MUST LEARN POPULAR CHORDS
In this lesson, we’ll go through around 20 popular types of chords, showing you what each chord symbol means and how to play them on the piano. Some chords might be a little advanced for you if you are new to music, while intermediate to advanced players will most likely have seen some of these chords previously in their practice.
Suppose you’re a beginner getting into piano playing and reading sheet music. In that case, you’ll come across all kinds of different chord symbols, and it’s important to know what they mean and how to interpret them on the piano.
I will use C for all of my examples because it’s very easy to visualize everything in C as a beginner, but the same concepts will apply to any chord or key you might be playing.
C Major: C
The first chord is a simple C major chord (formed from the notes: C – E – G). This major chord is represented by a straight letter, ‘C,’ which is most often capitalized. This applies to any major chord: if you’re playing a G major, the chord symbol will be ‘G’ (notes: G – B – D). If it’s just the letter with nothing following it, this tells us that the chord is major. This representation applies to any straight major chord without any additional extensions.
C Minor: Cm / C-
If you see a ‘C’ with a small ‘m,’ this stands for C minor (notes: C – Eb – G). This might also be represented as C-. If you see a small ‘m’ or a hyphen following a chord, such as ‘Cm’ or ‘C-’, this tells us straight away that the chord is minor. Whether it’s a minor G chord (G – Bb – D), a minor F (F – Ab – C), or a minor A chord (A – C – E), you will see it written as Gm or G-, Fm or F-, or Am or A-, respectively.
C diminished: Cdim / C°
Next, we have C diminished (C – Eb – Gb). This chord is represented as ‘Cdim,’ the ‘dim’ symbolizing that the C chord is diminished. It can also be written as a ‘C’ with a tiny ‘o’ at the top, like a temperature degree symbol: C°. Both these symbols tell you that it is a diminished chord. Again, this is transferable to all the chords: if it’s an A diminished (A – C – Eb), you’ll see it symbolized as A(dim) or A°, or if it’s A flat diminished (Ab – B – D), you’ll see it as Abdim or Ab°.
C augmented: Caug / C(aug) / C+
The next chord type is a C augmented triad (C – E – Ab), which you can form by sharpening the 5th of any major triad. This is usually represented as ‘C’ with ‘aug’ following, most often in brackets as ‘(aug)’ – the ‘aug’ being a shortened version of the word ‘augmented.’ You’ll also see this chord represented as a ‘C’ and a plus sign, ‘+,’ ‘C+.’ The same applies to D augmented (D – Gb – Bb), which is symbolized as either D(aug) or D+, or an F sharp augmented (Gb – Bb – D), which is shown as F#(aug) or F+.
C suspended 2nd: Csus2 / C2
The next chord is a suspended 2nd, symbolized as ‘Csus2’ or a ‘C2’ (C – D – G), which is played as a C chord without the 3rd, but with an added 2nd / 9th instead. When you see the chord symbol ‘Csus2’ or a ‘C2’, that implies a suspended 2nd chord. This also transfers to the chord G2 (G – A – D) or F2 (F – G – C).
To build a sus2 chord, take the triad, take the 3rd out, and play the 2nd note up from the root. This is a popular chord used in a lot of contemporary rock and Christian music, which you’ll likely recognize the sound of.
C suspended 4th: Csus4 / C(sus4)
The C suspended 4th (C – F – G) is similar to the C2 chord, except this time, we’re suspending the 4th, not the 2nd. We’re using the 4th note away from the root to create a ‘suspension’ chord. This chord type is written with a ‘C’ followed by ‘sus4’, where, like the C(aug) chord, the ‘sus4’ is sometimes seen written in brackets as C(sus4). This also applies to the G suspended 4th (G – C – D) symbolized as Gsus4 or G(sus4).
Slash chords: C/G, C/E, etc.
Sometimes you’ll see a C with a ‘/ G’ written on the chord chart. This means you play a C chord with a G on the bass instead of the root note (G – C – E – G). You’ll hear this chord used a lot in gospel music.
You could have any letter slashed by another letter, but all you need to know is that the first letter represents the chord, and the second letter represents what’s on the bass. For example, you could have an Am with a G on the bass, which will be seen as ‘Am/G’ (G – A – C – E). You might see a note other than ‘G’ in the bass, such as in C/E (E – G – C – E).
This chord is typically used just before playing a 5 chord. Here’s a quick chord progression to demonstrate this. In the key of C, you could move from the 1 chord (C – E – G – C) to the 4 (F – A – C – F), then to the C/G chord (G – C – E – G), to 5 (G – B – D – G), and back to 1 (C – E – G – C).
Next, we have Cadd9. To find this chord, take a regular C chord (C – E – G), and throw the 9th, or the equivalent 2nd, in there (C – D – E – G). A 9th interval away from the root (C to D) can be played in the octave above C or, conveniently, in the octave below, slotting right between the notes of the C major triad.
