I'm currently working on a website and I would like to find a way to simplify chords by removing the non essential parts (to make it easier for beginners). For example: Am7/C => Am. Removing the bass note is easy but for the rest it's giving me a hard time cause there are too many chord qualities.

First, I know that I have to keep the minor, diminished and augmented notations (cannot do Cm => C; Cdim => C; C+ => C). And I also have to keep suspended notation (cannot do Csus2 => C). But I can remove 7, 9, 11, 13,... So I could do C7sus2 => Csus2.

But what about: CMb5, Cm#5, Cmbb5, Csus4#5,...

How can I do this the right way (if there is a right way)?


  • 1
    Two clarifications: 1) are you looking to do this programmatically or by hand? 2) Are you looking always to produce a three-note chord?
    – Aaron
    Apr 23, 2021 at 17:53
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    I’m not so sure that considering the 7 in a 7th chord “non-essential” will really benefit whatever your target audience is. What’s your target audience? Apr 23, 2021 at 18:13
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    IMO, it might be good to split this to two parts: how would a HUMAN do this in the first place, and then maybe as a separate question, how to model that process into a computer program. :) If you don't understand the process even "manually", how could you make a program that does it automatically? :) Apr 23, 2021 at 18:59
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    My idea was to reduce every chord to their triad. I can't transform Csus2 to C cause it might be a Cm. Same for Aug and dim chords cause the "base" triad is not the same.
    – Edwin ZAP
    Apr 23, 2021 at 22:26
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    The idea, in theory, is a good one. I considered something similar about 50 years ago. Then reasoned that certain pieces (chord wise) were (or weren't) appropriate for students at whatever stage they were. In other words, if there were certain chords, that a student wasn't able to play, then that's next week's target! Watering down certain chords is something that always happens,but I'm not at all sure it's the way forward,and may well be feeding inaccurate information on the way.Plus - context is always important, so calling a chord simpler something will not always be appropriate, or work.
    – Tim
    Apr 24, 2021 at 7:51

1 Answer 1


How can I do this the right way

The right way is to take context into account, and the note reduction decisions are usually somewhat artistic choices. Your program has to be able to look at the song and understand what the essential point is. What does the picture represent?

Context means things like:

  • What key is it in? How does each chord turn the harmonic balance away from the tonic, or back to tonic?
  • What comes before and after each chord? Is there a voice stepping/leading going somewhere. Like Am - Ammaj7 - Am7 - Am6. If you reduce this to Am - Am - Am - Am, you keep the bass, but lose the descending A - G# - G - F# line. A reduction to Am - E - C - D has an aspect of that line, but not the bass.
  • Is there a chord-rhythm pattern, or song form of some kind? If the changes or harmonic turns form e.g. an A-A-B-A structure, you might want to keep that intact. Is it a 12-bar blues? Sometimes, there's a chord change such as C - Csus - C - Csus just to have a chord change, any change as long as there is a change. If you remove such changes in the name of simplification, you throw away the rhythmic events that harmonic changes have. If you have to "simplify" the Csus, then maybe even a Dm would do the job, even though normally you wouldn't consider Dm a substitute for Csus.
  • What does the melody do? If there is a melody. Maybe the melody handles some of the chord tones, so you can leave such a note out somewhere, if it allowes you to use a simpler chord.
  • Are there "out-of-scale" notes in the chords, perhaps doing a modulation or modal interchange? Is your "Gm7" really just a fancy C7 chord? Or is it better to replace it with Gm?
  • If there's a dim7 chord, what is it essentially doing, if you had to explain it in terms of tonic-subdominant-dominant? Is it a jazzy substitution for a dominant chord, or maybe a minor chord? (Try to do this for example with Chaplin's "Smile") Dominant-tonic kind of motion of a different key, like a secondary dominant?

Do you want the generated reduction to (a) be easy to play, or (b) sound right and truthful to the original? What elements of the original song do you want to preserve? Which elements are essential to that song?

I would think that plain and simple C might be a better three-note reduction of Am7/C than your suggested Am. If someone wrote a bass inversion, maybe they did it for a purpose. The lowest note might be important to preserve, particularly if there's a bass motion. If there's a progression like: Am7 - Am7/C - D - E, then Am - C - D - E is a much better reduction than Am - Am - D - E. The original had a steady equal-time-per-chord chord rhythm, but Am - Am - D - E has the same chord stay for two steps! So it's missing a chord change. Different chord rhythm and different bass motion.

If there's Am - Bm7-5 - E - Am, then you have two possible reductions for the Bm7-5 chord: Dm and Bdim. "Bm" would be WRONG because it has an F# note. It is absolutely essential to keep the "-5", which is an F. It would be nice to keep the B bass note too, so Bdim would be better. But maybe it's a strange chord for your "beginners"? In that case, Dm is the only correct choice for an easier reduction. In the key of Am.

To sum this up: to make a good chord simplification/reduction, you need to look at the whole harmonic progression, how it turns. You select the most important harmony-turning notes from each chord and select a "simple" chord which preserves these important notes.

It might be possible to program this as a very large bank of special case rules, if you can figure out the key. If you can create an engine where it's easy to add more refined logic rules, then ... why not. But still, you'd have to add some sort of heuristic factors and fuzzy stuff like "what is the song structure", and write an evaluation function which assigns a "beauty factor" for each candidate reduction choice. :) Might be a fun project for a computer science student?

Algorithm sketch

The algorithm could be something like:

  • "Realize" each chord symbol as notes. From now on you'll be handling chords as note combinations (like note stacks in staff music), not textual symbols.
  • Generate a number of candidate reductions for each chord, with triads or whatever "simple" chords you want to produce.
  • Select the "best" combination of candidates for the song, by evaluating a HowGoodIsThisReduction() function. Either for individual chords, or entire reduced songs.
  • Convert each selected best candidate chord back to a textual chord symbol.

How well this works, depends on the HowGoodIsThisReduction() function. If it only looks at individual chords like HowGoodIsThisReduction(OriginalChord, ReducedChord), then it cannot retain any information about movement and song structure. But if it's like HowGoodIsThisReduction(OriginalSong, ReducedSong), then it might give extra points for keeping song structure, voice leading and harmonic turns intact.

The GenerateCandidateReductionsForChord() function might operate by simply leaving out notes. Or it could take the key of the song into account and suggest E major as a candidate replacement for Am maj7. And then let the evaluator function decide if Am - Am - Am - Am is a better reduction than Am - E - C - D for the chord progression Am - Am maj7 - Am7 - Am6. The choice between these two reduction styles could be user-configurable.

  • 2
    I'd be very impressed if OP got a program up and running that could do all of that, but great answer for humans reducing chord symbols by hand.
    – user45266
    Apr 23, 2021 at 18:36
  • @user45266 I thought that this was an interesting question specifically for the "how would a human do this" aspect. Even then it's far from trivial, not to even think about how an automatic program might approach it. Apr 23, 2021 at 18:38
  • Wholly agreed. A lot more goes into the reduction process for musicians than initially came to mind. It'll be fun to watch technology try to climb that barrier in the years to come, too.
    – user45266
    Apr 23, 2021 at 19:14
  • Thanks a lot. There are indeed a lot of parameters to take into account. My idea is not to do something perfect but something to help beginners.
    – Edwin ZAP
    Apr 23, 2021 at 22:29

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