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Absolute chord symbols

Guitar chord symbols or absolute chord symbols are the most common international chord labelling system in popular music. The chord is named after the root; then follows numbers and other indexes (for example, chromatic signs) denoting the interval counted from the root.

Chord symbols are based on the note names used in English; in Finland, we would use "H major" for B and "H minor" for Bm. National chord notations are, however, used in several countries, for example, C7 would be Do7 in Spain and Italy.

In Finland, the traditional national notation system is followed in, for example, several song books. To avoid confusion and be on the safe side, the Finnish note labelling system writes the note B as H; in other words, B by itself is not used at all.

There is no generally accepted standard for absolute chord symbols. Still, an experienced musician usually interprets the symbols correctly, probably because of the somewhat schematic nature of harmonies in popular music. The numeric index can also be of the same size as the preceding letter (for example, G7). In the example below, the indexes are smaller than the letter.

The implementation of the chord symbols depends on the genre, instruments available, performers, and even the situation. The text below is intended to help the reader understand chord symbols and to promote uniformity in notation.

Chord symbol groupings

A typical sound progression in jazz and popular music is "…II - V - I"; in the same way, the example below classifies the chords as tonic, subdominant, and dominant. The first group (I chords) represents a typical first-degree chord of a key, a secondary tonic. In the second group, we have chords preparing a (secondary) dominant. The fourth group includes "other chords", often classified further in various jazz theory books.

The numbers in the text refer to bar numbers in the example. The staff usually includes only one alternative; the text introduces several.

It is worth noting that notation is quite a formal presentation of chords. In a chord the notes are essential; the choice of range is usually not regulated except for the lowest note.

Implementation of chords on an instrument usually follows the principles of voice leading; a chord may consist of notes from several octave ranges, and they can also be omitted completely. Moreover, in jazz it is quite common to play, for example, G7 in a multitude of versions (G7alt, G13#11, and so on). Therefore, the table is an abstraction, not a manual on how to play the chords. The texts also include further information on chords, hopefully useful when learning to understand the structure of harmonies in tonal music.

Absolute chord symbols