Reading Chord Symbols
In this lesson we’ll cover the ins and outs of how chords are commonly notated in written music. This lesson won’t cover what the chords actually are. For that you should study the lessons in the bass chord patterns section.
What is a Chord Symbol?
A chord is a group of 3 or more different notes played at the same time. Chords, in standard notation, are notated as a group of notes stacked together.
Another way of notating chords is with a chord symbol. Chord symbols may look like:
C, F#m, Gmaj7, E9, Badd9, or even Db7b9#11b13
A chord symbol describes the notes that make up a chord without specifically telling you what notes to play.
Chord symbols are written above the top staff of the written music.
A chord symbol has two basic parts to it — the chord’s root note followed by the chord quality. The root note is the main note on which the chord is built. The quality indicates the type of chord (i.e. major, minor, dominant, diminished, etc.).
With time, experience and study musicians (especially bassists) should know what notes are in various chords and what chord symbols are used to identify them. (Again, this lesson doesn’t cover that topic. Refer to the bass chord patterns section of the site.)
Why Would a Bassist Need Chord Symbols?!
Even though bassists don’t typically play a lot of chords by themselves on bass, bassists are still very involved in forming the sound of the chord along with the whole band or ensemble. As a bassist, when you play with a group of musicians you are playing one of those “3 or more different notes” that forms the chord being played by the whole band.
In many situations bassists are not told what specific notes to play, but only what the chords of a song are. In this common situation the bassist is expected to play notes that support and complement the sound of each chord as it passes by.
So, bassists often read chord symbols in written music and make up or improvise a bassline that matches the chords of the song instead of playing a specific, written out bassline.
The Location of Chord Symbols
Chords change at specific times through the course of a song. Most commonly chords change on beat 1 of each bar of music. Chords can, however, change at any time within a measure (bar).
Chord symbols are written directly above the beat or rhythm where they change in the music. Again, this can happen anywhere and depends on what is called for in the song.
Bars Without Chord Symbols
Sometimes you’ll be reading chord symbols and suddenly a bar (or several of them) has no chord symbol. This doesn’t mean there is no chord to be played. It means you’re to continue playing the same chord as indicated in the previous measure.
Slashes and Rhythms Under Chord Symbols
As mentioned earlier, bassists are often expected to invent their own bassline based on the chord symbols. Basically you are expected to do this any time you don’t see a specific bassline to play in the written music or rests marked on the bass clef.
Commonly you will see a bass clef staff with chord symbols written above and slashes marking the beats of each bar. These are not rests. The slashes mean “make something up based on the chords and the style of music.” When we accompany (or complement) other musicians it is called "comping" and so you might call these slashes "comping slashes".
Other times you may see a combination of written notes and slashes. This would mean improvise except for these key parts where you need to play these specific notes and rhythms.
Another written form you may see is what is called a lead sheet. A lead sheet is song written in shorthand. It includes the essential parts of a song – the melody (usually written in treble clef), the lyrics, and the chords (a.k.a. the harmony). Everything else is left up to the performers to improvise based on the melody and chord changes.
Lead sheets are the common notation used in fakebooks. A fakebook is a book of songs in lead sheet notation where the performer is to “fake” his or her way through a song only using the melody and chords as a guide. Knowing what to play comes from experience, knowledge of specific styles, and really knowing your chords, scales and rhythm.
Occasionally you’ll see the chord symbol N.C. The symbol N.C. means “No Chord.” That means there is no specific group of notes being played at the same time.
I think N.C. is often used inappropriately. Many times a riff to a song is based on the notes of a chord or harmony, but the notes of the chord aren’t played simultaneously. A lot of times this is marked with N.C. While it’s true an actual chord is not being played, a harmony is still present and being implied by the notes of the riff. In this case I’d always indicate the chord symbol for the chord implied by the riff when writing the music. “N.C.” doesn’t really aid to understanding the harmonic content of the song.
Lyrics, Chord Symbols and No Written Music
Yet another situation in which you’ll encounter chord symbols is on lyric sheets. Lyric sheets are a very common form of notation found on the internet. All they include are the song’s lyrics and the chord symbols separated into the various sections of the song (i.e. verse 1, bridge, chorus, etc.). The chord symbol is written directly above the lyric where the chord change occurs.
Lyric sheets are hard to read because they lack any rhythmic information. Instead, you have to be familiar with the song enough to follow the lyrics and know when to change chords at the correct time.
As a bassist you’re going to read a lot of chord symbols. Make sure you understand what all the chord symbols represent and when the chords change.
When you read music containing both chord symbols and a written bassline, study how the two fit together. Analyze the notes of each chord in relation to the notes in the bassline. The more you do this, the more you’ll understand what you can play when you’re only given a chord symbol and expected to “fake” your way through the music.