When I see classical sheet music I don't see the chords named, were chords not used back then? And if they were, do the notes that are under a bass clef generally outline the shapes of chords?

I only see chords when I look up a classical song on YouTube and type "harmonic analysis" along with it, for example Harmonic Analysis: Beethoven Moonlight Sonata

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    See figured bass en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figured_bass
    – Dom
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 16:24
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    Of course chords were used, but in the Baroque era there was no use of "chord names" in the modern sense because they hadn't been invented yet! In the classical era chords were used in many ways that can't be represented easily by modern chord symbols. Composers just wrote the all notes that were to be played - too simple, huh???
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 17:10
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    @foreyez well, you wouldn't find a video that shows the chords of a piece which can't be analyzed in terms of chords, would you? — Seriously, piano solo music tends to be easier to analyse because chords are convenient to play on piano, so in particular the popular favourites are often quite straightforward. Well-arranged orchestral music, but also more difficult keyboard music in particular by Bach, has much more individual-voice movement. It is still usually possible to analyze it with roman numerals, but don't expect to be able to approximate the pieces by just playing those chords. Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 21:46
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    Is this also something to do with the concept of arrangements and improvisation in modern music? Since now with YouTube, etc. by simply notating chords a beginner, advanced, or anyone learning or familiar with an instrument can get and play the gist of a song without having to know in detail the sheet music itself? Not saying that's bad per se since as I mentioned this helps with alternative sometimes on-the-fly arrangements and re-arrangements plus giving wide scope for improvisation no matter the instrument?
    – SaltySub2
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 3:01
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    @CarlWitthoft I think it is a reasonable question for a beginner who may only have seen simple representations of music scores.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 15:56

8 Answers 8


Disclaimer: I omit a bunch of hedging about what I'm referring to when I say "classical music" below; think Bach or Brahms

It sounds like you might be coming from a pop/rock background and are familiar with, say, guitar tabs as a way of notating the structure of a song. Other answers have pointed out that:

  • in classical music, notation is almost always (from Bach to present day) very precise and labeling chords would be superfluous; the performer just plays the notes on the page (hopefully artfully)
  • most music in the classical repertoire can be annotated with (sometimes simple, other times very complex or ambiguous) chord structure. We'd call this harmonic analysis, and it can be a creative process itself (it's something you'd study extensively if you were studying music in college)
  • figured bass was a practice for notating semi-improvised parts, and is similar to guitar tabs in spirit

Harmony and harmonic analysis is a really big subject but there are a couple things we can say about popular music, harmony, and notation that might be helpful:

First, the understanding of what a chord really is and what it does is really pretty different between popular music and classical music (think Brahms, say). Some of this is a little tangential to your question:

  • in classical music chords are understood to be a sequence of stacked thirds starting from some note of the scale in the key we're inhabiting (or an adjacent key, a secondary dominant chord being a simple example). The way the notes of the chord are laid out across instruments or octaves (how the chord is voiced) is usually a secondary concern and doesn't affect fundamentally how we understand what's happening harmonically in a piece of music. (that's not quite true: we do tend to label the inversion of chords, that is the note that's in the bass. The implication here is that, yes, often the fundamental note of the chord is the lowest note)
  • relatedly, classical music is characterized by functional harmony, that is different chords strongly want to proceed on to other certain types of chords (a IV "wants" to go to a V chord, which wants to resolve to the I, etc). This sort of pull underpins the drama and emotional pull of most classical music, and composers rely on the listener to have internalized this sort of musical language
  • in contrast popular music tends to be much more loose about the way chords are expected to behave; e.g. both V - IV - I, and IV - V - I are ubiquitous progressions in pop music, but the former simply wouldn't make sense in a classical piece: it would be as if the air just sort of leaked from a balloon.
  • Relatedly, pop music tends to use a cyclical chord progression that repeats every 4 bars say; in general this progression can be almost anything. In contrast the structure of chords in a classical piece tends to be longer and more irregular, as the composer leads the listener away from tonic and back again, playing with their expectations based on their familiarity with the language of functional harmony
  • Guitarists think of chords in an idiomatic way, that is in a way that is closely tied to the mechanics of the instrument itself: e.g. voicing is of first-class importance, new "chords" arise from needing to allow open strings to ring and it produces a nice effect, etc

Getting back more directly to your question: the way that pop/rock guitarists label chords is in a couple important ways different from the way I would write chords when analyzing a piece by Brahms (say):

Guitarists (and also jazz musicians, where I think a lot of this language comes from) give labels to "chords" which in classical music we don't think of as chords. e.g. "sus" chords like a "C sus4" or whatever; in classical harmonic analysis we don't think of this as a chord; we'd call it a "C major chord" and then talk about a suspension, that is a non-chord tone.

