I have been trying for at least half a year to find out how people name chords but I never could understand how. Especially when the Internet has people that don't agree. I learnt something about a subject called mathematical music theory that used the chromatic scale to analyse music. Pretty much I was wondering if there is there any different system of naming chords that uses the chromatic scale.

  • Pitch-class sets may be of interest, though I'm not sure if you'd consider them 'names'. – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 28 '16 at 7:01
  • when you say name chords, do you mean things like "Gm6", Dsus2, "Cadd9", "E7#9" etc. ? – Some_Guy Sep 28 '16 at 9:30
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    This is a little too vague to really try to answer at this point. What is it that you don't understand about how chords are named? What difference would you expect in a chromatic scale approach? What are you able to understand about music theory in general? This would allow us a greater context to come up with an answer. – Basstickler Sep 28 '16 at 16:39
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    Questions based on idle speculation are often a poor fit for SE's. If there is some problem that you are trying to solve, or some goal that you are trying to achieve please add those details to this question. – Dave Sep 28 '16 at 17:15
  • Unknown - your question is on hold, but you can edit to try and clarify what it is you are asking here. – Doktor Mayhem Sep 28 '16 at 21:33

I learnt something about a subject called mathematical music theory that used the chromatic scale to analyse music. Pretty much I was wondering if there is there any different system of naming chords that uses the chromatic scale.

topo morto already answered this in a comment but I will add more information, and a bit of editorializing. My go-to reference for atonal "chord" structure is Allen Forte's "The Structure of Atonal Music" from 1973. He was a professor of music theory at Yale and the book is published by Yale University Press.

Forte's main unit of analysis of a group of notes called a "pitch class set." Naming a given chord involves transposing all the member notes into the same octave and giving them numbers 0-11 which correspond to the half-step relationships, and placing these numbers in a set of square braces. A major chord could be notated or named as [0, 4, 7], but there are translations, transpositions, orderings, and other operations to consider as well, which he goes into.

The analysis tools he present have been shown to provide interesting insights into atonal music, but I think that they can also have some application to tonal music, especially where the line blurs between the two approaches and the intervalic content of motifs have correspondences.

In any event, is mathematical (making extensive use of set theory) and pertains to the entire chromatic scale, as you asked.

As for other theories of naming chords, yes there are many, and there are disagreements. Some of the disagreements arise from considering the music from the vantage point of different traditions. AFAIK, in Jazz for example, the more classical approach of John Mehegan (for example) will have points of differences with, say, George Russell's landmark "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization" which will in turn have points of disagreement with the charts and lead sheets that are being passed back and forth by gigging musicians.

I don't think there is a single system that can unify music analysis. Or if there is, it will be very unwieldy, because there are so many different ways people listen, many of which are not conscious and embedded as part of a particular tradition.


I don't understand the downvotes here. To the unitiated, chords are confusing so I can see how it's difficult to ask this question in a real straightforward way if you're really in the dark about it to begin with.

Let's start with some basics:

A major chord is made up of the 1st, 3trd, and 5th degress of the scale it belongs to. For example, a C major chord is made up of C E G. The C major scale is: [C] D [E] F [G] A B (I've put the notes from the chords in brackets).

And, like the article shows, these can be inverted; The 1st (or C) in this case, doesn't need to be the bottom note for it to be called a C major chord.

Now let's talk about a major seven chord. Using the same scale, we'll just add the 7th degree of the C major scale, which is B.

So C major 7 (written as Cmaj7 or other variations) is: C E G B. Again, you can change the order and the chord is named the same. This is still Cmaj7: G B C E.

When you invert a chord, it is generally done for one of two reasons:

  1. To give the chord a different quality: C E G sounds different than E G C even though the notes are the same. In this case, having the E on the bottom puts the harmonics in different relation to one another. In this use case, I would also have the bass play E. This can be called C in first inversion or even just C/E — which is spoken as "C over E" or "C major over E.
  2. I may write in, say, a piano part that I want a C major chord played as E G C (we would call this a "voicing"), but still have the bass play C. Why would I do this? For a variety of reasons. Maybe there's a vocalist singing the lower C and I don't want to double it or maybe I just like the sound of this voicing.

Taking it further

If you just take the major scale as a starting point, you end up with seven scales, one based off of each degree of the C major scale:

C D E F G A B: C major link

D E F G A B C: D dorian link

E F G A B C D: E phrygian link

F G A B C D E: F lydian link

G A B C D E D: G mixolydian (what a dominant chord is based off of) link

A B C D E F G: A aeolian link

B C D E F G A: B locrian link

As for the chord names, if you take each of these scales, with their sevent degree, then the names are:

C E G B: C major 7

D F A C: D minor 7

E G B D: E minor 7

F A C E: F major 7

G B D F: G dominant 7

A C E G: A minor 7

B D F A: B minor 7, flat 5 (You may hear some people call this B half-diminished. It means the exact same thing.)

Now, remember that thing I mentioned about being able to invert the notes in a chord? Check this out:


This can be thought of as C6 (it's the C major chord plus the sixth degree of the C major scale OR it can be A minor 7 in first inversion (I could write it as Am7/C (spoken as "A minor 7 over C"). They're the same notes, but called two different names because of context. Though it's largely subjective, musically, it might not make much "sense" to write C6 if what came before or will come after the chord doesn't give the C6 the proper context. Here's an example, based off a very common progression, 1 6 2 5 or I vi ii V if you want to use roman numerals:

C Am7 Dm G7

I could have written this:

C C6/A Dm G7, but the C6/A doesn't make much sense in terms of the musical context. Sure they're the same notes, but the idea is that I'm moving from the first degree of the scale (C) to the sixth (A), to the second (D) to the fifth (G).

Finally, you mentioned people not being able to agree on the names of chords. This is largely because depending on someone's training and the context in which they're talking about the chords, they may actually be named differently. Also, some people might just be misinformed. For example, if you ever called C E G "C minor" you'd just be incorrect. However, if you called C E G A "C six" or "A minor 7 over C", both could be "correct".

Remember, a lot of music is subjective, even when it comes to music theory. Let your ear guide you, don't be afraid to be wrong, and ask musicians you respect for advice and why they chose the chord they chose, regardless of the name.

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    You didn't address the question at all of is there any different system of naming chords that uses the chromatic scale.. – Dom Sep 28 '16 at 14:26
  • The first sentence is "I have been trying for at least half a year to find out how people name chords but I never could understand how.". This is a pretty detailed entry point into "how" people name chords. If the OP understands all of this, then great. But if not, in my opinion it's a better starting point than understanding chords based on the chromatic scale. – tptcat Sep 28 '16 at 14:32
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    But again, that's not the question being asked. Also I'd argue you're throwing too many concepts together to actually have this make any sense to a beginner and several of your explanations are wrong or unexplained for example you completely leave a reader in the dark on why something is a Major 7th and don't explain what makes a chord minor. – Dom Sep 28 '16 at 14:35
  • We'll agree to disagree as to the value of my comment. Thanks for the feedback. – tptcat Sep 28 '16 at 14:38

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