Writing Chords in Jazz and Popular Music
July 31, 2015 | by Peter Flom
Today I’d like to start a discussion on writing chords in jazz or contemporary music. In a way, chord charts are their own language, filled with hundreds of different systems and dialects. While the goal is always to write something that your reader can understand, getting there can be a challenge.
My plan is to talk about a few of the typical ways chords charts are written, and hopefully hear from some of you about your methods in showing harmony. I’d like to stress that this is not by any means an all-inclusive list! I’m certainly not specifying a preference since there are so many different schools of thought on chords – so much that even professors in the same school may not agree with each other!
In my view, most chord charts fall into about four different methods of notation. The first method I’d like to explore is one I call the east coast system, so named because it is often seen in scores written by publishers based in New York, and is the method taught at many jazz schools on the east coast:
In this system, the chord quality is written as a three-letter abbreviation. Chord tensions are usually parenthesized, as well as voicing instructions such as omit 5 or no 3rd. If a tension affects a chord’s quality (as in the case of suspended chords or the min7b5 chord), it is not parenthesized. Chords appear at the same height unless multiple, nonconsecutive tensions are included in the voicing. In that case, the tensions are often stacked on top of each other, or separated by a comma.
In what I call the west coast system, chords are written similarly, but there are some important differences that warrant a separate system:
In many of the film scores and jazz charts coming from Los Angeles shorthand is often used in place of numbers (I’ve seen this in jazz charts from parts of Texas, too). Perhaps the best example of this is the min7b5 chord, which is known by another name out west: half-diminished. This chord is expressed using the ø symbol often found in many Scandinavian languages, because a fully diminished chord (which as a double-flatted seventh) uses a º symbol. Chord tensions are typically not parenthesized, but are written in superscript instead.
There are shorthand versions of both systems, and they differ so much between people that it cannot really be classified. However, it is typical to see a capital M or delta (∆) symbol for major chords, a lowercase m or dash (-) for minor chords, a degree symbol (º) for diminished chords and a plus sign (+) for augmented chords. Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end:
These two systems also differ when using polytonality. Chords with a specific bass note (sometimes referred to as “hybrid” or “compound” chords) are written with a slash followed by the desired bass note. On the west coast, it is common to see the word bass written after the bass note letter. When a true polychord is used, the west coast system may use the slash notation described above, while the east coast system often writes the top chord above a horizontal line, with the bottom chord written below:
In Nashville, an entirely different method is growing in popularity, known as the Nashville Number system. This system was created in the late 1950’s as producers needed a simple, quick way to write chord charts for session musicians:
In this method, chord roots are written as Arabic numerals relative to the key of the song. Major chords use only the numeral, while minor chords include a dash. Any tensions or suspensions are written as shorthand.
So what does Finale use? The answer is a little more complex than you might think, but Finale’s chord suffix library aligns well with a slightly different system, devised in the early 70’s by copyist Clinton Roemer:
In this system, all chord symbols are capitalized. Major and Minor are expressed as two-letter abbreviations (“ma” and “mi”), and shorthand is used for diminished and augmented chords, but nothing else. In Finale’s default document styles, three-letter abbreviations are also included to more closely represent chord practices more widely used, and of course all suffixes can be edited to fit your needs. Any tensions or changes to the chord are written in parentheses and superscripted. Polytonal and hybrid chords are written as described in the East Coast system above.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a jazz musician, I wasn’t familiar with the Roemer system myself until I started using Finale. To me, this system seemed strange at first, because it didn’t look like the charts I was reading from the Real Book. As I became more comfortable with the system, I found many good reasons to start using it. While it may not be a system that everyone is familiar with, it does have the advantage of being really hard to misinterpret, and for that reason I’ve been using it in my own music for about the last decade.
Ultimately, I want my players to know what chord I intended (even if they complain about the suffix). To me, that’s much better than hearing the wrong chords on the gig.
What are your rules when writing chords? Do you do something different than what I’ve described above? Let us know in the comments below!