In classical music these suspended notes tend to get resolved; they create tension by being out of place for a moment. The implication is that the listener hears a C major chord, and hears that there's a dissonance. In contrast, in pop music these chords don't need to be passing or resolve, they can just sit there and be an interesting color, effect, or maybe play with the vocal line in an interesting way.

There is a lot of language in classical music for different sorts of non-chord tones, e.g. passing tones, appoggiaturas, etc. If you analyze Bach's 4-part chorales you can see all of these. He'll even use idioms that involve a cascade of suspensions which pass through many chords in complex ways and where at no point can you take a vertical segment and find a pure "unadulterated" chord.

The point I'm trying to emphasize is that a harmonic analysis of a piece of classical music (that is how we'd label it with chords) is often about the tension between what we expect to be hearing as a listener and what notes are being heard, and generally ignore how the chord is voiced or omit some notes that are sounding. Sometimes there are multiple valid interpretations.

I'm sorry this is getting long. Related important concept that should be higher up: counterpoint, the way that multiple melody lines interact to suggest some harmonic structure, i.e. to form chords and do playful things within that chord structure (non-chord tones, above). This is what you see distilled in Bach's chorales say.

Other eras and types of pieces are much less heavy on counterpoint, e.g. a simple Mozart piano piece or a Schubert song accompaniment might have a left hand that strongly outlines the chord structure of the piece, playing arpeggios or the I and V of the chord. It sounds like you're most familiar with that type of writing (and that's what's common in pop music).


In the vast majority of classical music, the player is tasked with playing exactly the notes that the composer wrote. It's not very important for the player to understand the theory behind the piece, and a great number of classical players know little to no theory (at least until they reach conservatory, if they go that route) and don't suffer for it.

Let's consider the well known Mozart piano sonata in C:

Mozart K.545 first 4 measures

And let's consider adding chord symbols to it:

enter image description here

Frankly, these chord symbols add nothing. So what if I know that the first measure is C? I still have to play the notes that Mozart wrote. The only thing they do is distract me.

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    Sure, most classical music is built of fairly ordinary chords. There are plenty of examples of strange chords that are ambiguous (see: Tristan chord), but those exist in pop music too (see: Horse With No Name). And then there's atonal music.
    – MattPutnam
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 18:15
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    @HenningMakholm that's really only when you don't have enough practice in sight reading. Classical musicians have a “dots-only reading mode” where you don't think at all about what notes it is you're playing, you just see the dots and your fingers are already there. More complex stuff is almost impossible to sight-read in any other way. I've occasionally tried making difficult cello parts clearer by writing out chords on top (as I also play in bands a lot, usually not using anything but lead-sheets). But for classical music, it does not help, I always ended up looking more at the dots. Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 21:54
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    @leftaroundabout perhaps just a quirk of how we learned, but my piano teacher always taught me to spot the chords first and I still do it when sight reading stuff, even though I don't play as much anymore.
    – mbrig
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 22:11
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    @foreyez What he was saying is that in classical music as it is originally written, one is supposed to play it as it is written. What you're talking about is re-arrangement and improvisation, for which, then, fair enough, chords can be helpful. But for ABRSM (piano) music training as posters indicate above, it's "read the dots, practice the dots, play the dots". This of course is an oversimplification since for classical piano there are other things you can do in playing (phrasing? force?) but you're AFAIK you have to "hit the notes" exactly as it's written. That's how classical music rolls :)
    – SaltySub2
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 3:07
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    @foreyez For classical music, the grade system enforces a rule that improvisation is forbidden until the student has fully mastered technique (essentially grade 7). Until that point, any variation from the printed notes is punished. Improvisation forms part of grade 8, but most players never reach that point under the classical system, so most classically-trained amateurs cannot improvise; and those that do are advanced enough that they don't need chord symbols. The newly-established grades for jazz and rock do encourage improvisation, but the classical world simply doesn't.
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 12:08

Turn this around and ask "why are chord names, rather than the staff notations of the notes in the chords, so frequently used for written popular music and jazz but not for classical music?"

A typical amateur, around the campfire guitar player, for example, does not read music, but if you ask that person to play a "C chord" he or she knows where to put their fingers. Chord names are the most concise way of communicating the minimum information required.