This chord is symbolized as ‘Cadd9’ and not ‘C9’ because C9 is a different chord, which I’ll show you in a bit.
The ‘add9’ chord is essential, symbolizing that we add the 9 on top of the chord.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll want to start experimenting with the 9th once you get used to playing your triads. You can add a 9th in almost any chord you play, which will always give a lush sound. I put a 9th in nearly every chord unless it clashes with the melody or alters the song’s feel in a way that doesn’t fit.
Look at the C6 chord (C – E – G – A). A C6 is just a C chord with an added 6th note above the root. Sometimes you might hear a song ends with the following progression, which uses a C6: Am7 (A – G – C – E), D9#9 (D – Gb – A – C – E – F), G7b13 (G – D – F – B – Eb – G), C6 (C – G – C – E – G – A).
Sometimes, you’ll see a C6 with a 9th on top, usually written as ‘C6/9’. This is just a major chord (C- E – G) with the 6th (C – E – G – A), and the 9th (C – E – G – A – D) added to it. You can voice this chord in any way, for example (C – D – E – G – A), but I find that playing it with the D on top accentuates that 9th note and allows for some interesting improvisation.
C9 and Cadd9 – What Is The Difference?
The C9 chord (C – E – G – Bb – D) tells you that there’s a dominant 7th in the chord. To make a C9 chord, take the C major triad (C – E – G), and add the dominant 7th (Bb), which is sometimes called the minor 7th, to form the chord C7 (C – E – G – Bb) and then add the 9th (D) to make C9 (C – E – G – Bb – D). This type of chord can be used as a passing chord.
The primary difference between a C9 and a Cadd9 chord is that there’s a 7th in the C9 chord. Cadd9 (C – D – E – G) doesn’t have a 7th and instead adds the 9th on top of the chord.
C minor 7th: Cm7 / C-7
Now let’s take a look at the C minor 7th chord. To play this chord, take a regular Cm and add the 7th (C – Eb – G – Bb). This chord is symbolized as a ‘Cm7’ or is written with a hyphen as ‘C-7.’
C major 7th: Cmaj7
The C major 7th chord is a C chord with the major 7th (C – E – G – B). Compared to the dominant 7th, the major 7th note always belongs to the key. This chord is written as ‘Cmaj7’, or sometimes as ‘C’ with a triangle, ‘C∆.’
C dominant 7th: C7
For the C7, or the C dominant 7th, we again start with the major chord, but this time add a flattened 7th (Bb) instead of a regular 7th: (C – E – G – Bb).
C diminished 7th: Cdim7
The C diminished 7th (C – Eb – G – A) is a diminished chord (C – Eb – G) with a double flattened 7th on top (C – Eb – G – A). In the key of C, B is the 7th note. If we take the B and flatten it once (Bb) and then again (A), we get a C-diminished 7th chord. This chord is written as ‘Cdim7’ or as ‘C°7’.
Another trick that might help you to see what’s going on is to recognise Cdim7 chords as ‘symmetric chords’ as they’re made entirely from stacks of minor 3rds; intervals which you can count between the chord’s comprising notes of C to Eb, Eb to G, and G to Ab. This is a quick way to visually check if you’re playing the right notes if your ears aren’t in tune with that specific diminished sound.
The C minor 7th flattened 5 is just as the chord name implies. Take a C minor chord (C – Eb – G), add the 7th (C – Eb – G – Bb) and flatten the 5th (C – Eb – Gb – Bb). It’s easiest to think about it in that order. As always, this technique applies to other chords: if you go to Gm (G – Bb – D), add the 7th (G – Bb – D – F) and flatten the 5th (G – B – Db – F), we get the chord Gm7(b5).
The C minor 7th flat 5 chord is symbolized as Cm7(b5). It’s also referred to as the C half diminished 7th, symbolized by ‘C’ followed by a slashed ‘o’ and a 7th: Cø7. It’s most commonly referred to as the half-diminished 7th (Cø5) in the classical setting more than in jazz, pop, R&B, funk, and other contemporary genres, where it is more often seen written as Cm7(b5). They are inherently the same chord, just different terminologies.
It would be best if you always assumed the chord contains a flattened, dominant 7th unless you specifically see ‘Maj’ in the chord symbol, like Cmaj7 or Gmaj7.
C minor major 7th: Cm(Maj7)
If you play a C minor chord (C – Eb – G) with B as the 7th rather than Bb (C – E – G – B), we get the chord Cm(Maj7), which is a C minor, major 7th. This is a very odd-sounding chord used a lot in jazz music.
C augmented 7th: Caug7 / C+7
To get to a C augmented 7th chord, take the augmented chord (C – E – Ab) and join the dominant 7th on top of it (C – E – Ab – Bb). This chord is written as ‘C+7’ or ‘Caug7’.
