How to Read and Notate Jazz Chord Symbols

To arrange jazz music successfully, it is imperative that you become an expert in jazz chord symbol notation. There seems to have been alot of confusion over the years on the correct way to notate jazz chord symbols. Many of us learned this notation from older fake books. These books always had funky ways of writing Major 7ths, minor 7ths and other chords. You still find many of these methods for writing jazz chords symbols in older stock and hand written big band charts and transcriptions.

Modern day jazz chord symbol notation has become much more standardized these days, but I find that some people still write them incorrectly, or just have no idea how to write them in the first place. Granted, music notation programs can do much of the work for you on this, but its still best to have a good grasp of how to write and interpret proper chord symbol notation.

This video focuses on how to notate jazz chord symbols – from the simple to complex. Let me know if you have any questions by posting them in the comments below.

 

21 Replies to “How to Read and Notate Jazz Chord Symbols”

  1. Jock

    Martin,

    thanks a lot! Two comments:

    In my opinion the part which explaines that a C9 automatically implies that there is a -7 included ( and in a C13 there are automatically a -7, 9 and 11) was a bit too fast – did I get that right?

    Also, in a future video I would greatly appreciate if you could explain in more detail the many different chord writings that one can find in various fake books – they always confuse me. Trinagle always means maj7 – is that right?

    Thanks again for setting up the website!!!

  2. Jim Martin

    Derrick and Jock: Funny you should mention those questions. I just did a video on sus chords and I will get it on the site soon.

    Jock: Yes, the 9th, 11th, and 13th in a chord like C13, implies that the 7th is already there (minor 7th), and you can add the 9th, and #11, as well as the 13th too. Can’t be a natural 11, although piano players like Herbie Hancock have been known to play the chord with a natural 11. I will do more videos on these kinds of chords when we get into voicing for instruments.

  3. Eric Schultz

    Hey Jim,

    Thanks so much for your work towards creating an on line Jazz arranging community.

    I think that it’s important to realize that there are several ways of looking at the subject of chord symbols and that one has to accept that there is “more than one way to skin a cat”(I think that’s the right proverb…).

    Does one adopt the most universally used system? Or the seemingly most logical system? Or the most concise symbols? Hard to decide.

    ————————

    The triangle is widely used today and it’s not really that old according to what I’ve been told. The simplicity of the triangle,?, instead of the wordy MA7 or MAJ7 chord symbol, is an argument in and of itself. Especially in a min/maj7 chord ! Which would you prefer to see on a chart: Cmin/maj7 or Cmi? ?

    —————–

    But like most people, I do NOT have the right to criticize anyone for not being consistent in their use of chord symbols. My dominant chords are very verbose ! When I was young and impressionable, I once had an arranging teacher (a great arranging teacher BTW) who said If we write C7b9 (or C7(b9) )then why don’t we write C79 for a dominant ninth chord, so that the manner in which we represent the dominant chord remains constant.

    This was a habit I picked up and after 1000s of lead sheets and over 100 arrangements, I continue to use it. And as a result, I have NEVER had a musician or a student ask me: “Is that a C79 chord or a Cmajor add9 chord” when they see the C9 symbol
    >>> because the 7 with the 9 indicates the dominant nature of the chord.

    (Of course in your system C(9) is the indication for C add9(no7) but that most often does require some explanation…)

    ————

    Of course, on the other hand, once my dominant chords start having 2 (or 3 !) extensions or altered notes (C79 #11 13) the chord starts to get a bit lengthy and at times I long to be able to drop the 7 in the chord symbol !

    But then again, as we’re obliged to note the 7th in a dominant chord chord with alterations, the other system doesn’t necessarily simplify things for all occasions.

    – let’s take a good healthy Thad Jones-ish chord:
    C7(b9)(#11)(13) (! ! !)

    the parentheses in addition to the three extensions/alterations can get quite verbose as well !

    Of course, the simplest way to note C7(b9)(#11)(13) would be just to write F#mi/C7(*)………

    And sometimes the clearest way of getting the chord that we want when dealing with such complicated harmony is to just write out the voicing that we want on 2 staves of treble clef and bass clef… (Maria Schneider does this…)

    ———————-
    ———————-

    Also I find that you’re somewhat prejudicial against the very widely used ø symbol for mi7b5. Which is a symbol commonly used in classical analysis as well as Jazz.

    (And the fact that it’s used in classical is no justification for promoting it’s use in jazz. Or is it ?¿?)

    How about Cø9 11 instead of Cmi7(b5)9 11 ???
    Isn’t that clearer ?