The professional jazz musician, possibly using a fake book, knows many different ways to play any of the chords indicated by the cord name and how to use that knowledge to improvise on that harmonic structure. To this person the chords given are a suggestion, not something cast in stone.

Classical music is/was addressed to an population of musicians who are able to fluently read musical notation. It is also generally written with the idea that the exact melodic lines, harmony and instrumentation that the composer envisioned will be used. It is not 100% "cast in stone", since all music is interpreted, but the composer had a very detailed concept and requires a more detailed means of communicating it.


Chords were obviously used; one needs to only to look and listen to see and hear that.

But in addition to Matt's great answer, another reason is that such chord labeling doesn't always fit in the music of the past. There are excerpts of Bach's polyphonic music especially that are not at all conducive to such reductive analysis.

Furthermore, a lot of popular music today is chord-based, meaning that it's much more conducive to this type of labeling.

(If there's popular music written today that is as polyphonic as Bach's, I'd be curious to see how they chose to notate it.)

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    I saw alot of harmonic analysis videos on youtube of classical pieces they seem to label the chords just fine...
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 19:05
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    Oh, I believe it. I'm just saying that there's some percentage of that repertoire that is not conducive to plain chord labeling.
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 19:06
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    @foreyez, yes classical music can be analyzed with chords easily enough, but the design of that particular style of music involves many different voices. The melody is often passed around from voice to voice. Analyzing the chordal structure does not take into account the way the different voices in the piece move. If you take out those voices and just play the melody with a chord underneath, the qualities that make classical music classical music will be lost. Classical melodies with chordal accompaniments can be found in some beginner books with "classic themes." They are lifeless.
    – Heather S.
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 2:23
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    "Furthermore, a lot of popular music today is chord-based, meaning that it's much more conducive to this type of labeling." is quite pertinent. Today's music (not to say other periods didn't have it) is particularly favoured towards remixing, adaptation, improvisation, etc where you can play whatever notes you want. That's perhaps why @foreyez may see standard classical period notation and expectations perhaps, "antiquated". I feel your pain foreyez, almost every single piano class as a child LOL. My teacher taught me some Right Here Waiting chords (80's) but said "don't tell anyone!"
    – SaltySub2
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 3:11
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    @foreyez, no I am not talking about modulation. That has to do with key, not voicing. And while some classical music is structured as a "melody accompanied by chords" that is not usually the case. The melody is incorporated into the harmony. You should learn how to do some structural analysis of classical music, not just harmonic analysis. And, btw, when I learned piano I learned all my chords (and scales, too) by the time I was 9. But for pianists who someday hope to do some accompanying and play any classical music, reading all the little dots quickly and correctly is essential.
    – Heather S.
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 11:00

The way to notate chords and inversions in Baroque times was as figured bass. Since that notation is in reference to the bass line and since the harmonic content and the inversions tend to change faster than current-day chord changes and are notated more specifically regarding the intended inversion, interpretation of the half-improvised accompaniment was more suited to keyboard instruments rather than guitars, today's primary target of chord notation.

Figured bass more or less went down with Bach since he tended to spell out everything explicitly rather than relying on the improvisation skills of the keyboard players.

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    Actually, the basso continuo would often be played by plucked instruments like a Theorbo, so I'd think that point is moot. Do you have any source regarding your claim that figured bass stopped with Bach?
    – Turion
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 9:13
  • Haydn's earlier symphonies still had a basso continuo part, as did much of his early chamber music. See this post for more information.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 14:42
  • Bach made heavy use of figured bass. Don't confuse a through-composed keyboard work, which never had figured bass, with a continuo part, which almost always consisted only of a single staff with the bass/cello part. (In earlier times, it contained the notes of whatever the lowest part was that was playing at any given time, which is what led to the name basso continuo: continuous bass, as opposed to the "real" bass part that dropped out from time to time.)
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:26

You've received some great answers already, but I wanted to point out more specifically how only looking at chords cannot sufficiently describe how to perform pieces.

Assuming that "classical" music refers to all music in the common practice period as well as the 20th century, chords don't suffice for describing music entirely. One can find many examples of this in the 20th century. A great example of this is Ligeti's Nouvelles Aventures.

