How Guitar Chords Are Named And Why


How Guitar Chords Are Named

Chord-naming is derived from a few foundational music theory concepts, including intervallic relationships, such as major, minor, augmented, diminished, perfect, etc, in conjunction with scales, and key signatures. To understand how chords are named and built, one has to know the basics of these musical theory concepts.

Chords can be quite complicated in terms of how they’re constructed as well as how they’re named. While the foundational chords are easy to construct and figure out, when chords become more complicated, they become harder and harder to discern.

For instance, you could have a chord-name that looks a lot like this:

C7b9 #9 #11 b13

Truthfully, you won’t see the above chord in any songs anytime soon, with the exception of some experimental music that isn’t on the Top 40 at all.

Basically, what this means is that it’s a C Dominant 7th chord with a #9, a #11, and a b13. Due to the additional alterations on it, it likely wouldn’t sound like a dominant 7th chord anymore, however.

In this lesson, we’re going to run through the very basics of chord construction, including some of the foundational things that make up a chord, and how to go about naming them, how to identify them, and how to understand them.

Right away, it’s best to start out with the regular C Major scale.

The C-Major scale is essentially the foundation of Western music theory and it’s the scale/key signature that every teacher uses to teach the beginning stages of theory to their students. It has no sharps or flats in it, and it’s usually discussed in context to Middle C on the piano/keyboard.

The foundational chords in Western music theory are known as triads.

What that means is there are three notes per chord, and they’re usually two notes apart from each other. So here’s what the C Major scale looks like:

C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

A triad means that we’re taking the root, the third, and the fifth of that very same scale.

The root is C

The third is E

and the Fifth is G

Therefore, we have C, E, and G.

C, E, and G make up what’s called the C Major Chord, which means there is a Major Third in it as well as Perfect Fifth. These are called intervals, and they are terms that describe a particular sound that comes as a consequence of notes being a particular distance from each other.

It’s actually kind of intuitive.

The C and the E are a third apart from each other, and the C and the G are a fifth apart from each other.

In the C Major Scale, as I said above, there are no sharps or flats. It’s the Major scale, so it has a particular “Major” quality to it, which means it tends to sound bright, happy, or lively, with some exceptions.

C to E is a Major Third, and C to G is the Perfect Fifth.

However, if you were to flat the E, Eb, that would turn that interval into a minor interval, more specifically, a Minor Third. The reason why it’s a Minor Third and not a Major third anymore is that Eb doesn’t belong to the Key of C Major. It’s not a major interval anymore.

Go ahead and grab your guitar/keyboard, and play a C and E together to see what it sounds like. It sounds Major.

Then play a C and an Eb together, and you’ll notice that it has a dissonant and “minor” sound to it.

Now go ahead and play a C and a G, and you’ll notice it sounds quite nice. Now play a C and a Gb, which is now a Diminished 5th, rather than a perfect 5th, and it sounds a lot more dark and dissonant. That’s because Gb doesn’t belong to the key of C Major.

As I mentioned above, chord-naming is derived from a few foundational music theory concepts, including intervallic relationships in conjunction with scales, and key signatures.

A C-Major chord means you have a C, an E, and a G.

The root, third, and fifth. The Major third and the Perfect Fifth.

A C Minor Chord has a C, an Eb, and a G. A Minor Third and a Perfect 5th.

In the Key of C Major, there is no Eb, however, in the key of C Minor, there is an Eb.

One of the most important parts of Chord-naming is the root of the chord.

For instance, a C7b9 means the following.

In the Key of C Major, there is no C7 chord. The C7 chord is the dominant 7th chord that actually belongs to F Major.

F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E

If we re-organize the notes of the F Major Scale so it starts on C, it looks like this:

C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb

A C7 means you’re using the 1st, the 3rd, the 5th, and the 7th of the F Major Scale.

Which looks something like this:

C, E, G, and Bb.

This is a C7, or a C Dominant 7th chord, and it’s the fifth chord of the F Major scale.

So where does the b9 come from then?

The b9 means that you’re counting up from the root of the scale, and going up to the 9th note of the scale.

So here are the notes of the F Major scale up to the ninth note, starting on C; you’ll notice that the scale repeated itself over again because that’s how it works.

C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E

D is the ninth note of the scale. So the flat nine, b9, means we’re putting a flat on the ninth note of the scale.

In other words, it’s a Db note, also called a D-flat.

In the context of the aforementioned chord, the C7b9, it means that we’re using the following notes.

C, E, G, Bb, Db

You have the Major Third, the Perfect Fifth, the Minor 7th, alongside a b9 (Flat-Nine).

So where you can find these notes in the context of a musical scale or key signature? Well, you can find the C Dominant 7th chord in the F Major scale for instance.

The 5th chord of F Major is the C Dominant 7th (C7)

In the Key of F Major, you have the following notes:

F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E

The fifth note of that is C.

So let’s construct a 7th chord (7, meaning there is a seventh interval along with the root, third and fifth).

C, E, G, and Bb

That is the C Dominant 7th, which is the fifth chord of F Major.

The musical term that’s added on to the C7, in this case, b9, means there is also a flat ninth degree, which is, as I said above, the flat D.

So you have, C, E, G, Bb, and Db

That is, therefore, the C7b9.

Let’s take it the next step further and make it even more complicated. So let’s use the chord I outlined at the beginning of the article, the C7b9 #9 #11 b13

C7b9 #9 #11 b13

Let’s layout the notes of F Major in two different octaves to outline what the notes of this chord would actually look like.

F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F,

So you have the C7b9 part of the chord, which is precisely what I just laid above, the following notes:

C, E, G, Bb, Db

But there is also the new notes in it, the #9, the #11, and the b13.

A C7b9 #9 #11 b13 is the following notes, the #9, the #11, and the b13 added on to the C7b9:

C, E, G, Bb, Db, D#, F#, Ab

It’s not actually that complicated, because the numbers connotate at which point in the scale is the note, and then the sharp or flat communicates whether it’s a half-step down or a half-step up.

C (1),D(2), E(3), F(4), G(5), A(6), B (7),C(8), D(9), E(10), F(11), G(12), A(13)

C7b9 = C, E, G, Bb, Db

#9 = D#

#11 = F#

b13 = Ab

Therefore:

C7b9 #9 #11 b13 =

C, E, G, Bb, Db, D#, F#, Ab

Go ahead and play those notes on the keyboard, because this will be nearly impossible to play on the guitar.

YouTube Video Tutorial

How Guitar Chords Are Named And Why?

Conclusion

Music theory can be quite complicated, especially when more sophisticated chords are being used and communicated.

However, the most basic chords are really built quite simply, and an understanding of intervallic relationships, scales, as well as major and minor key signatures, will really help you understand what all of this stuff means.

I would strongly recommend checking out musictheory.net to learn more and go through a good portion of those lessons.

Also, once you have a foundation of those concepts, go ahead and pick up a copy of Mark Sarneci’s The Complete Elementary Rudiments, including the Answer book.

With all that said, this is just an introduction into what goes into chord naming. Moreover, I’m not an expert on music theory, so you might be better off to get proper education from a teacher.

Recent Content