Theory on chords


The idea of this FAQ is to give you the information you need to be
able to work out and understand which notes make up a certain chord.
Using this FAQ you will be able to :

Work out the notes you need for *any* chord.

Work out what chord name should be given to a particular bunch of

A lot of people are put off from delving into a little chord theory
because there seems so much to learn, it often seems confusing, and
it's hard to give hard and fast rules. When someone posts a chord
shape and asks 'What is the name of this chord' there are usually at
least four different replies given. It is true that in a lot of cases
there is more than one way to look at things, and often a chord
could be given two names, but it's still surprisingly easy to get
to grips with the basics of chord names.

What do you need to know to be able to work out chord names for
yourself ?

Well it is hard to give 'Golden Rules' of harmony or music theory
which can be followed to the letter always giving the right answer.

However there are a small number of basic guidelines which you can
follow that should take 95% of the mystery away from music theory
as applied to chords.

First things first. To work out chord names the first and most
important skill is to be able to count. Hopefully everybody
mastered this skill some years ago, so we're off to a good

The second most important skill is to know the major scale.
Most people will be pretty familiar with this too, but in any
case it is very easy to learn.

The scale is characterised by the distances between successive notes.
If we choose G as our starting point, it goes like this :

Note of the scale Distance up from root note Actual note
1 (root note) 0 G
2 2 semitones A
3 4 semitones B
4 5 semitones C
5 7 semitones D
6 9 semitones E
7 11 semitones F#
8 12 semitones G

*** Important note for all you folks in America ***

Over in Britain we have things called tones and semitones.
From what I know, you have things called whole steps and half steps.
The conversion is :

One tone = one whole step

One semitone = one half step

As I'm used to writing about tones/semitones, those are the words you'll see.
I think you can translate easily enough to steps/half steps.

*** Another note for people in Germany and Scandinavia ***

I will use the British conventions for note names - so there will be Bs and
Bbs. To 'translate' :

German/Scandinavian British/Others

H = B
B = Bb

Likewise, if any of you that are used to Bs and Bbs see chord names like
H7, use the above to translate back.

Anyway ...

The pattern of tones and semitones is what characterises the scale.
Obviously you can choose whatever note you like to start on, but if
you simply count up in semitones, using the middle column above,
you will get the major scale of that note.

It makes things easier if we refer to the notes of the scale as
'the 7th' or 'the 3rd'. If we know we are talking about a major
scale and we know what the starting note is, then we can work out
what the '7th' or '3rd' of that scale is. We use this idea to
"spell out" chords - this is where you say something like :

The major chord is made up of 1st 3rd 5th

This means choose your starting note (the 1st) find the 3rd and 5th
of it's major scale and you have the right notes for the chord.
The advantage of this method is that it can be used to find *any*
major chord - you just change the starting note.

If you want to put in a little effort, you can quite easily learn
the major scales of every key. That way you don't have to actually
count up in semitones every time you want to find the 5th of a certain
key. (See Appendix C)

BUT - if you want to keep things really simple, counting will work
just as well.

So, a little example.

You want to find out what notes are in a D major chord.

Your starting note or root note is D (the 1st)

To get the 3rd of the major scale count up 4 semitones - F#

To get the 5th count up 7 semitones - A

So the notes are : D F# and A

So all this chord stuff comes down to these 3rds, 5ths and so on.
These are called INTERVALS.


This is a way of referring to notes by desribing the 'distances'
between them.

In the G major scale above, we can see that the distance between the
1st note (or root note) and the 2nd note is 2 semitones - this is
called a 2nd

The distance between the root note (G) and the 3rd note in the scale
is 4 semitones - this is called a 3rd

Pretty easy so far.

All you need to do is count up from the root note using notes of the
scale, and if you end up on the 5th note of the scale you have a 5th,
if you're on the 7th note, you've got a 7th.

Surely it can't be that simple ... ?


Well not quite. As well as major scales, there are minor scales.
You could also have a 'weird' note or chromatic note that didn't
fit into either scale.

To cope with this, the intervals come in different flavours.

You can have a minor 3rd or a major 3rd.
You can have a normal 5th (perfect 5th) or an augmented 5th.
You can have a 9th or a flat 9th

All that changes here is that the 'distance' or interval is either
stretched or squeezed by one semitone (half step).

