What is meant by chord spelling ?

The way chords are made is based on the key of their root note. For instance, C Major, C Minor, C7 and C sus 4 are all derived from the key of C Major.

The chords of D Major, D Minor, D7 and D sus 4 are all based on the key of D Major.

First of all, the notes in a particular key are given numbers. Using C Major, we start at C (called the tonic) and give that the number 1, the next note is D and is given the number two, the next note is E and is given the number 3 and so on:

Example: Key C Major



When deriving a chord, it is usual to call the notes that make up a chord its “spelling”. Put simply it is the notes (represented by numbers) that spell a chord. Each type of chord is spelt the same way, whether it is a C Major, B Major or F# Major.

Only the notes themselves change, the numbers related to the tonic note of the key remains the same.

Major Triads (3 note chords)

Taking the more straightforward chord of MAJOR, it is spelt using only three notes (called a triad). The spelling of a major chord is the 1st note of the scale, the 3rd note and the 5th note. This gets abbreviated to 1st,3rd and 5th.

Using C Major, the 1st,3rd and 5th notes are C, E and G. Playing any number of these notes in any order will give you what is essentially a C Major chord.

Minor Triads (3 note chords)

Minor Triads also contain three notes, only this time they are the 1st, the flattened 3rd and the 5th. To flatten a note, simply drop it in pitch one semitone (or, in guitar terms, one fret).

Using C Major, the 1st, flattened 3rd and 5th notes are C, Eb and G. Playing any number of these notes in any order will give you what is essentially a C Minor chord.

These two triads (Major and Minor) form, for the most part, the fundamental underlying structure of almost all other chords.

Four note chords:

Adding another different note (not one already used) to a triad will change the sound of the chord and give you another chord name.

The Major Seven chord uses the spelling of 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th. It is the basic Major triad with an added note – the 7th note of the scale.

C Major 7 is made up of C (1st), E (3rd), G (5th) and B (7th)

The Seven chord (more correctly called a dominant 7th) is spelt, 1st, 3rd, 5th, flattened 7th.

C7 is made up of C (1st), E (3rd), G (5th) and Bb (flattened 7th)

The Minor Seventh chord is spelt using the minor triad, and adding a flattened 7th.

Cm7 is made up of C (1st), Eb (flattened 3rd), G (5th) and Bb (flattened 7th)

Test yourself: Key of E Major


Given the notes of the key E Major (above), and the spellings of the chords mentioned previously, work out the actual notes of the following chords, starting with the two basic triads:

E Major : ______________________________

E Minor : ______________________________

E Major 7 : ______________________________

E Minor 7 : ______________________________

E dominant 7 : ______________________________

E 6 : ______________________________ (Basic Major Triad plus the sixth note of the scale)

For extra Kudos, work out how to play these chords (you will have to know the notes on your fretboard neck first)

Remember, notes can be repeated