Is it correct to say that a chord symbol in all cases is just a guide on what notes you can play?

In other words, a C major chord is C E G, but when I see C written on the sheet music, I am free to play it in any rhythm I please, with any combination of C, E or G (CE together, then EG together, or C then E right after, then CEG after that, or perhaps as an arpeggio, etc.)? Total freedom? What about playing only C in the bass without E or G appearing at all? Can I still say/claim that I am playing a C major chord just with that one note in the bass C? Or is it more accurate to say that I am not playing C major at all - I am just playing C? Or am I playing C while implying that it is C major in the context of the song? But if there is no E or G in the bass, how exactly am I implying it? I suppose with the melody?

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    You forgot to say which genre of music you are referring. It can, and do, vary. In some context, it can indicate that you should play exactly (from below), C E G. Period. In other contexts it could mean that you should improvise on the C ionian scale. Most often though, it simply says, well, this i C major, do something good from that, select some notes that fit and some rythm that works.
    – ghellquist
    May 31, 2018 at 20:11

4 Answers 4


In classical harmony theory the specific inversion of the chords would be indicated. When that occurs there isn't much freedom to deviate from the composer's (or arranger's) choice. This is indicated in some comments by the slash notation (modern notation).

To be clear there are many ways to harmonize the same melody even in classical harmony theory. There are some basic rules of thumb to follow but many choices. If two or more musicians are given the same melody to harmonize they will not make the same choices.

Adding to that are the following facts: (1) that modern chord charts are really like cliff notes for musicians and are frequently incomplete and even incorrect relative to the original arrangement, and (2) that chord substitutions can be used to change the character of a tune. One of the more common substitutes is I(6) = vi(-7), these are actually identical so the substitution is not a stretch! But many people will replace a I with it's relative minor. Another is the tritone substitute (common in Jazz) which turns a cycle of 4ths (or 5ths) into a chromatic progression.

So if your goal is to provide support to vocals or a soloist you are absolutely free to deviate in a way that still respects the key and basic changes. If you deviate too far a soloist may lose track of where they are but a good player isn't going to just follow chord tones anyway. A very good player would be able to hear your choices and adjust by ear.

If you are learning a tune with a group and everyone in planning to play a rehearsed version there is no danger of clashing. If you are backing up someone at a gig (last minute sub situation) and you're given charts sticking to the chart is probably a better idea.

Picking inversions of the written chords is not as jarring as adding substitutes and most guitarists and pianists know how to play with close harmony to create a smooth sound, rather that just banging on root inversion bar chords. You have a lot of freedom to choose.


In other words, a C major chord is C E G, but when I see C written on the sheet music, I am free to play it in any rhythm I please, with any combination of C, E or G (CE together, then EG together, or C then E right after, then CEG after that, or perhaps as an arpeggio, etc.)? Total freedom?

No, not in all cases. First off, if you see C for the chord symbol, then that means a C major chord in root position, which means the lowest sounding note has to be a C. If the lowest note were meant to be an E or G, it would have said C/E or C/G, respectively.

Second, just because chord symbols are used doesn't mean a rhythm is not specified. Two ways to do that are to refer to an earlier rhythm figure or to write rhythm slashes. Often, a rhythm is not specified, so yes it is up to the player to determine the rhythm, although "total" freedom is technically possible, but most rhythms will change the sound of the piece and might displease many listeners and/or other musicians in the ensemble.

What about playing only C in the bass without E or G appearing at all? Can I still say/claim that I am playing a C major chord just with that one note in the bass C? Or is it more accurate to say that I am not playing C major at all - I am just playing C?

That's not a chord. By itself, just a C does imply some kind of C tonality (usually - it can depend on the notes before and after the C), but all by itself it can't imply a major or minor flavor. If you add an E, then you have the major flavor and a much stronger implication of a C major chord, although it could be an A minor chord with the A missing or an F major 7th chord with the F and the A missing, etc. Those more remote possibilities are unlikely to be "heard" by listeners unless very specific notes come before and after the C and E.

If the chord symbol is C, then the intention is for you to play a C, E, and G, with C as the lowest note. You can play around with the rhythm and you can arpeggiate it, but those are both things that generally have to fit with the piece, unless you're trying to challenge the original sound of the piece.