So a minor 3rd is a semitone less than a major 3rd.
An augmented 5th is a semitone more than a perfect 5th.

You will see a few different terms her which mean the same thing.

* An AUGMENTED or SHARP interval means one semitone higher.

* A DIMINISHED or FLAT interval means one semitone lower.

You also have minor and major intervals which differ by a
semitone - the minor interval is one semitone lower than
the major interval.
Here is a table of intervals with their corresponding 'distances' in


Semitones Interval
0 Unison
1 flat 2nd
2 2nd
3 minor 3rd
4 major 3rd
5 perfect 4th
6 flat 5th (diminished 5th or augmented 4th)
7 perfect 5th
8 minor 6th (or sharp 5th/augmented 5th)
9 major 6th
10 minor 7th (flat 7th)
11 major 7th
12 octave
13 flat 9th
14 9th
15 sharp 9th/minor 10th (just minor 3rd one octave higher)
16 major 10th (just major 3rd one octave higher)
17 11th
18 augmented 11th
19 perfect 12th (octave above perfect 5th)
20 flat 13th
21 13th

So to work out any particular note, say the major 6th of an A major
scale, start with A, find the distance for a major 6th (9 semitones)
and just count up from A.

You should end up with F#, so this is a major 6th up from A.
(see chromatic scale - Appendix A)

So, to recap. Chords are described or 'spelled out' using intervals.
These intervals tell you far above the root note the other notes of
the chord are. By using the table above you can find out how many
semitones you need to move up for any given interval.

Here is a simple example.

Bm7 - the spelling for this is : 1st, minor 3rd, 5th, minor 7th

Start with B - count up 3 semitones for a minor 3rd - you get D.

Count up 7 semitones from B to get the 5th - F#

Count up 10 semitones to get the minor 7th - A

So the notes are : B D F# A

So - if you know the spelling of a particular chord (i.e the
intervals which describe it) then it's simple to use the table
above to find out what notes you need.

What if you don't know the chord spelling ?

If you just have a chord name, like F#m9, then you need to
know how this chord is built.
The basic building blocks of *all* chords are triads.


These are the basic building blocks of chords. A triad is a group of
3 notes and determines the basic sound of a chord.

E.g if the chord is a minor chord, it will be based on a minor triad.

If the chord is major, it will be based on a major triad.

3.1 – Major and Minor triads

The major and minor triads are made up form these notes :

1st 3rd 5th

but REMEMBER - use a minor 3rd for the minor triad, and the major
3rd for the major triad.

A list of all major and minor triads is given at the end of this
FAQ (Appendix B). If you want to learn them, it makes life easier,
but it's easy enough to just count up in semitones from the root note
to get the notes for any triad you're interested in.

The only difference between a major *chord* and a major *triad* is
that a chord will usually have more than 3 notes, so you just
double up on some of them. The root (1st) is most likely to
be doubled, but you can double up on the 1st, 3rd or 5th,
although you will get subtly different sounds.

Take C major for example.

C major triad = 1st, major 3rd, 5th = C E G

Everybody knows this chord :



If we look at the notes, we see it has :

(low to high) : C E G C E

Which is the same as : 1st 3rd 5th 1st 3rd

So here the 1st and 3rd have been doubled.

Remember that the root note must always be the lowest
note of the chord. If you want to have the 3rd or 5th
at the bottom of the chord, you have to write it as
C/E or C/G meaning a C chord with an E (or G) bass.
See section 7.0 for more details on X/Y type chords.

3.2 – Suspended triads

The thing to remember here is that the 3rd has been replaced
with another note - either the 2nd or the 4th.

So whereas with major and minor triads you have the 3rd to give
the 'flavour' of the chord (i.e major or minor), with suspended
triads you have no 3rd, so the chord is neither major nor

A suspended 4th triad would be : 1st 4th 5th

A suspended 2nd triad would be : 1st 2nd 5th

As with major and minor chords, you just double up on notes
to go from the triad to the chord.

BUT - you almost never double the 'suspended' note - you usually
only double the 1st or 5th.

So take Asus4 as our example.

Asus4 triad is : 1st 4th 5th = A D E

The shape is :



The spelling for this is :

(low to high) : A E A D E (1st 5th 1st 4th 5th)

So here the 1st and 5th appear twice in the chord, with just one 4th.

So now I've covered major and minor chords, suspended 2nd and suspended 4th

4.0 7th Chords

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