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I see chord symbols on each bar, and I assume they represent the notes in the bar.

But many times not all the notes are present, and sometimes a bar with only 1 note has a chord symbol.

If they are a vague representation of the notes inside, when only F and Eb notes are present, is it safe to write F7 on top of the bar?

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    I presume you mean a lead sheet?
    – Divizna
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 13:21
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    By the way: all the answers have assumed that you're holding a piece of paper marked with chord symbols (perhaps as well as staff notation). Sometimes I wonder though whether your question is about something else, like writing music or doing a theory exercise. If so, please edit to explain. Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 19:17
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    @AndyBonner Considering there are already four answers here that all understood the question in the same way, perhaps it would be better, if Sean meant something else, to leave this as it is and ask again, more clearly, in a new question.
    – Divizna
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 22:05

5 Answers 5

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Do you mean a lead sheet?

No... the chord symbols are not "vague representation of the notes in the bar". The chords are the harmony that belongs with the tune and it's the composer who gets to decide what it will be.

Most of the time when you see a lead sheet, the chords are meant to be played on an accompanying instrument (such as a guitar).

Generally the chords do align with the tones of the melody (and bass, and any other lines there are), but a note in the melody doesn't determine a chord in itself. There's more to it, such as chord progressions, or the "vibe" the composer is going for.

Also, there's no such rule as a chord needing to stay the same for the whole bar. For instance Let It Be by the Beatles has bars in which a sequence of as many as six chords is played in that one bar.

A bar that contains F and Eb might go with an F7... or it might go with, say, Bbsus4, or with Bbmi followed by Ebmi, or even with Db (and that's it and the Eb doesn't warrant a chord of its own) - or even conversely with Ab (and the F doesn't warrant a chord of its own).

If you're trying to figure out the harmony for a given tune, consider the key, the style, the feeling...

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Chord symbols of the sort we all assume you're asking about first appeared in sheet music published for amateur use in the home, before the invention of audio recording technology. The purpose was to communicate to someone playing a guitar, ukelele, banjo, or indeed any other chord-producing instrument, what chords to play. A pianist would normally be expected to play the specific notes written in the piano part, but of course they can also just read the chord symbols and play the indicated chords however they want.

In time, especially in jazz, where the expectation was in fact that the pianist would ignore the written piano part, it became common to write chords and melody only, a so-called "lead sheet" (that's "lead" rhyming with "feed," not with "fed").

The chord symbol is not primarily an analytical tool but a notational element. Of course, such symbols are among the analytical tools used by theorists, but when they appear in performance materials, their purpose is to communicate to the performer, not to make a statement about the melody.

Consider: you've composed a melody that has a C and an E in one measure. How do you tell the performers that you want them to play an A minor chord instead of a C major chord? You use a chord symbol. Or maybe you have a melody with a C in it and you want the band to play a B-flat major chord. A theorist will tell you that this is in fact a B♭9 chord, because of the C in the melody, but it's not obligatory to indicate the 9 in the chord symbol, especially if you want the the 9th to be heard only in the melody.

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  • To this day I call the band Leed Zeppelin, just to annoy people. [I come from a city called Leeds, so it's doubly irritating, as it sounds like Leeds Eppelin to locals. ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 18:43
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    @Tetsujin I've always wondered what the semantic connection was between "leading" and "lead sheets"; maybe I've been looking in the wrong place all along and it's really a Leeds sheet.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 8:47
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False premise! The chord symbols shown for a particular bar do not, and do not have to, represent the notes found in said bar. The chord symbol tells which chord can be played during that bar.

Safe to say that most times, there will be at least one note in the melody that can be found in the chord shown, but it's impractical, and unnecessary, for all notes to be present.

There are many concepts used when writing the chord symbols, and 'notes from that chord' is only one. Yes, you may safely say that if a bar contains just F and E♭ that the accompanying chord will be F7. But - that's not the only chord that could fit in that bar. Fm7 could also work well. Depends also on what precedes and what follows, for starters.

Don't know where the 'theory' came from, but it's not a good one, sorry.

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What do chord symbols have to do with melody?

Chord Symbols and Melody share a Common Cause

I see chord symbols on each bar, and I assume they represent the notes in the bar [...] If [chord symbols] are a vague representation of the notes inside, [...]

Ah, so let me challenge that: the chord symbols aren't actually trying to match the melody. Rather, the chord symbols describe the entire harmony, and the melody is kind of its own separate thing that usually happens to be mostly contained by the chord symbol. Let me explain that a little better.

