Lead sheet chords

Entry for EPMOW by Philip Tagg

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lead sheet chord shorthand: (1) symbols used on a lead sheet to represent, descriptively or prescriptively, the chords of a song or instrumental number; (2) the widespread system according to which popular music practitioners most frequently specify chords.

Since there are probably as many variants of lead sheet chord shorthand in current circulation as there are musicians, it is impossible to provide a definitive overview of the system. However, although a few of these variants diverge from the codification practices described below (see §3.1, below), most variants follow by and large the principles expounded here. Table 2 provides a selection of tertial chords and their lead sheet symbols, all with the note c as root. Table 3 shows how the shorthand translates into the terms of spoken English used by musicians. (For a short guide to the phenomenological rather than structural identification of chords and for fuller structural description of common chords, see chord, table 2; for a complete song whose lyrics consist entirely of lead sheet names for the chords being played, see 10cc (1977)).

1. Basic rationale. 2. Symbol components: note name; triad type; type of seventh; ninths, elevenths and thirteenths; altered fifths; additional symbols (omitted notes, added notes, suspensions, inversions). 3. Anomalies: flat, sharp, plus, minus; enharmonic spelling; non-tertial chords.

1 Basic rationale

Lead sheet chord shorthand has a tertial basis (see harmony, chord). Since the shorthand evolved during the heyday of tertial harmony in jazz-based popular music, its simplest symbols denote common triads built on the designated note (e.g. C for a C major triad). Moreover, characters placed after the triad name tend merely to qualify that tertial triad, either in terms of notes added to it or by denoting chromatic alteration of any degree within the chord except for the root and its third. Similarly, the numerals seen most frequently after the triad symbol (7, 9, 11, 13) represent pitches stacked in thirds above the two thirds already contained within the triad (1-3, 3-5) on which a more complex chord is based (e.g. C9 containing b$ and d – flat seventh and major ninth – in addition to c-e-g). The shorthand system also assumes that root and bass note are the same. Developed in style-specific contexts, lead sheet chord shorthand allows for the concise and efficient representation of chords in many types of popular music, for example jazz, pop, rock, country music, chanson, Schlager and most styles of dance music. The system is, however, cumbersome in its codification of inversions and of non-tertial harmony.

2 Symbol components

Lead sheet chord symbols are built from the following components placed in the following order: (i) note name of the chord’s root, present in every symbol; (ii) triad type; (iii) type of seventh; (iv) thirteenths, elevenths and ninths, with or without alteration; (v) altered fifth; (vi) added or omitted notes and suspensions; (vii) inversions. Since components (ii) through (vii) are only included when necessary, chord symbols range from very simple (e.g. C, Cm, C7) to quite complex (e.g. F#m6add9, B$-13+9, E omit G#). Table 1 summarises the order of presentation for symbols most commonly used in connection with tertial chords containing neither added notes, nor suspensions nor inversions.

Table 1: Basic order of components in lead sheet chord shorthand

1: root note name A, B$, B, C, C#/D$, D, D#/E$, E, F, F#/G$, G, G#/A$

chord/interval type Ë perfect major minor augmented diminished

2: triad type [omit] m (or min/mi) aug or +(5) [v. unusual]

3: type of seventh maj(7) or D 7 dim(7) or o(7)

4a: thirteenth 13 –13

b: eleventh 11 +11

c: ninth 9 –9 +9

5: fifth [omit] + or aug –5 or $5

2.1 Note name of the chord’s root

Note names may be in English, as in tables 1 and 2, or are written according to Germanic or Latin language nomenclature (see note). English root note names are always in upper-case.

2.2 Tertial triad type

No symbol is necessary for chords using a major triad (e.g. C = C major triad), the qualifier ‘major’ applying exclusively to sevenths (see 2.3, below). On the other hand, ‘minor’ applies to the third and to no other interval. Therefore, chords built as or on a minor triad must include the triad type qualifier m, mi or min, always lower-case, immediately after the chord root’s note name (e.g. Cm = C minor triad; for different convention, see 3.1, below). Augmented and diminished triads are represented similarly (e.g. C+ for an augmented triad on C, see table 1; table 2: chords 1c, 6b; see also 2.3 and 2.7, below). To avoid linguistic incongruity it may be preferable to write root name and triad type in normal typeface, subsequent symbols in a smaller typeface and/or as superscript, for example Cmmaj7 or Cmadd6 rather than Cmmaj7 or Cmadd6. It should be noted that while the diminished triad is highly uncommon on its own, the augmented triad (e.g. C+) occurs quite frequently in popular music.