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    A good answer; +1 for pointing out that anything does not always go. Interpreting The Girl from Ipanema with a four-on-the-floor rhythm is probably not going to fly.... Then again, we did have Hooked on Classics.
    – user39614
    May 31, 2018 at 8:17
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    The supposition that an inversion of a chord is always shown by a slash, and that 'C' always means root position isn't what I find in my journey through music. Yes, slash chords define which inversion is expected, but just seeing 'C' doesn't pre-suppose that it must be root.
    – Tim
    May 31, 2018 at 9:54
  • @Tim We might be reading and playing different genres. The music I read that has chord symbols and score (e.g., musical theatre, holiday songbooks, etc.) seems to always be consistent regarding the lowest sounding note and the chord symbol. When there's a walking bassline, there will be a new chord symbol with a slash for every bass note. May 31, 2018 at 14:47
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    Yes, it's apparent we are. Your statement may be for what you read and play, but it comes across as a generalisation, which it seems isn't so! And a different slash for each bass note? Seems way over the top, but of course leaves no room for doubt. Or own interpretation...
    – Tim
    May 31, 2018 at 15:22
  • @DavidBowling - thanks for the reminder of Hooked on Classics. Must dig out my copy. If you liked that, Isao Tomita may appeal with Debussy interpretations.
    – Tim
    May 31, 2018 at 15:24
  1. Yes, precisely. You can play in any rhythm or order or combinations you want, it's up to you. In the case you play only C, you can't say it's a chord, because a chord consists of 3 or more notes, so it would be just a C. But if you play this in the context of a C major chord, consciously omitting E and G, and it sounds cool, then do it, no problem.
  2. Same thing as number 1. If you play one note alone, it's not a chord, no one could know the harmony based on this. But again, if the harmony is C major, you can choose to play just an E or G if you like (maybe in a very calm part of the song...), instead of the whole C major chord.
  3. In this case I think there is not a single answer, you should analyze each case. Sometimes the melody goes off the harmony for a while, but you don't feel like the harmony changed. For example, left hand plays C chord, and right hand plays a melody: C D E. The harmony feels like C, and the D is just a transition note. No one would say the harmony is Cadd9. If instead the melody is B B B B, it feels more like a Cmaj7. About chords in the "melody", I think you should just identify which notes stand out, no fixed rules. Though very commonly it's the top note.
  4. Yes. Same as item 1 ans 2. Looking at one note, you can't know the harmony, just guess.
  5. If you play by the score, the chords are meaningless, I don't think they help at all. Probably they are intended to some who wants to do another arrangement, or do some variations, or maybe play along, so that he knows better what notes he could use. But as we said before, in the first line, just listening to a bass in A, you couldn't know the harmony for sure. Actually, there is no defined harmony at this point, based just on the score. In the second and third lines, new notes appear, so you can start to feel a harmony. In the first bar of the second line, for example, I think Am7 would be more appropriate than Am. That G in the right hand appears 2 times, and for me it is strong enough to incorporate the harmony and change the feel of this bar. On the next page, the right hand plays D G C, together with the bass in A, and this is a Am7(11) chord. You can hear all the notes as a whole, part of the same thing.

It is very important to say that harmony has nothing to do with left or right hands. It is a very abstract concept, that depends entirely on how you listen to something, and how you feel about it. Several times, there is no way to clearly separate harmony from melody, and there are no precise rules. So I think you should just listen to something and think of what chord would represent it best, what fills the whole sound and what stands out as a melody without thinking about hands or rules.


Think about it in terms of melody and harmony. A song can have many different types of harmonies (aka chords) and still sound good so nothing is set in stone. The only thing that is set in stone is the melody, as that is the song's fingerprint and cannot be changed.

As far as harmony though, you can improvise or be as creative as you want. When you harmonize a melody, you could just use one other note. And it's still considered harmonizing.

Some people consider a true chord to be a triad (3 different notes played together or arpeggiated). But don't think of it in terms of chords, just think in terms of harmony. And if your suggested harmony (aka chord) is a "C major" chord then you could potentially use all three notes or any one of those notes, or any combination of those to harmonize your melody. They'd all be correct. If you're only playing a diad (two notes) it might not be considered a C major chord, rather a subset of a C chord, but that's ok, since you're just harmonizing a melody. Sometimes a subset of a chord sounds better than a full chord.

So yes, take the chord that is written as a suggestion or a guide. you can play it as a triad, you could play it a four-note chord (a seventh), or play a subset of that chord, or even replace it with another chord (if another one sounds better), there's alot of possibilities with harmony.

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    This doesn't ring true. In my jazz playing, the harmonies (chords) need to remain the same for the song being played. It's far more common to change the melody (improvisation) than it is to keep the melody and change the harmony. Although, to be fair, this can and does happen, albeit infrequently. And by changing either, it's not actually the same song as original - which is born with both melody and harmony.
    – Tim
    May 31, 2018 at 9:50
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    The above answer is absolutely correct both from the perspective of classical harmony theory and Jazz theory. The chords in jazz tunes can absolutely be altered by substitution or poly-chord theory. In fact changing the chords to something new can add great depth to a tune and reveal new directions in improvisation. The head (melody) is the heart and soul of a song and the supporting notes can be varied as long as certain basic rules are respected.
    – user50691
    May 31, 2018 at 12:24

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