What You Will Learn
  1. How to read and understand chord symbols
  2. How to read chord diagrams
  3. How to interpret chord symbols in lead sheets

Learn How to Read Chord Symbols and Diagrams

Chord Symbols

Chord symbols are a shorthand way of notating a chord without specifying a voicing. They are often used in fake books to indicate which chords should be played with the melody. Below are a few examples of chord symbols:

Unfortunately, there is no standard system of notation for chord symbols. One publisher may use one symbol for a chord while another publisher might use a different symbol. Luckily, many of these symbols vary only slightly and it is pretty easy to determine the chord. For example, an A minor chord might be indicated as any of the following:

Parts of Chord Symbols

A chord symbol may include from one to four parts. The chord symbol below includes all four parts and each of them is labeled:

The parts of a chord symbol labeled

All four parts of a chord symbol are discussed in detail below:

Root of the Chord

The first part of every chord symbol is the pitch that indicates the root of the chord. This will be a letter and possibly a sharp or flat sign. For example, D or Bb. The root pitch is always required. Chord symbols with only letters (note that sharps and flats are considered part of the letter) indicate a major chord. All other types of chords require additional symbols.

You may occasionally see two letters separated by a slash instead of a single letter. These are known as slash chords. For example, C/G. The first letter indicates the root of the chord, which would be C in this case. The second letter indicates the note that should appear in the bass, which would be "G" in this example. This notation means that you play a C major chord with a G in the bass.

Quality of the Chord

The quality of a chord indicates whether it is major, minor, diminished, etc. Each quality has its own symbol. The symbol, if present, will appear after the root of the chord.

Some of the symbols have alternate versions. The most common symbols and their alternate versions are shown in the chart below. Pay close attention to capitalization. It has special significance for some symbols.

Symbol What it means Alternatives Example
maj major M, Δ n/a*
m minor -, min, mi Cm
° diminished dim
Ø half-diminished m7b5 CØ
+ augmented aug C+
sus2 suspended second 2 Csus2
sus4 suspended fourth 4 Csus4
5 a power chord (root and fifth) n/a C5

*The symbol for major rarely appears by itself. It is usually used with another symbol, such as a "7". For example, Cmaj7 for a C major seventh chord.

Chord Extensions

Chords may include notes beyond the root, third, and fifth. These are known as extensions. Extensions are indicated by numbers that indicate which notes should be added. Some extensions may appear by themselves or they may imply that other extensions should be included. These are covered in the chart below:

Extension Notes
add An add chord. The word "add" will be followed by a number indicating the note(s) that should be added. The second (or ninth) and the fourth (or eleventh) are the mostly commonly "added" notes, but it is possible for this symbol to be used with other notes.
4 A fourth is added to the chord and the symbol is usually written as add4. This is different from a sus4 chord, because the third is also included in the chord. Note that this chord may also be written as add11, since the fourth and eleventh are the same notes an octave apart.
6 A note a major sixth above the root should be added to the chord.
7 A seventh should be added to the chord. The type of seventh added will usually be determined by the quality of the chord. The seventh may be specified separately from the quality in some cases. For example, in a minor major seventh chord, which is indicated with the symbol m(maj7). Learn about the types of seventh chords
9 A ninth should be added to the chord. The presence of a seventh is implied unless the 9 is preceded by the symbol "add".
11 An eleventh should be added. The presence of the seventh and ninth is implied unless it is an "add" chord.
13 Add a thirteenth to the chord. A seventh, ninth, and eleventh should be included.

Even though some extensions imply other extensions are present, it isn't always necessary or even possible to include all of them. For example, a thirteenth chord has seven notes, but the guitar has only six strings. This means that at least one note has to be left out.

Altered Chords

The final part of a chord symbol is altered notes. These are numbers preceded by either a sharp or flat sign, which will usually appear in parentheses to distinguish them from accidentals that are part of the chord root. The numbers indicate a chord degree. The accidentals specify whether the degree is to be raised or lowered.

Alterations can be confusing since they allow chords that don't occur normally. For example, you could have a chord with a root, a major third, and a diminished fifth. Although this chord has a flattened fifth, it isn't a diminished chord because of the major third. It also can't be a major chord because of the lowered fifth. There is no established name for this chord, so it needs to be indicated using altered notes in the chord symbol. The chord can be indicated using symbols for alteration. If the root of the chord is C, you could indicate the chord with the symbol C(b5).


The symbol N.C. is sometimes included in music with chord symbols. N.C. means "no chord". It remains in effect until a chord symbol appears.

Chord Diagrams

Guitar chords are often written as chord diagrams (also called grids or charts). A chord diagram is a grid of horizontal and vertical lines that represent the strings and frets of the guitar. Symbols are placed on or around the diagram to indicate the strings and frets that should be played, which fingers to use, and other details. A chord diagram is shown below with each part labeled.

A chord diagram with all the parts labeled

Chords in Lead Sheets

If you play jazz or certain other styles, you will likely have to play from fake books, which is a collection of music in lead sheet format. A lead sheet is a simplified version of a piece of music that includes the melody, chords, and lyrics if there are any. It is fairly easy to read the chords on a lead sheet, but it may be confusing if you haven't done it before. Chords are placed above the staff that contains the melody. Each chord appears above the beat where the chord occurs. Note that chord symbols may be placed over the "and" or some other division of the beat, so you need to pay close attention to the position of the chord. A chord remains in effect until the next symbol appears. Below is an example of the first few bars of a lead sheet:

An example of a lead sheet