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We get many questions about chord names for various odd bunches of notes. I often wonder whether they have much value.

Obviously, the common simple chord names are useful. E.g. you might ask a guitarist to play a Cm followed by G7. That would be much easier than calling out the notes that you wanted. Often when playing the piano, I will recognise a group of notes as a simple chord and that will help me remember and play it. Other times, there is no obvious, simple name; I don't spend ages trying to figure out the name, I just play the indicated notes.

To me at least, an obvious border line for the usefulness of the chord name is when it is a similar length, or longer than, just naming the notes.

Am I missing anything? For complex chords where the names are almost as long as just specifying the notes, is there a value to the name?

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    Simple chords have simple names. Far simpler to say C than CEG, etc. As chords get motre complex in notes, so do their names. Is it easier to say C9b5 or CEGbBbD? Naming chords has the advantage of knowing the root note and whether it's maj or min., straight away. True, saying names of all the notes gives us that, but we'd have to think a bit more before knowing. For 4 note chords, the voicing may or may not be important, depending on how accurate you want the voicing. Guitarists in particular may want to play a 6 string version, or, indeed, know they can leave a note out with impunity! – Tim May 11 at 13:04
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Obviously, the common simple chord names are useful. E.g. you might ask a guitarist to play a Cm followed by G7. That would be much easier than calling out the notes that you wanted.

Such chord names don't directly represent sets of notes - they are are abstractions of sets of notes, and useful because...

  • They tell us that we should think of the piece in terms of tertian harmony
  • If given as performance directions, they allow us to choose the specific voicings we use
  • If given as analysis, they can apply to all voicings of a specific chord

As you point out, often chord names are nice and short. But if we were to move away from chord names when things got a bit tough, that could cause its own problems. If we changed to a different shorthand notation we'd almost inevitably be changing to a different level of abstraction - and this breaks the flow of the reader's thought processes. It might also discard information as to how we can continue to think in terms of stacked thirds.

(from your comment)... I did not mean saying C E G for any C major chord. For the second inversion, I would say G C E. Saying C C E G would imply an octave between the first 2 Cs. If the interval between the C and the E was a tenth rather than a third then this simple naming would fail...

Possibly there is the seed of a useful idea here, but as you say yourself, it's not yet fully robust. If we were to expand these ideas, would it lead us to a notation that is more 'robust' than tertian chord names, but still less work to read and write than simply writing the notes in standard notation?

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    Thanks. Note that I am not arguing against the chord system completely just questioning the highly complex names that we see here often. E.g. a recent question asked cdom7sus2add13 no5. Is that a useful name? The flexibility of the voicing is a mixed blessing: you might be happy to give that choice or you may want a very specific voicing. – badjohn May 11 at 11:27
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    @badjohn I think you're right - once the names get complex like that, it's because what's actually happening note-wise is not such a good match for the abstraction we're using. I guess the dilemma is - do we stick with that abstraction and put up with sticky names, or do we move to a new abstraction, with the overheads that that implies? People mainly seem to do fine with chord names and actual notation as the two possible tools to use, at least where tertian harmony can be assumed... – topo morto May 11 at 12:00
  • @dfhwze yes, you're right - I guess the OP is writing from the perspective of the fact that while new such named qualities could be developed, the musical world doesn't seem to have developed them in a particularly formal or widely-understood way. – topo morto May 12 at 8:24
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Mainly they allow for easier transposition. If you want/need to transpose a song to a different key it will be a lot easier and faster to do this with chord names compared to individual notes, since they also communicate the intervals instead of only the note names.

  • I see the transposition point but not so much the intervals. By naming the notes, I did not mean saying C E G for any C major chord. For the second inversion, I would say G C E. Saying C C E G would imply an octave between the first 2 Cs. If the interval between the C and the E was a tenth rather than a third then this simple naming would fail but a chord name might be complex as well. – badjohn May 11 at 9:33
  • @badjohn - if the interval is a tenth, it's still a C chord. Chord names provide an outline of the harmony, not a specific voicing. And in your example C C E G, you're still not specifying a specific voicing, as a pianist could easily play C2 or C3 below C5 E5 G5 – Tom Serb May 11 at 9:56
  • @badjohn Yeah, maybe using "intervals" was a bit misleading. The point is that it conveys more information than just the note names do. – Creynders May 11 at 10:14
  • I am less sure about the names conveying more information. Sometimes it is the reverse e.g. C E G, E G C, or G C E tell you more than just C major. – badjohn May 11 at 10:51
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This question is quite useful and makes a lot of sense to me. (It reminds me of the akronyms we have in politics: they are useful to spare space in the news papers - but are absolutely senseless when there would be an abbreviation for the news speaker in the radio or in TV who are trying to spell them without breaking their tongue!)

now to your question:

some names are very important for analysis and history (as the Neapolitanian Sixth chord or the German augmented fifth/6th chord) but they have also abbreviation signs like N6 or ü56 (in German).

Other complex chord names can be explained by reducing/interpreting them to an addition of 2 chords:

as example I imagine that a G11 is a C-major above a G major Chord with a G as root tone. (whereby the notation C/G would be ambiguous ...)

Or A7b9 is C#°7/A.

I don't know whether this is an answer to your question but I think such recuctions and interpretations could be useful for notation and understanding.

  • Where the name is fairly easy to say, understand, and remember, I can see the value. It is the very complex ones that I question. – badjohn May 11 at 10:50
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I think the important thing to consider is: what's your purpose?

Music is a language, in that it expresses through sound. Music notation is another language, one that represents that expression as an analog through symbols. And music theory is still another (and separate) language that abstracts the ideas of music through terms.

When a language abstracts something, details get lost. You tell me you just bought a car. "Car" is an abstraction that gives me a general idea of what you just got - I know you didn't buy a birdcage or a canoe. I know the thing you bought probably has four wheels and you can use it for transportation. But I don't know if it's a Ford or a Fiat, or if it's green or yellow, because abstractions sacrifice details for efficiency.

Chord names are an abstraction. You tell me it's a C7 chord, and I know the tones are C, E, Bb, and maybe G. Or maybe not G - the "open" C7 chord on a guitar usually leaves that note out, as do common piano voicings for one hand.

You could be more specific, and tell me you bought a blue car. Or that you want me to play a C7/E chord. Or give me a figured bass E with 65 written above it. But I still don't know if your blue car has two doors or four, or if the C7 will have the Bb in the alto or soprano. We have different levels of specificity when we abstract ideas.

If you want to tell me exactly what pitches make up a chord, the tool to use would be standard notation. But even that is an abstraction - I'm primarily a guitarist, and for many written chords I can achieve the same voicing of pitches in more than one way on the instrument, and each way will have a slightly different timbre.

I don't see any real advantage to specifying the order of tones in a chord symbol, because chord symbols are a fairly low-level of abstraction. They're designed to get a very general idea of the harmony across to another musician, in the same way that a script for a play tells an actor what to say, but not how. If the script says "You're going" it's up to the actor to flesh it out - is she surprised that you're going? Delighted? Angry? Commanding?

There are lots of ways to deliver a general instruction. I'm not sure that complicating chord symbols will add as much as you expect, because it's still an abstraction - and we already have better tools available for communicating more specific instructions.

  • And we already have ways to describe voicings more clearly - slash chords, drop chords. +1. – Tim May 12 at 7:29

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