Table 2: Lead Sheet Chords (in C)

(Table 2, cont’d)

Table 3: Guide to pronunciation of lead sheet chord shorthand (examples)

chord shorthand examples in table 2 pronunciation

C+ or Caug 1c C plus, C augmented, C aug [o:g]

C7, C9, C11, C13 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a C seven, C nine, C eleven, C thirteen

Cmaj7, Cmaj9 2b, 3b C major seven, C major nine

C7-5 or C7$5 2c C seven minus five, C seven flat five

C7aug, C7+ 2d C seven augmented, C seven plus

C9+ (C9aug5), C+9 3f, 3g C nine plus (C nine augmented), C plus 9

C13+11 (C11+13) 5g C thirteen plus eleven (C eleven plus thirteen)

Cm7, Cm9, Cm11 7a, 8a, 8c C minor seven, C minor nine, C minor eleven

Cmmaj7, Cmmaj9 7b, 8b C minor major seven, C minor major nine

Cm7-5 or Cm7$5 or Cø 7c C minor seven minus five, C minor seven flat five, C ½ diminished

Cdim or Cdim7 7d C diminished, C dim, C diminished seventh

C6, Cm6 9a, 9b C six (C add[ed] sixth), C minor six (C minor add[ed] sixth)

Csus(4), Csus9 10a, 10c C sus (four), C four suspension, C suspended fourth, C sus nine

Cadd9, Cmadd9 10c, 10d C add nine, C minor add nine

C7/3, C7/e 11g C (with) third in bass, C (with) e bass, C first inversion

2.3 Type of seventh

Since the minor (flat) seventh (e.g. b$ in relation to c) is more common than the key-specific major seventh (e.g. b8 in relation to c) in the jazz-related styles for which lead sheet symbols were originally developed, and since the qualifier ‘minor’ is applied exclusively to the third in tertial triads, a major triad with an added minor seventh requires no other qualification than the numeral 7 (table 2: 2a): flat seven is, so to speak, default seventh in the same way as default triads feature major thirds. On the other hand, tertial chords containing a key-specific major seventh need to be flagged by means of maj or D (table 2, 2b). Since maj and D are reserved as qualifiers of the seventh and no other degree, the 7 may be omitted in conjunction with these symbols (e.g. Cmaj or CD = Cmaj7). However, the 7 is always present to denote the any seventh chord whose 7 has the default value (flat/minor, see table 2: examples 2a, 2c, 2d, 7a, 7c; see also §2.4).

Seventh chords containing an augmented fifth indicate such alteration by 7+ or 7aug (table 2: 2d). Diminished fifths in seventh chords containing a major third appear as 7-5 or 7$5 (table 2: 2c, 7c). Seventh chords containing minor third, diminished fifth and flat seventh are written as m7-5 or m7$5, sometimes as ø (‘half diminished’). The ‘dim’ chord constitutes a special case, containing both diminished seventh and fifth, and is most frequently indicated by dim placed straight after the root note name, sometimes by dim7, occasionally by o or o7 (table 2: 7d).

2.4 Ninths, elevenths, thirteenths

Chords involving ninths, elevenths and thirteenths are assumed to include, at least theoretically, some kind of tertial triad and some kind of seventh (see 2.1-2.3 and 2.6.1). Chords containing elevenths presuppose the presence of a ninth, and thirteenth chords the presence of an eleventh as well as a ninth, all in addition to a seventh and the major or minor triad of the root note. To save space, shorthand denoting all such chords is usually presented in descending order of intervals requiring qualification — thirteenths, elevenths, ninths, fifths — once the root note name, the minor triad marker (if necessary) and the major seventh symbol (if necessary) have been included (table 2: 3a-5h, 8a-c). The only common exception to this practice is the chord containing major thirteenth and augmented eleventh (13+11) which is sometimes referred to in reverse order as 11+13 (table 2: 5g-h). Shorthand for chords of the thirteenth, eleventh and ninth include no mention of the eleventh, ninth or seventh below them unless any of those degrees deviate from their default values (perfect eleventh, major ninth, minor seventh). For example, the ‘11’ in C11 assumes the presence of the default ninth and flat seventh (d and b$), whereas the ‘9’ in C+11+9 is included on account of its alteration from d to d#/e$ (table 2: 4d).

2.5 Altered fifths

Although simple augmented and diminished triads are encoded + or aug and dim respectively, the symbol for altered fifths (+ and –5 or $5) in chords of the seventh, ninth, eleventh and thirteenth is always placed last after all other relevant information (e.g. C7$5 or Cm7-5, Cm7$5 or Cm7-5, C7+ or C7aug; see table 2, chords 2c, 2d, 3e, 3h, 7c).

2.6 Additional symbols

2.6.1 Omitted notes

The more notes a chord theoretically contains, the more difficult it becomes to space those notes on the keyboard or guitar in a satisfactory manner. In some cases, the principle of stacking thirds even leads to problems of unacceptable dissonance, usually involving an internal minor ninth, which cannot be resolved by the most ingenious techniques of chord spacing. For example, the major third is always absent from the 11 chord (table 2: 4a), and the unaltered eleventh is always left out of thirteenth chords based on the major triad (table 2: 5a-5f). Similarly, the perfect fifth is often omitted from thirteenth chords as well as from certain ninth chords (table 2: 5a-5h, 3a-3e, 3g). These omissions constitute standard practice and need not be indicated. However, one chord which does require indication of note omission is the ‘bare’ fifth, often used as the power chord of heavy metal and usually written (in E) E no 3 or E omit G# (see 3.3, below).

