished, with an E-flat in the bass”, “A major, with an E in the bass”, “B 7th, with a D-sharp in the bass”, “A major”, “D 9th”, “C-sharp 7th, with an augmented 5th”, and “C 13th”
One final thing to remember when you play chords using the numeric keypad, is that the chord names that appear in the title-bar (and in the Play button) are not necessarily the same as you see in the sheet-music.
The names generated by the application tend to be more spelled-out (detailed), and the order of the chord attributes may be different.
To see what notes are included in the chords you play, simply click on the “Chords” tab of the main dialog (or press the Num-Lock key twice), then play the chord you are wondering about. Think of it as an automatic chord chart.
The world of chords is a very wide world, and you can devote a lot of study to it.
My goal here was to give you a good introduction to that world, translating its sometimes cryptic language, to allow you to be able to play what you see.
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