I have recently become confused about how to name chords in jazz.

This is my current understanding:

  1. Add chords (without 7th)- chord that contains the root, third, (optional 5th) and one or more extensions (eg- CM add 9).

  2. Add chords with 7th- contains root, third, (optional fifth), 7th, and one or more extensions (which are not consecutive- eg CM7 [add] 11)

  3. fully extended chord- root, third,(optional fifth), seventh and then one or more consecutive extensions (G11)

  4. Sus chords- 2nd or 4th with 5th but no 3.

  5. the 6th becomes the 13th whenever the 7th is in the chord (whether the 6th is actually at a lower pitch than the 7th or not).

  6. If the chord contains no 3 but does contain a 7th- the 6th becomes a 13th, but the 2nd and 4th will be sus2 and sus 4 respectively (eg A7 sus4 flat 9).

  7. If one of the extensions is altered, it is specified, even if it is a consecutive extension (G11 [add] flat 13).

What if:

a chord contains a root and a couple of upper extensions, but no 3rd, 5th or 7th? Eg (C, D, F) Is this a 'C11 sound'?

a chord contains no 3, but a root, 7th, 9th and 11th? (is this going to be C7 sus2 sus4? Or will it be called a (more complete) 'C11 sound'?

*Do you need a 5th for it to be sus? And if you have both the 2nd and 4th, do they immediately become upper numbers, regardless of the other notes in the chord ?

When learning about slash chords, I have seen certain (incomplete) chords referred to as 'sounds'. E/G I have seen referred to as a G13flat9 'sound'- but surely the presence of the third and the lack of 7th would mean this is simply a G-6 (add) flat9?

If i have: root, flat 5, flat6 (no 3)- what would this be called?

If I have: root, 5th, 2nd, 4th- (C sus2 sus 4- or CM11 sound?)

Diminished and half diminished:

C half dim with an 11th- C-7flat 5 add 11?

C half dim with a 9th- C-9 flat 5?

C dim triad with a flat 13th- Cdim add flat 13? Or Cdim flat 6 (as there is no 7)?

There is a lot to address here, so I understand if each point is not addressed directly. I'd simply be happy and grateful to be linked to any illuminating resources! thanks.


1 Answer 1



A piece that requires chords to be played literally should be written out literally. Chord notation is intended as a convenient shorthand, not as a literal expression.


Chords aren't named based solely on the notes in them, and most improvisers will add or omit notes from a given chord to derive a desired sound.

There are three considerations for naming a chord:

  1. The notes in it;
  2. The context it appears in (i.e., its function);
  3. Convenience.

Example: C-D-F

Taking the example of a chord with a root, second/ninth, and a fourth/eleventh (C-D-F), it might be named:

  1. C[add2][add4][omit3][omit5] - This would be a literally accurate description of the chord. It would describe either the exact notes someone played or the exact notes that should be played.
  2. C9sus4, Cm9sus4, CM9sus4 - These would be context dependent names. Presumably the chord isn't occurring in a vacuum. There is a melody or surrounding chords. So a melody containing some combinations of E or Eb, and/or B or Bb, would suggest which of the chord designations best fit. Similarly, say the previous chord is Gm7 and the next chord is F -- that would suggest that the C chord is the V in a ii-V-I progression, and so would be named accordingly.
  3. Calling it C11, Cm11, or CM11 would be likewise determined by behavior the 2/9 and 4/11. Do they act like suspensions, or like consonances?

Example: C-E-A-B

  1. The literal name for this chord could be CM13(omit 5,9,11), or C6(omit 5, add 7), or Esus4/C, or Am(add9)/C, or B7sus4/C. Any of those would result in the exact notes being played, but they're either onerous to read, don't reflect the function of the chord, or a combination of both. And all of them risk the notes being played in an undesirable order: say, C-A-E-B or C-B-A-E.

  2. Context will tell us a great deal about this chord, especially which note is the root and whether the inversion is essential. Functionally, for example, the chord really might be CM13. That's a simple notation, but leaves open to the musicians which notes to include or exclude. It could even be CM7, leaving it up to the musicians to add the 6/13 or not according to taste. Or perhaps the A is in the melody, in which case it need not be in the chord symbol at all, trusting the musicians will hear it and adjust.

To reiterate: If a non-standard chord is to be played literally, write it out.

  • Well thought out answer, +1. EdB123 bottom line is write what you want to hear, try and make it logical, don’t overthink or make it too complicated, i.e. E/G is just that, not some type of G7. Often when chords have no 3rd or 5th it becomes easier to see them as some type of slash chord or inversion. Your C D F can be thought of as Dm7(no 5)/C for example. Aaron’s first 3 points are the main takeaway here. Feb 13, 2021 at 22:00
  • brilliant answer Aaron, thank you. This has made me think about it with more clarity.
    – EdB123
    Feb 13, 2021 at 22:53
  • in the case of the C9sus4 etc examples, if the context contained an E, would that in fact not make the implied chord an 11 chord down to the presence of the third?
    – EdB123
    Feb 13, 2021 at 23:20
  • 1
    Keep in mind 11th chords with a major 3rd are common theoretically but rare in practice because of the dissonant b9 interval created between the 3rd and the 11. Major chords in practice more often use a #11 (Lydian sound) and minor chords a natural 11. Feb 14, 2021 at 0:37
  • 2
    @EdB123 chiming in on sus4 chords, many jazz players will omit the 5th from them and even add 9 and 13 even if the chord symbol is simply 7sus4. For example a C7sus4 will often be played by jazz players as low to high C Bb D F A, R,b7,9,4,13, or Bbmaj7/C. All chord changes are subject to interpretation. Even a chord change played literally will be voiced differently by different people and you can expect that some will take liberties removing notes or adding tensions. Like Aaron said, if you want something very specific, write it out on staff paper! Feb 14, 2021 at 19:55

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