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Hello. I am trying to write some chords using tonicizations by inverting tritones and using chromatic descending lines in the soprano. I am looking for some help with chord labels and enharmonic spelling. The 1st two bars are easy enough as V is being tonicized. The second two bars are tricky because of that "diminished 3rd" chord. It really is just inverting the augmented 4th into a dimished 5th and resolving inwards instead of outwards. What chord is this actually and have I spelt it correctly?

Then bars 5 and 6 are easier but then again bar 7 and 8 I have used some dimished 7th chords and not sure if I have spelt them correctly.

  • 1
    In my opinion, by the time you deform a chord so much that it is enharmonically identical to a totally different, much simpler chord, you should simply own up to it and notate the simpler chord (i.e. D major). Commented Apr 7 at 17:09
  • Hi Killian. D7 doesn't resolve like that though does it. I agree that in the first two bars that is a D7 (a V42 of V) because it resolves to an expected G in first inversion. However, this is not what happens in bar 3 - 4. I saw this chord as an inverted augmented 6th chord. Is it that they are enharmonically equivalent that you think D major is the best choice?
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 7:29
  • But D major does resolve like that in modern music. Jazz musicians call this "tritone substitution", and every performer would recognize it immediately. Commented Apr 8 at 8:16
  • Killian, it may be recognizable but it is "slang". just as you would recognize a slang term in english doesnt make saying something correctly wrong does it? At least tell me why my notation is wrong. There are other intervals in my chord that tell you how the music gets from C major to Db major. Surely the discrepancy might just be a jazz notation thing and my interpretation a "gramatically correct" version? When you say every performer do you mean "jazz performer"?
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 8:31
  • @armani but "slang" eventually becomes current idiom. For many musicians, jazz theory is grammatically correct, and for some of them the classical spelling of an augmented sixth chord would require more time and effort to understand. Purely classical performers do not generally cultivate the skill of reading chord symbols. In that context, voice leading is typically more important than chord identification, and E to E-double-flat is weird and misleading. So is the diminished third with C; you'd want to spell the C as B sharp or D double flat. Which of course you don't.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 8 at 9:28

4 Answers 4


In terms of classical theory, the third measure has a D7 chord, V/V, being enharmonically reinterpreted as an E♭♭ augmented sixth chord, which allows it to serve as a pivot to D♭. Enharmonic reinterpretation of this sort is not uncommon in the nineteenth century; it is sometimes shown to the reader with parenthetical notes.

(These are often smaller stemless solid noteheads to make it clear that they don't account for any time but are merely clarifying the function of the note they accompany. Unfortunately I cannot remember nor find any of the pieces I'm familiar with that use this technique, but this example does show that putting parentheses around an otherwise extra chord written with full-sized stemmed notes is indeed confusing: http://musictheory.pugetsound.edu/mt21c/EnharmonicModulationIntroduction.html)

The spelling given in the question is correct for the augmented sixth chord, but there are awkward intervals in both the inner voices from the preceding chord -- at least they are spelled awkwardly. To spell this according to classical theory, therefore, at least of the 19th century, you would probably want to write the chord as a D7 chord, following this in parentheses with the stemless E♭♭ augmented sixth chord.

Another option would be to spell measure 4 as a C♯ major chord, in which case you would add a parenthetical B♯ at the end of the left hand so as to spell the chord as a D(♮) augmented sixth.

But really, in the 20th and 21st century context, there's not a whole lot of reason to do this. It's more likely to increase confusion than to reduce it, compared with just spelling it as D7.

  • Thank you. I think this website does a good job of answering the queston and is the only real solution to my problem. I disagree with simply spelling it as a D7 chord because while it is a shortcut to make the chord easier to read, it is musically incorrect and since performance is not my key issue here (I am learning to compose music) I like to see intervals resolve correctly. Maybe in the future if I have to give a sight reader a notation of the piece I will adjust it but for now, I would think it tragic to write a D42 chord. Thank you for this reply.
    – armani
    Commented Apr 9 at 9:16
  • @armani the 19th century pieces I stumbled on in my research for this answer spelled the interval as an augmented sixth. The complication here, of course, is the enharmonic reinterpretation of the C (which starts its life as the root of a C major chord) as a B sharp. There isn't a great solution to that but even after reflecting for a while I think that a parenthetical B sharp is the best solution. Another option would be to tie the C to a B sharp, but that is probably more confusing because the reader is left to wonder whether the composer thought of it as a tie or a slur.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 11 at 19:33

There are some general principles for enharmonic spelling, such as

  • write in the key of the destination,
  • use raised tones for rising patterns,
  • use lowered tones for falling patterns,

but all of those principles are in the service of readability. While being theoretically correct often corresponds to readability, there are times it actually obscures things — or at least makes reading more difficult.