Henry Cowell, in Dynamic Motion, calls for playing chords which use the entire arm of a pianist (around 33 seconds):

As a much more extreme example, what if there aren't any pitches whatsoever? One can also look at Reich's Clapping Music:

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    Although these are certainly examples of music that can't be captured with chord symbols, they're rather overkill, aren't they? Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 19:11
  • Related to @leftaroundabout's comment, I would add that whether this is true depends on what you mean by "sufficient." The chord symbols for "Begin the Beguine" leave out a lot of detail. Is a performance that complies with the symbols but omits the detail "sufficient"? For Begin the Beguine, in most contexts, yes. Why not for the Mozart sonata used as an example elsewhere, at least in some contexts? Why not perform that on the flute with a guitar strumming along?
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:33

I'm surprised no one has mentioned tracker modules and tracker music yet.


These types of programs were used to write the great TV series and classic video game tracks of the 1990's.

If you think the classical composers like Bach and Mozart were verbose in specifying every note (instead of oversimplified chords), tracker modules take this paradigm to a new level. A module defines a set of samples, and then the track itself invokes the samples when they are needed. Each sample could be associated with effects encoded in separate bytes as well, effectively dictating interpretation as well. The only problem was that different tracker module programs used different effect codes, which means that a module written for a specific program might be partially ruined if a different interpreter was used.

The chord paradigm fundamentally limits the composer into a small subset of possible music. From what I'm reading, the 2 main appeals of chord-based approaches are simplicity of composing and wide-open range of interpretation, both of which lend themselves readily to modern performing arts. This probably also accounts for why I've been seeing increasing complaints (from musicians) in various news articles over the years that modern music is becoming too unoriginal. In short, the chord approach has a low skill curve - you can make popular music quickly and easily but the "ceiling" on the music you can produce is rather low compared to classical or tracker-based approaches.

For those of you who say that music that doesn't fit in a chord framework is old-fashioned or excessively specified, I recommend listening to some of the 1990's classics by famous tracker module artists such as Alexander Brandon, Elwood, and Purple Motion. Something you will see a lot with the best of the tracker module artists is how they weave together at least 4 audio channels (percussion, bass, and 2 main instruments) - which arguably draws the line between modern "average" (percussion/bass/1 main instrument or voice) and "really good" composing. Weaving several main instruments or themes together was also done in the classical era (for example: 2-part inventions and 3-part sinfonias).

In the old days where you were limited to 4 audio channels (an artifact of the Commodore Amiga computer era), you couldn't even do a full chord parallel across audio channels because you'd eat 2 or 3 of them and leave no room for much else. Artists had to encode full chords into samples and invoke those. An example of this can be found in the tracker module "Space Debris" by an artist calling himself "Captain". If you watch the instrumentation in the Impulse Tracker version, you can see instruments named Chord1 Major and Chord1 Minor.

I'm curious to see what the classical composers would have come up with if they had access to modern digital audio workbench (DAW) or even tracker module software. I write my own tracker-style music in a modern DAW and it's hard enough composing with the complex 4-channel paradigm above. Writing the same on a character-cell tracker module program is definitely harder, and it takes even more skill to compose it on paper only with no computer.

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    I don't even know how this remotely answers the question. but I won't downvote it since purple motion is a legend and so is the rest of future crew.
    – user34288
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 22:59

Fundamentally, chord symbols can only describe music that one is already familiar with. Try it with a piece of music you have never heard before...... it is not possible to extract anything remotely meaningful or consistent.

  • Can you explain what you mean? I'm not sure I follow; are you saying that I won't understand the chord symbol unless I already know the piece?
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 19:04
  • Mostly, I would be able to name chords of pieces I haven't heard. Likewise, I could probably come up with a figured bass that would yield that chord. (Maybe not the most efficient version though.) When I had a band, I would listen to music on the radio (no internet then) and write it down if we wanted to play it; other members could too.
    – ttw
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:07
  • I agree with this to a point, but traditionally chord symbols are not used in isolation to describe a piece of music purportedly in its entirety. Rather, they describe an accompaniment for a melody. And in fact lead sheets have a long history of being used successfully to describe pieces of music with a fair amount of consistency. Elements that are not specified, such as the figuration of the accompaniment, are areas in which jazz and popular musicians are expected to exercise their creativity, which is why lead sheets have been so successful in those genres.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:39
  • @Richard I wonder whether this is about the many websites that give chords for songs without the melodies. If so, then yes, that is obviously quite useless to someone who is not already familiar with the tune.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:42
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    This answer is incorrect. As long as the rhythm is given with the chords, anyone with reasonable skill can play along with a tune they have never heard before. Jazz musicians and session musicians do this all the time. Give them a chord sheet and away they go - no need to know the melody. Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:52

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