    (and some people even like to put a natural in front of the 9 – to indicate that it is NOT the diatonic b9 found in the Lochrian mode ! what a headache !)

    How can one argue that the ‘o’ is a better way to represent the dim. Chord

    (which I wholeheartedly agree with BTW)

    and then turn around and say that the ‘ø’ symbol is ambiguous !

    The line through the circle is directly related to the circle symbol for the fully diminished seventh, so the fact that it’s a half diminished chord is clear.

    A fully diminished chord has 2 diminished intervals, the bb7th and the b5 whereas the half diminished has only 1 diminished interval (the b5), which explains why it is a “half diminished” chord.

    But I thoroughly agree with the argument, that any student level player that sees the verbose yet clear Cmi7(b5) symbol is more likely to play the correct chord than the student that is confronted with the Cø !

    That’s why I think that students have to learn all ways of referring to a chord… because in their jazz lifetimes, they’ll encounter all of the diverse chord symbol variations.

    ————

    Whenever anyone criticizes my C79 chords,(!!?¿?!!) those are some of the examples that I give.

    Yet I know that I can’t say that my way of doing things is the best or only way of doing things. Anyone can point out the inconsistencies in my system.

    In any case, as I said, everyone needs to learn all the different systems in order to be able to interpret all the different variations of chord symbols.

    ———-
    The worst chord symbol of all time is a chord symbol that one finds in Bill Evans’s manuscripts and some Bill-o-maniacs still use it today because they can’t imagine that their god ever did anything wrong !

    Bill used slashed European 7s to represent ? chords
    (OK, if you insist!: maj7 chords !)
    And many Europeans use the slashed 7 to represent a regular Dom 7th chord in their charts, so that creates a lot of misunderstandings !

    ——–

    The un-scientific subject of Chord symbols can provide a subject for discussion for a long time ! While we all have our personal pet peeves about which symbols are better, I have never in three decades in this business seen anyone (myself absolutely included !) that is 100% consistent, clear and logical in their ‘philosophy’ of chord symbol usage.

    In Jazz Solidarity,

    ERiC Schultz

    (*)
    (not being able to produce the straight line that indicates the superposition of two chords on my computer, be it in text or with Sibelius, instead of the slanted line that indicates inversions or chords with a foreign bass note, is a big problem for me ! !

  4. Eric Schultz

    Jim:

    It’s almost as if your ‘hostility’ (?¿!!?) towards the triangle symbol is programmed into your site because all of my Delta – triangles became
    ??? question marks when my post appeared on your page ! Yet the ø symbol came through !

    Thanks again for opening the disucussion – – –

    ERiC

  5. Jim Martin

    Eric:

    its not that I have any hostility towards those symbols, but it seems that things are more standardized today. I worked with Frank Mantooth alot when he was alive and he always insisted on a certain way to write chord symbols. Frank was very particular with alot of things and chord symbols were one of them. I think he got that from publishing charts with with Hal Leonard. If you look at their fake book publications, the chord symbols are very standardized.

    Also, I learned first hand how particular Hal Leonard is when I auditioned for a transcription job there around 1990 or so. They literally had a book of instructions on exactly how to notate music for them and how to write chord symbols the way they wanted (no dashes and triangles allowed).

    Bottom line is that you can use whatever symbols you want, but more and more publishers want them a certain way. I think the triangle and (-) sign for minor came from the hand written days when it was quicker to write those then spell the chord out, as you mentioned, and that makes perfect sense. (by the way, I do remember seeing the slash through the 7 for dominant 7th chords, and come to think of it, I think Larry Novak, piano player from Chicago and good friend of Bill Evans, still uses that method!)

    If you look at the beginnings of written music (i.e Notre Dame school), you will find that clefs moved around for the chart being written, and that notes didn’t even have stems, just dots on paper. But eventually they standardized the convention of written music with non-moveable treble and bass clefs (and others) and that is what we learn today. I think eventually chord symbols will align with this philosophy, but I could be wrong.

    Thanks for your input, it certainly is a debateable topic!

  6. Jock

    Hi Jim (and of course not “Martin”, as I wrote in a previous reply; sorry!!) and Eric,

    do you know of a resource where I can find a “translation” of all the different ways chords can be written? Would be helpful for beginners (like me…) if you could post a link.

  7. Melvin L Williams

    I direct a small jazz ensemble at a local community college and I recently received a book entitled “Warm-ups for developing Jazz Ensemble.” In that book published in 2004, it still uses the triangle for Major, and the slash – for minor. Now in the 6th edition of the Real Book published by Hal Leonard, the major chord is maj, and the minor is -7. So even though there is some agreement on the best way to notate these symbols, there still remains a few different ways to notate some of them. Also I often find augmented chords simply notated as #5 chords, such as Cmaj7#5, which could also be notated C+maj7 or Cmaj+5.

