How To Play Piano Using Chord Symbols
Chord symbols (for example, Cmaj7 or G6) are a type of notation
used frequently in jazz and other areas of modern music to
notate chord progressions and changes. This type of notation
differs from that of classical music in that chord symbols don't
show the function of a chord the way the Roman numeral notation
does. Chord symbols, for modern music with lots of changes, are
much easier to read. They function as a sort of shorthand for
change-heavy music and are written with four chord parts in
mind: the root, the quality, the extension, and the alterations.
The first part in chord symbols, the root, tells the musician
which note is the root of the chord. In an E6 chord, for
instance, the E serves as the root. Chord symbols also allow for
inverted chords, or chords with a root other than the bass note.
These chord symbols express that by showing the bass note with a
diagonal slash under the original symbol.
Quality, the second part in chord symbols, denotes whether the
chord is major, minor, diminished, or augmented. In a Cmaj7, the
maj tells us that the C chord is major. The abbreviations for
this area in chord symbols are maj, min, dim, and aug,
The extension in chord symbols, written after the quality, shows
the musician if the chord differs from a triad (a third chord),
such as an eleventh or seventh. This part of chord symbols is
not always shown; if there is no indication of an extension, the
musician is to assume that the chord is a triad.
The last part in chord symbols, the alteration, is usually but
not always expressed. Think of this part as the "notes" section
in chord symbols; it gives the musician any specific (and
sometimes irregular) instructions for playing the chord and is
always written in parentheses after the extension (or the
quality, if no extension exists). For instance, (no fifth) would
tell the musician that the chord is to be played with the fifth
tone left out. Sus – short for “suspension”, would mean to play
the 4th scale note instead of the 3rd. A minus sign would mean
to lower (flat) a chord tone, such as C-9 which would mean to
flat the 9th of the chord. Conversely, a plus sign would mean to
raise (sharp) a particular chord tone.
Reading music using chord symbols allows a person to use written
music as a map, rather than a note-for-note approach. By just
reading the melody note and the chord symbols, musicians can
improvise to their hearts content and create their own sounds on
The best of all worlds, however, is to be able to read music as
it is written in a sheet music score, but also be able to read
the chord symbols. Then the musician is free to choose which is
best – the written part, or an improvised part. The sky is the
limit for musicians who can do both.