The C major 9th chord is a major 7th (C – E – G – B) with an added 9th on top (C – E – G – B – D). This is written as ‘Cmaj9’.
The C11 chord (C – E – G – Bb – D – F) is a nice chord for those who enjoy playing neo-soul and funk styles of music. The C11 chord is formed of a C7 chord (C – E – G – Bb) with the 9th (C – E – G – Bb – D) and the 11th added on top (C – E – G – Bb – D – F). Sometimes we can play the chord without the 3rd (C – G – Bb – D – F) to give a slightly different sound.
The next chord is C major 7th sharp 11th (C – E – G – B – D – Gb), symbolized as ‘Cmaj7#11’. This is another great chord for anyone interested in playing neo-soul music.
Generally, when we add an 11th to a maj7 or maj9 chord, we make it a sharp 11th rather than a natural 11th, as the #11th usually sounds better. The sharpened 11th sounds better because, without it, the chord would be (C – E – G – B – D – F). The highlighted notes B – D – F form a diminished triad which adds a lot of dissonance to the sound of the chord. However, raising the F to a Gb removes this dissonance, giving us the rich, open sound we expect.
Here’s a quick thing that’s important to remember when you start learning five-note chords, or chords that exceed the 7th: The 7th, whether a major 7th or dominant 7th, is like the bridge that takes you over into the extension chords. Once we get into 9ths, 11ths, sharp 11ths, 13ths, and so on, those are considered extensions – which are called so because they are extensions on the triad or extensions on the 7th.
When you see a chord written as C11, it doesn’t say C7add11; it just says C11. As the 7th is the bridge that takes you over to these extensions, we can assume that the 7th is included within the chord. Most, but not all, of these chords will have the 7th in them, even if it is not stated in the chord symbol. One example of this exception is the Cadd9 chord (C – D – E – G) which doesn’t have a 7th. Instead, it simply tells you to add that 9th on top of the triad. But all those other chords, like C9, Cmaj9, C11, etc., will contain the 7th.
C altered / C7alt / C(alt
The word ‘alt’ is short for ‘altered,’ which gives us chords like C7alt (C – E – Bb – Eb – Ab). This is a C7 (C – E – G – Bb), with an added sharp 9 (C – E – G – Bb – Eb) and a sharp 5 (C – E – G – Bb – Eb – Ab). You could also voice it as C7 sharp 11, add 5, and then 9 (C – E – Ab – Bb – Eb), which gives a slightly different feel to the chord.
A C-altered chord can also refer to using a flat 9 and a flat 5, rather than using a sharpened 5 and 9 (C – E – Bb – Db – Gb).
This means there are two types of C(alt) chord: The C7#9#5 (C – E – G – Bb – Eb – Ab) and the C7b9b5 (C – E – Bb – Db – Gb). Both chords fall under the category of ‘altered.’
You will see these chords written as ‘C7alt’ or sometimes just ‘Calt,’ which assumes that you already know that the 7th is in there with a sharp 5th and 9th or a flat 5th and 9th.
13th chords : C13 / Cmaj13(#11) / Cmaj1713
Let’s look at one last type of chord – the 13th one. This is a popular one, which can be voiced as either a Cmaj13th or C13.
Whenever you see ‘maj13’, this tells you that the 7th is a major 7th, not a dominant 7th. In this case, Cmaj713 (C – E – G – B – D – A) carries a major 7th (B) rather than a dominant 7th (Bb) alongside the 9th (D) and the 13th (A). Sometimes you can add the sharpened 11th (C – E – G – B – D – F – A) to make it sound even better. We often play the 13th without the 11th by only adding the 7th, the 9th, and the 13th to the major triad. Feel free to experiment with this concept to understand what that sharp 11th sounds like when added to the chord
The chord C13 is the dominant version of the 13th chord (C – E – G – Bb – D – A) with a dominant 7th (Bb), not a major 7th (B). You can add a regular 11 to the C13 chord to give another layer of feeling to the chord (C – E – G – Bb – D – F – A). You could also sharpen the 11th to give another dimension to its sound by forming the chord Cmaj3(#11) (C – E – G – Bb – D – Gb – A).
Remember that whenever we see Cmaj13, the sharp 11th is usually implied, being a standard part of jazz harmony.
These are the templates from which you can build a lot of chords. You can use all sorts of alterations like sharp 5ths and flattened 13ths to give a different feel to each chord. The chords we’ve covered today are amongst the most commonly used types of chords that you’ll come across when you start reading sheet music and experimenting with genres such as jazz and soul. There are even more alterations beyond this list, which we’ll save for another lesson in the future, but for now, this should give you a good sense of how to interpret a chord symbol whenever it crops up in your sheet music.
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