The only chord I would change in your examples is measure 3, beat 4. I would either just write it as D major, which is easy to read, or keep the Gb on top but write the lower two notes as A and D. You could even consider writing D major and then making the next chord C# major. In a piece that continued past that, you could either stay in C# major or switch to Db major after that whole-note chord.

  • Hi Aaron. Thank you but writing D major would not explain how the intervals behave and resolve. Is this not important when notating a music? I am still learning but it seems to me that D major just doesnt tell me how Db comes to be :(
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 7:58
  • @armani: It might be worth asking yourself what your main aim is here: is it to make it easy to do a technical analysis of the way the harmony works, or to make it easy to perform? Both are valid, but in each case the optimal choices may be different.
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 8 at 9:38
  • psmears Valid point. I see now that the two might be different. But then again any person who reads music should ask themselves the same question. I would assume both are important and actually if one is to try to reduce music for the sake of something having less accidentals and being easier on the eye you might actually find that you have lost something very valuable. I realise that a lot of people who read sheet music don't concern themselves with theory but being too practical is a problem too.
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 9:59
  • @armani although it’s true that D major doesn’t demonstrate the resolution, this is a case where readability is not improved by theoretical correctness. If theory is of primary importance to you, then write the final chord as C# major.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 8 at 15:39
  • @Aaron How does C# help? The fact is that there is a dimished 5th in the outer voices and that resolves to a 3rd, surely any notation would want to show this fact? Or is what you are saying is that it doesn't and people who read music for the sake of performance don't care about this at all? Is that it?
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 17:06

The last chord in measure 3 is a correctly notated Ab7b9b5 with no root, which is a secondary dominant resolving to Db. Maybe you can make the performer's life easier by notating it as D7b9 (D-F#-A-C), which might not be strictly correct, but is much easier to read, and a musician would recognize the pattern anyway.

In measure 7, I see E7b9 with no root, resolving to Am, then D7b9 with no root, resolving to G, all notated correctly.

  • I have a tough time recognizing the last chord of Bar 3 as a secondary dominant. Spelled enharmonically to something more reasonable, I recognize it as a tritone sub. As is, I have traumatic flashbacks of the one time I caught somebody notating music in C flat minor. I say respell that chord.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 7 at 17:42
  • @Dekkadeci Dominant to Db is Ab7. Tritone substitution of Ab7 is Ebb7. Yes, I would prefer to see D7, but I wanted to start with understanding how the OP arrived to what they wrote. Commented Apr 7 at 20:32
  • 1
    @user1079505 My pov is tritone are open season on spelling, especially tritone subs. Is a tritone a diminished fifth or an augmented fourth? Doesn’t matter. Which means the simplest spelling is still legit. Commented Apr 7 at 23:43
  • Thank you. I arrived at this chord/spelling because of the intervals above the bass and the correct resolution of those intervals. The dimished 3rd I wrote is an inversion of the augmented 6th chord which resolves to octaves outward instead of inward. The dimished 7th resolves to a 5th as it should and the dimished 5th in the outer vocies resolves inward to a 3rd as it also should. Please correct me but there is no Ab in this chord so why are we talking about Ab chords. Is it a a jazz thing? Maybe you want to see a correctly resolved 7th.
    – armani
    Commented Apr 8 at 7:50

The double flats are unnecessary. The chord is a G6 passing from the C chord to the ensuing Db chord. The piece seems to be in C with an emphasis on the subdominant harmonies. (I like to call this the flat side but I don't know if this is standard.) Thus I prefer your choice of Db instead of C# even though there is a chromatic ascent.

In measure 7, I would prefer the third beat to have either a German Sixth or a French Sixth. The bass could have Ab, giving a stepwise chromatic descent and the A in the treble clef could get an F# making the chord a German Sixth. The C in that chord could be a D, forming a French Sixth and allowing a tie to the B in the next chord. There's nothing wrong with what you have written; I'm just tossing out ideas.

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