2.6.2 Added ninths and sixths

Added chords are those consisting of a simple triad to which another single note has been added without inclusion of intervening odd-number degrees. For example add9 and madd9 chords are triads to which the ninth has been added without including an intermediate seventh (table 2: 10c-d). Similarly, the two sixth chords shown in table 2 (9a, 9b) are qualifiable as added because they both consist of a triad to which a major sixth has been added without any intervening sevenths, ninths or elevenths making them into chords of the thirteenth. It should be remembered that the ‘m’ in m6 refers to the minor third, not to the sixth which is always major (table 2: 9b). Unlike added ninths, added sixth chords are not indicated with the prefix ‘add’ before the ‘6’.

2.6.3 Suspended fourths and ninths

Suspensions are chords that can be resolved into a subsequent tertial consonance. The most common suspensions in popular music, sus4 and sus9, both resolve to common major or minor triads, the fourth of sus4 to a third, the ninth of sus9 to the octave (e.g. the f in Csus4 to the e of C or the e$ of Cm, the d in Csus9 to the c of C or Cm, see table 2: 10a-d). The absence of any numeral after sus assumes that the suspension is held on a fourth. Although sus9 and add9 may be identical as individual chords, sus9 should typically resolve in the manner just described, while add9 need not. (For use of sus in quartal harmony, see 3.3, below).

2.7 Inversions

Since inversions (see chord) tend mainly to occur in popular music in passing-note patterns or anacruses created by the bass player without reference to notation, no standard lead sheet codification exists for such practices. This lacuna in the system obstructs efficient indication of chord sequences for music in the classical vein. One way of indicating inversions is, however, to write the relevant bass note by interval number or note name following the rest of the chord’s symbols and a forward slash, for example C7/3 or C7/e for a C seven chord with its third, e, in the bass (see also table 2: 11a:-g). Inversions audible in pop recordings are often absent from published lead sheets and tend only be indicated if they occur on an important downbeat or its syncopated anticipation.

3 Anomalies

3.1 Flat, sharp, plus and minus

Sharp and flat signs (# $) are mainly reserved as accidentals qualifying the root note name. Thus, the ‘$’ in E$9 indicates that the E itself, not the ninth above it, is flat. In this way it is possible to distinguish between an E flat nine chord, (E$9), and , an E minus nine chord (E-9, i.e. E7 with a flat ninth). In any chord, all altered degrees apart from 3 and 7 (see 2.3-2.4, above) are indicated by + (=#) or – (=$). The only exception to this rule is that a flat sign is often used as an alternative for ‘minus’ before the final 5 of a chord containing a diminished triad (e.g. C7$5 instead of C7-5, see table 2: 2c, 3e, 3h, 7c). It should be noted that conflicting conventions concerning the use of these symbols are in operation. For example, some versions of the ‘Real Book’ (see fake book) use minus signs instead of m or min to denote minor triads, flat and sharp signs instead of + and – to signal chromatic alteration.

3.2 Enharmonic spelling

Lead sheet chord shorthand tends to disregard enharmonic orthography. For example, although the $IIËI cadence at the end of the Girl from Ipanema (Jobim, 1963) might appear as A$9$5 Ë Gmaj7 on a lead sheet in G, the same $IIËI cadence would in E$ almost certainly be spelt E9$5 Ë E$maj7 rather than F$9$5 Ë E$maj7. Similarly, distinction is rarely made between chords containing a falling minor tenth and those that include a rising augmented ninth, the assumption being that since both +9 and -10 refer to the same equal-tone pitch, the difference between them is immaterial. Hence, +9 is much more commonly used than -10, even though the latter may more often be enharmonically correct.

3.3 Non-tertial chords

Since non-tertial chords do not derive from superimposed thirds, they are not easily expressible in lead sheet shorthand. Apart from power fifths, already mentioned, there are considerable problems in encoding harmonies used in modal and bitonal jazz as well as in some types of folk music and avant-garde rock. For example, standard consonances in quartal harmony are frequently indicated by sus(4) (e.g. C7sus, see table 2: 10b and 14d) even though harmonic suspension is neither intended nor perceived. Similarly, many musicians often conceptualise chords of the eleventh and thirteenth bitonally rather than in terms of stacked thirds, for example C13+11 as a D major triad on top of C7, or C11 as Gm7 with c in the bass. No satisfactory consensus exists as to how such sonorities might be more adequately encoded. One possible solution to part of the problem may be to refer to some of these chords in the way suggested in table 2, examples 13a-14d.


Ï = note always omitted from the chord

w (w) = note may be omitted from the chord

Stave 1 in each system shows tertial stacking

Staves 2 and 3 together suggest one possible way of spacing each chord on the piano

Musical references

Jobim, Antonio Carlos. 1963. Garota da Ipanema. New York: Duchess Music Corporation, 1963. Also as The Girl from Ipanema, recorded by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto (1964) on Verve 10322.

10 cc. 1977. ‘I Bought A Flat Guitar Tutor’. Deceptive Bends. Mercury 3702, 1977