A slash chord like B♭/C is read as "B♭ over C". The first thing that comes to mind is "B♭" and then "C". That makes sense for inversions, like C/E or Cm/G, because the structure of interest is indeed the C or Cm in this case, dictating the harmony. However it seems to me that it should be the opposite when dealing with more complex slash chords. B♭/C is not some kind of "B♭" chord, but it's heard as some kind of "C" chord. When we play this structure (a bass note with a major triad one whole step down on top) we are looking for a particular sonority, in this case a kind of suspended dominant sound. My point is that it makes more sense to read and think as "C with B♭ on top" (maybe there is something more elegant, since english is not my native language) because the root is the first thing that should come to mind. This makes it easier to learn the sounds and theory of these structures as unique entities (for example: if you want this specific sound of suspended dominant chord, you stack a major triad a whole step down on top of your root; if you want a specific lydian sound, stack a minor triad one half step down on top of your root, ...). Do you see any drawbacks to the use of this reasoning?

4 Answers 4


English is my first language, and I can't think of any better way to put it than you already have! The way you've described these more complex slash chords is exactly how I think of them. When I see B♭/C, I think C7sus. When I see Bmin/C, I think Cmaj#11. Thinking about it from an educational / pedagogical perspective, when working with a new student, it probably makes most sense to teach these chords initially as C7sus and Cmaj#11, for the very reasons you mention. Then when teaching the particular voicings, one could point out to the student that he/she can achieve the desired harmony simply by playing a major triad a whole step below the root, etc. In charts, I would initially expose new students only to the true harmony (C7sus, etc.) and not the triad shortcuts for voicing those chords. Then when those students encounter a song with something like B♭/C, they will recognize it as a particular way to voice C7sus.

In short, I can only think of advantages to the approach you've described! Before studying harmonies more thoroughly, I remember encountering slash chords like G♭/A and wondering what the true harmony was. It felt like I hadn't been given enough information, and I was very restricted in my soloing because I didn't recognize the true harmony and the chord chart didn't state it. Your approach would remove this sort of uncertainty.

  • Nice, that's exactly my idea. I would go further and after some time have the slash chords as new tools and not just originated from the full chords. This give rise to (at least) a table of 12 major triads over a bass note and another for 12 minor triads. So, if someones thinks "I want a diminished sound" he or she can think "dim7M(9,11,♭13)" or one specific shortcut "a major triad a half step down on top of my root" Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:23
  • That's a fascinating idea. You could almost build an entire program of learning harmony through these triads/slash chords.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:26
  • I thought in jazz C Bb D F is typically thought of as C11?
    – Andy
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 8:06
  • @Andy, if there's no 3rd (no E) then it's usually a sus chord rather than C11.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 12:00
  • In a lot of charts I've seen they just use C11 since nothing ever calls for playing a natural 11 with a major 3rd. My understanding was that maj11 and m11 imply a major/minor 3rd respectively but just 11 doesn't
    – Andy
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 18:43

The topmost chord symbol (e.g. Bb in Bb/C, or Cm in Cm/G) represents at least 2 notes, often 3 or more. It doesn't represent just one note, so I don't like thinking of Bb/C as "C with Bb on top" (IMO, this wording comes dangerously close to thinking of both of those as note names whenever the chord symbol is also a note name, simply because it's unfamiliar and I don't think I'm the only one who defaults to assuming that things are note names in unfamiliar contexts).

I tend to think of slash chords as "Topmost Chord in right hand, put bottom note in left hand". I am too lazy to analyze the music theory behind a new lead sheet, especially if I need to sight read it now--I just want to play the music, and I don't want to reanalyze the chords to fit what some of the other answerers hear (at least, not now).

  • 1
    When he says "C with Bb on top," he's implying "C with Bb (chord) on top." At least, given the context, this is definitely how I would read it (and how I would say it myself).
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 14:56
  • 1
    This is the same as what's implied in the first sentence of the Allan's post: "A slash chord like B♭/C is read as 'B♭ over C'. The first thing that comes to mind is 'B♭' and then 'C'." He's implying "B♭ (chord) over C" throughout the post, which is consistent with how people talk about these chords.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 15:14

I tend to think the same. Bb/C contains Bb D F and C. So could be construed as Bb add 9 or Bb add 2. Or C9 sus 4. Even C11. When I see it written as a slash chord, it makes me think is there a better way to write it, but there probably isn't. It makes sense physically - Bb triad, but bass note is a tone higher, although musically maybe it belongs more with C than Bb - it may depend on whether the slash is a passing note, or part of a series of block chords, as in 'Midnight at the Oasis'.

  • Your last two examples were examples of situations where the bass note doesn't function as the root, is that correct? Do you refer to the first chords of the song? Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:53

The logic behind the convention of having the lowest note under/behind the slash is quite durable. For a start, it is consistent with the way things are expressed mathematically and with our conception of high and low pitch. C/D or 'C over D' suggests over and under, high and low.

It is true that we must start with some assumptions: pianists have to learn that higher notes lie to the right, or 'up' the keyboard, and players of stringed instruments need to learn that 'up the neck' means towards the body of the instrument. It is true that quite a few of my students are initially confused about left and right, high and low on the instrument and high and low pitch, but once they get over this bump they can operate in a high-low, up-down musical world (flautists are a special case, but that's the way they like to be treated). The connection between left, low on the instrument and low pitch is strengthened (at least in english) by the fact that they all start with the letter 'l'.

Yes, there are inconsistencies. We notate the accidental before the note, yet name it C sharp or D flat, but by turning the slash chord convention on its head, as it were, we would be adding another inconsistency.

  • The way of thinking about slash chords that I describe still keeps the written convention low=down (I don't think C/B♭ should describe a B♭ chord on top of a bass note C, it's always a C chord on top of a B♭ note), but the order we read and think about it would be inverted. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 2:33

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