Making Notes (Part 11)
Chord symbols provide a useful alternative to reading bass stave chords. If you have read the 'Chord Structure' article in Making Notes No. 4 (April 1982), you will appreciate that the notes of a left hand chord indicated by a chord symbol are simply notes of the scale with the same name as the chord, in established formations for each adaptation of the Major Chord.
The Chord Symbol is merely a 'shorthand' method of writing the name of the accompanying chords and bass pedal notes rather than reading a number of notes written on the bass stave. If you can play a major chord and its inversions you should be able to correctly interpret any chord symbol.
Physically, you should feel confident that you can form any chord but the mental reaction to a chord symbol such as 'F#m7(b5)' can be either 'I won't bother with that chord' or 'Help'!
Many musicians seem to have difficulty in interpreting chord symbols. The chord symbol is read as a whole rather than breaking the symbol down into sections to make finding the notes of the left hand chord easier.
The number of instructions following the chord name will determine the number of 'movements' required to create the entire chord written as the chord symbol.
The most important section of the chord symbol is obviously the name, such as 'C', 'F, 'Bb' etc which if written on its own is a Major chord. Any following instructions such as 'm', '7', '9' etc are adaptations of the Major chord.
Taking the chord of symbol 'Cm6', the 'C' is telling you to play the 'C' Major chord of G—C-E (second inversion of C-E-G, notes 1-3-5 of the C Major scale).
In the second section of the chord symbol, the small letter 'm' is instructing you to adapt the Major chord into a Minor chord. This is achieved by flattening the 3rd note of the scale, with the same name as the chord, by a semitone. Therefore, the C Major chord with its third note of 'E' flattened by a semitone to 'Eb' becomes the C Minor chord.
The '6' in the third section of the 'Cm6' chord symbol is instructing you to add the 6th note of the C Major Scale A to the 'Cm' chord, to create the full chord with the notes of G A-C-Eb written by the composer or arranger.
After forming the basic left hand chords you can start to interpret the more advanced chords in the same way.
The 'F' Sharp Minor Seventh with a flattened Fifth chord is easy to find if broken down into sections. The Chord Symbol will be 'F#m7(b5)'.
Section 1 — (F#) — play the 'F#' Major chord: F#-A#-C#
Section 2 — (m) — flatten the third note A
Section 3 — (7) — add Seventh note E
Section 4 — (b5) — flatten the Fifth note C
Figure 1 shows how to play the 'F#m7(b5)' chord with the notes of F#-A-C-E, and the root note of 'F#' as the pedal note. Emphasis is placed upon playing the ROOT note of the chord as the pedal note, as the root note will not always be included as a note of the chord, and the pedal note NAMES the chord you are playing.
You may feel that the notes of the 'F#m7(b5)' chord looks familiar and you have played those notes as another chord. Well, you probably have! By holding onto the notes of 'F#-A-C-E' and changing the pedal note from 'F#' to 'D' you will be naming and playing a form of 'D' chord. The notes of 'F#'(3), 'A'(5), 'C'(7b) and 'E'(9) are a 'D9' chord. The same notes are also an 'Am6' chord when played with an 'A' pedal. 'F#'(6), 'A'(1), 'C'(b3) and 'E'(5).
Look at the CHORD SIMILARITY chart in Figure 2 to see how the chords you may have already played are various other chords. Inversions of the chords allow them all to be played between the octave 'F' to 'F' above and below. The NAME of each chord, its root note, will be played as the pedal note.
Now refer to Figures 3 and 4 for further chord similarities.
The problem of remembering the notes which make up an advanced chord can sometimes be helped by recognising the simple basic chord containing the same notes. Ensure that the root note (Pedal note) is naming the correct chord.
For example, the 'Abmaj7' chord is identical to the 'Cm' chord when the root note is not played in the chord.
'Cm': G - - C - Eb C Pedal
'Abmaj7': G - - C - Eb played with an 'Ab' Pedal
The root note of 'Ab' is not included in the chord of 'Abmaj7'. The 'Dbmaj7' chord is identical to the 'Fm' chord.
'Fm': Ab - - C - - F F Pedal
'Dbmaj7': Ab - - C - - F played with the 'Db' Pedal
Any chord addition or alteration is written after the name of the chord and consists of signs such as (b), (#), (-), (+) followed by a note number: C7(b9), G7(#5), Fm7(-5), Dm(#7).
For the 'Chord Symbol' musicians, the following tabulation of additional signs added to the basic symbols may be of interest. Using the 'C' Major Scale as an example, some of the additional chord signs are shown in Figure 5.
The Chord Symbol controversy carries on, but over the last couple of years the Chord Symbol method of reading a manuscript has become more acceptable and is now more widely used by music teachers for encouraging musical interpretation and embellishments to music, which can be difficult to achieve without studying established music theory for many years. This is acceptable to young people but to the home musician with restricted leisure time the need is for learning as simply and as easily as possible, the firm basis of music theory (such a dull word!), without which it can be almost impossible to create harmony, counterpoint and many other 'do-it-yourself' interpretations of a musical arrangement or score.
Unfortunately, when first starting to play, home musicians are not often given the opportunity to decide whether to learn to read the Bass Stave or play by the Chord Symbol method, as the majority of music lessons available to them by music teachers, whether private or commercial, often use the 'traditional' method of reading the Bass Stave and playing the music exactly as written. Admirable though this method is, in that many people learn to play who would not otherwise do so, this form of teaching often lacks the 'back-up' of essential music theory.
When the Chord Symbol method of learning is combined with simplified established music theory, a high standard of playing can be achieved by home musicians, who I consider to be so important, as they do not only gain great pleasure and sense of achievement for themselves but provide enjoyment for so many listeners.
My Musical Ladder introduced in previous 'Making Notes', is used for creating embellishments to music very simply with Chord Symbols for forming left hand chord progressions, establishing 'Chords-in-a-Key', harmony and many subjects in my new books Three and Four which I hope will be published this year. The Ladder can also be used by musicians reading the Bass Stave and this is also included in these books.
Feature by Brenda Hayward