    I agree with Eric Shultz, though I won’t go into as much detail as he did, that as teachers/ instructors we have to equip our students (and ourselves) with the knowledge of how to read the variety of symbols they will encounter throughout their playing career.

    Thanks for the lessons and this great website!!

  8. Jim Martin

    Melvin: I didn’t think many, if any publications, used those any more. Yes, I agree with both of you guys, that you will have to instruct your students as to what those other symbols mean because they will come across them at some point. I am surprised that Hal Leonard used the slash and the maj (not Maj). Maybe they were trying to reflect how the original book was produced and figured that was what players were used to seeing. Just a guess on my part. Come to think of it, I think the Jamey Aebersold stuff still uses the triangle too. I still think though eventually that will be phased out of standard chord symbol notation. May take awhile though!

  9. Jim Martin

    Jock: I have some really old fake books my dad had and the beginning might have some translation of them. I’ll check and if so I’ll scan those pages. If someone knows a source on the internet, please provide a link. thanks! Nice discussion about this, thanks for the input everyone. I’m always in learning mode so keep them coming!

  10. Larry

    Jim-
    I was following everything ok until you got to the C11 chord. Just to be sure I understand…you’re _not_ saying that C11 implies C9 (#11). Just that the C9(#11) is a better sounding chord. Correct?

    Thanks for all the work you’re doing on these videos. Your passion for sharing you knowledge really comes through!!!

  11. Jim Martin

    Larry: you can have a C11 chord, but the way in which you voice it is important and its a little rough writing it for an ensemble in traditional big band writing. The natural 11 is an F in the chord and that creates a minor 9th between the 3rd and the 11th. Traditionally, we need to sharp the 11th (i.e. C13(#11), etc.) so that minor 9th does not create havoc with the chord. But there is such a thing as a C11 chord.

  12. Jim Martin

    Agung: yes, big difference between those two chords, o7 and mi7(b5), both in structure and in function. The o7 chord is built in all minor 3rds, so it is a fully diminished chord, complete with the diminished 7th interval from bottom to top.

    The mi7(b5) has a minor 7th on top of a diminished triad, so it functions mainly as a ii chord in a ii-V7-i in minor keys. So the Co7 chord is spelled: C, Eb,Gb,Bbb (i.e. double flat). The Cmi7(b5) chord is spelled C,Eb,Gb,Bb.

    Play them on the piano and they sound very different, even though there is really only a half step difference between the two. Hopefully that answered your question.

  13. Jim Martin

    Agung: A diminished triad is simply 2 minor 3rd intervals stacked on top of each other. The diminished 7th adds another minor 3rd above, which actually creates a diminished 7th interval between the root and the 7th. So a C dim 7th chords spells: C, Eb,Gb, Bbb (double flat). The triad (C dim) would just be the 3 notes, C, Eb, Gb.

  14. Jamie Wink

    Hi, I have just stumbled upon this website whilst browsing around Google as I’m seeking some info on electric cellos!. I think it’s a good blog so I bookmarked your site and will return soon to allow more time for a proper read when I have more time.

  15. Jim Martin

    Vaughan: I believe that notating a C9 as C2 is incorrect, or confusing at best. The first time I came across a C2 chord (ex.) was in my master’s studying in Cliff Colnot’s jingle class in Chicago. The way I understand it is a C2 chord would be only a triad with the 2nd added. A C9 chord is a whole different chord, functioning as a dominant chord whereas a C2 chord is basically a triad with some added color. (i.e. the 2nd) Hopefully that made sense.

  16. Ken Green

    Jim – Great site!!! One thing – the C dim 7 -5 is also called a “half diminished” 7, marked with a slash thru the º like ø. Out here in the west they also use a capital M7 for major 7 and a lower case m7 for minor 7.

  17. Jim Martin

    Ken: Thanks for the input. I believe I covered those in the lesson, probably towards the end. You see those types of chord symbols all the time, but the Hal Leonard standard chord notation is what I go by now for the most part. So C half diminished is: Cmi7(b5) and Major 7 and Minor 7 respectively are: CMaj7, Cmi7

    I guess old habits never die. When I started working with Frank Mantooth many years ago, he always wanted the chords a certain way, and it was at that time I learned it was how the big publisher Hal Leonard did things.

    On a personal note: Many people have no idea that Frank was actually very particular in many respects. He didn’t come off as being that way personally for the most part, but when you got to know him and how he worked, you realized that he was very organized and always made sure things were done a certain way – every time.

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