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August 26, 2010 | The Seven Chord Naming Rules

This week's Tips entry is from staff contributor and music software theory Guru, Craig Schmoller. His Mando ModeExplorer is one of the most authoritative and concise fretboard software programs available for mandolin, and his recently released Jazz CitternExplorer is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to dive deeper into 5-string fifths tuned instruments.

Check them out sometime:
Jazz CitternExplorer
Mando ModeExplorer

"Your synopsis was precise and accurate. Time to write a book." - An anonymous Professor at a world-renown music education institution, regarding the following article.


I do a fair amount of posting on music discussion boards. And when the topic of "Chord Naming Rules" comes up, an abundance of "lively" and "passionate" discourse inevitably ensues. Perhaps you've witnessed one of these. In these discussions, we try to remain respectful and civil. This, I think is partly good manners; but in greater part, it's to save our own skins, that is, Save Our Reputations. After all, you don't want to come down on the wrong side of a Chord Naming Rules debate. Uh-uh. That is, if you wish to be taken seriously ever again. And that topic is of sufficient depth that, in the limited format and dubious climate of most online forums, you risk looking really, really stupid. So we get good at "agreeing to disagree."

To be clear, I'm not referring to "chord symbols" here. You know: Those dashes, circles and triangles combined with note names and whatnot. That is another discussion. There are a lot of valid shorthand renderings of chord names that work well, and though folks have preferences, I never encountered a heated debate over which is right, which is wrong, or what longhand the shorthand represents.

I am talking about the actual names of chords, and what those names mean when putting the chord together. What is that name implying, and what is it instructing us to do? That's not preference. That's fundamental. That's Important.

"Your synopsis was precise and accurate. Time to write a book." So, at first, I found it a little odd that our anonymous professor had not yet written that book on Chord Naming himself. But in retrospect, I think he was being prudent. In view of the great risk, and limited benefit associated with the topic of Chord Naming Rules, and being a man of great and sterling reputation, he has much to lose by entering into such a controversial discussion.

I, on the other hand, have very little or nothing to lose. So I'm here to introduce you to "The Seven Chord Naming Rules."

The following rules, when used together, are efficient and precise in meaning, unambiguous, provide extraordinarily complete coverage of all cases, have a great track record, and are well-accepted. They just make sense. So before you get out the pitchforks and torches, please put them to the test.

Naming Rule 1:
The omission of "m", "mi", or "min" implies a major 3rd. So "C" designates a major chord, but "Cmin", "Cmi" or "Cm" designates a minor chord. If a "ma", "maj", "Maj", "M" are designated, this DOES NOT refer to the 3rd, but rather, to another degree interval such as the 6 or 7.

Naming Rule 2:
Any degree named above 7 implies the existence of a 7, like 9, 11, 13. Any name below a 7 implies there is no 7, like 2, 4, and 6. The same rule applies to b2, #2, b9 and #9. The b2 and #2 mean there's no 7. The b9 and #9 means there is a 7.

Naming Rule 3:
If the 5 is not there in the chord, you can have a b5 or a #5. Otherwise, you have to use the alternative, that is, #4 or b6.

Naming Rule 4:
If there is a 7 in the chord, then any #4 becomes a #11 and any b6 becomes a b13.

Naming Rule 5:
All diatonic degrees of the chord below the highest degree specified are implied to be in the chord. That is to say, if the chord specifies a 13, the 11, 9, and 7 are implied. If the 11 is specified, the 9 and 7 are implied. If the 9 is specified, the 7 is implied. In practice, the 11 may be omitted due to dissonance. (Of course, partial voicings omit any voice as needed.)

Naming Rule 6:
Chord names communicate theory, not implementation. (Not voicing.)

Naming Rule 7:
Addendum: If there is no 7 in the chord, you may use the "add" directive to include extensions, such as "C(add9)". To replace the 3 with a 4 or 9, you may use "sus" as in "C(sus2)" or "C(sus4)". To omit voices, use the "omit" directive, like "C(omit 5)".

Examine any of the New Real Book volumes published by (Sher Music) for chord naming conventions and for great examples, or go online and visit my Chord Watcher Field Guide.
Craig Schmoller

Keeping in Suspense; a look at "Sus" chords and variations
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2
About our relationship
Harmonic Implication

Posted by Ted at August 26, 2010 5:25 AM

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