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9 February, 2015 - 12:40
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Once you know how to name triads (please see Triads and Naming Triads), you need only a few more rules to be able to name all of the most common chords.

This skill is necessary for those studying music theory. It's also very useful at a "practical" level for composers, arrangers, and performers (especially people playing chords, like pianists and guitarists), who need to be able to talk to each other about the chords that they are reading, writing, and playing.

Chord manuals, fingering charts, chord diagrams, and notes written out on a staff are all very useful, especially if the composer wants a very particular sound on a chord. But all you really need to know are the name of the chord, your major scales and minor scales, and a few rules, and you can figure out the notes in any chord for yourself.

What do you need to know to be able to name most chords?

  1. You must know your major, minor, augmented and diminished triads. Either have them all memorized, or be able to figure them out following the rules for triads. (See Triads and Naming Triads.)
  2. You must be able to find intervals from the root of the chord. One way to do this is by using the rules for intervals. (See Interval.) Or if you know your scales and don't want to learn about intervals, you can use the method in #3 instead.
  3. If you know all your scales (always a good thing to know, for so many reasons), you can find all the intervals from the root using scales. For example, the "4" in Csus4 is the 4th note in a
  4. C (major or minor) scale, and the "minor 7th" in Dm7 is the 7th note in a D (natural) minor scale. If you would prefer this method, but need to brush up on your scales, please see Major
  5. Major Keys and Scales and Minor Keys and Scales.
  6. You need to know the rules for the common seventh chords, for extending and altering chords, for adding notes, and for naming bass notes. The basic rules for these are all found below.
Note: Please note that the modern system of chord symbols, discussed below, is very different from the figured bass shorthand popular in the seventeenth century (which is not discussed here). For example, the "6" in figured bass notation implies the first inversion chord, not an added 6. (As of this writing, there was a very straightforward summary of figured bass at Ars Nova Software.)