How to Read Chord Symbols


Being able to read chord symbols is a very important skill to have as a musician. A chord symbol is a quick way of giving the musician information about the current chord.

This is extremely important when one is playing a song that they are unfamiliar with. If they know how to read chord symbols then a sheet with chords can be given to them and they can manage their way around the song.

So assuming we know what a chord is (more than one note played together at the same time) then what information can we extract from a mere symbol? Well we can identify the intervals in a chord.

Let’s start with a C major triad



This chord contains the root note of c as well as a major 3rd and a perfect 5th . If we take a look at this we can see the initial interval between the root and the 3rd is two tones or four semitones. The next interval between the 3rd and the 5th is a minor 3rd or 3 semitones. Keep this in mind when remembering chords as it can help.




Let’s extend this one more note and make it a C major 7th. This time we a major 7th to the major triad resulting in the notes C,E,G and B.








These chords can work as a reference point for future chords so it is a good idea to get familiar with these chord shapes on your instrument.

As we introduce other chords we normally refer to the notes that we change as relating to a major chord (whether major triad or major 7). For example in Cm we have what we call a ‘flat’ or minor 3rd, meaning the E becomes an Eb.







Similarly if we extend it to Cmin7 we get a ‘flat’ or minor 7th.







I will put down the other chords and see if you can work out what notes are changed. These examples are in order: C diminished, C augmented, C7 or C dominant 7th, C half diminished, C7 augmented and C diminished 7. These come up more rarely with the exception of C7 but are important to learn


Using C for this example is handy as you can see what notes are changed quite easily by using accidental (sharps and flats) however when you do this in other keys you can’t rely on this and instead have to rely on the intervals between the notes in the chord.

If you have further questions on this don’t forget to comment and I’ll answer them or perhaps another member of the community will.

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