It's not a One-to-One Relationship, Either

Music is subjective, so there aren't any "right answers" here for what chord goes with what melody. That doesn't mean that there's no pattern, but it does mean that the patterns are associations and not rules. If you take a melody out of context, you can't determine exactly what the corresponding chord symbol would be. You can try to predict it, and the musical context of the piece helps tremendously with that, but there are many ways to harmonize a melody (or write a melody for a given harmony).

Is a melody sufficient to prescribe a chord symbol?

Two Notes is Not Enough*

when only F and Eb notes are present, is it safe to write F7 on top of the bar?

Nope. Although F7 may be a common option, there are a lot of chords that could have an F and Eb played over them. As a creative exercise, lets try to imagine those two notes on top of all 12 bass notes:

  • C - With C as the bass, we have the minor 3rd and perfect 4th, so Cm11 and related chords come to mind.
  • Db - Now Eb and F are our major 2nd and major 3rd, so Dbmaj9, Db9, Dbadd2, and any other valid configurations.
  • D - Eb is our minor 2nd which in common popular music scenarios appears with dominant chords, and F is the minor 3rd, so let's call these the flat 9th and sharp ninth and make some D altered sounds (D7b9#9, others).
  • Eb - Any Eb chord that has the 9th or 2nd.
  • E - This one's tough. Exercise for the reader!
  • F - Any F seventh chord will work, either dominant or minor.
  • Gb - Eb is the major 6th, F is the major 7th, so Gb major- or lydian-type chords work.
  • G - Minor 6th, minor 7th, so aeolian chords fit.
  • Ab - P5 and M6, so Ab6 is the easiest one to call out.
  • A - d5 and m6, so A altered sounds like A7b5b13.
  • Bb - P4, P5 means any suspended sound like Bbsus and its extensions, or minor 11th chords.
  • B - M3, A4 suggests lydian or B7b5.

*We only used 2 notes here, but a creative reharmonizer could do this with a melody of pretty much any number of notes.

The Above List was a Tiny Subset of the Possibilities

Keep in mind here that I only listed one option for each bass note, and this is assuming that the melody has to be part of the chord, which is absolutely not the case in real life. Did I mention this assumes both notes are within the same chord? That's a big assumption. And this is just in a context of mostly popular music usage, so there are practically infinitely many ways that the Eb and F could be harmonized.

What are some practical takeaways for more causal-setting music notation?

Since that Wasn't Righttm, here's what Chord Symbols Actually Mean

Chord symbols come from the harmony of a piece/song. For popular music, that harmony usually has an instrument playing a chord, or a bunch of notes that make one harmonic sound together - think guitar strumming, piano playing, or synthesizers of any sort. The chord symbol comes from whatever that instrument or group of instruments is playing, and they get written down to inform a musician of what chords to play to accompany the song's melody.

The melody is written down as what a musician should play or sing to carry the main theme of the piece. This could be a different musician than the one who might be reading the chord symbols! The songwriter or composer is the one who wrote that melody. As mentioned earlier, there's a lot of unique melodies to go with a given harmony and vice versa. Some writers write the melody first and some write the harmony first, either is possible.

Sheet Music and Chord Symbols are Related, but Designed for Separate People

Chord symbols represent chord changes/progressions for instrumentalists playing a supporting harmonic role in the song, like a rhythm guitarist, a keyboard player, a pianist, or even a bassist. They only tell you what chord to play, and not what exact notes or rhythms to use.

Melodies are usually for a solo or lead instrumentalist, like a singer, trumpet, violin, lead guitarist, etc. Typically melodies are written down more precisely, but there's still some room for improvisation or differences in interpretation.

When you have forms of music notation designed for both roles to read in a jam-type setting (meaning the notation is just reminders or guides for players), you get lead sheets (chord symbols written over just a melody), or even just lyrics written down with chord changes above the words. It's a good thing these have differing levels of complexity, since trying to match a chord symbol to every note of a melody would be pointlessly confusing and trying to spell out every single note of a chordal accompaniment is almost always needlessly complicated!

Main Takeaway:

Chord symbols are separate from melodies, so don't worry if they don't exactly match all the time. The point is to make things simple while still communicating the essence of the song clearly.

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No. Staff notation (or possibly tab notation) represent the notes in the bar - pitch and rhythm. The chord symbol represents the underlying harmony. The chord shapes that could be strummed along with the melody and give ab acceptable result.

These chords will very likely (but by no means certainly) include the melody notes. And with a melody including F and E♭, an F7 chord is certainly a possibility. But not the only possibility, and not really even a particularly strong possibility.

Sorry - that's your theory pretty comprehensively demolished!

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