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Complex Chords Demystified

By Matt Smith

For many years I have taught students heading into Jazz Ensembles how to read Chord charts and the "shorthand" used in the Real Book and other jazz notation. For example, a small triangle signifies Major, a minus sign signifies minor, a "degree" signifies diminished and a plus sign signifies augmented.

For example: C-7 = C minor7, C+7 = C augmented7, etc.

Chords tell a student exactly what they contain. It's important to note that every chord contains information from the Major scale of the letter root of the chord.

Chord formulas are as follows:

Major = 1, 3 and 5, referring to the first, third and fifth notes of the major scale of the root of the chord.

Minor = 1, b3 and 5

Diminished = 1, b3 and b5

Augmented = 1, 3 and #5

From there, 7th chords are

Maj 7 = 1, 3, 5, 7

Min7 = 1, b3, 5, b7

Dominant7 = 1, 3, 5, b7

Min7b5 = 1, b3, b5,b7.

Here we have an example of how a chord explains itself. It's simply a minor 7 chord as described above with the 5 th flatted. From here, a student should be informed that since 8 is the octave of 1, 9 is the octave of 2, 11 is the octave of 4 and 13 is the octave of 6. So, Amaj(triangle)7#11 would simply be Amaj7 (1,3,5,7) with an added #11 (an octave above #4) Using this logic, C7#9b5 would be described as C dominant 7 with a raised 9 (2) and a lowered 5 1,3 ,b5 ,b7, #9

This is also important for bass line construction, as it tells the player the component notes of the chord. It's all about understanding the Major scale, and then the chord name gives you all you need to know!