How to read jazz chords and interpret charts

Read & interpret jazz chords

Knowing how to read jazz chords and interpret charts is an essential skill for anyone learning to play jazz. Even if you aren’t literally reading, you still need to understand how to interpret chords. On a practical level, this knowledge lets you adapt chords to make them more playable for you. From an artistic perspective, this understanding allows you to create wonderful music from the simplest sketch, or to tame overly complex and bad writing.

This article is a companion to my video about chord families and reading jazz chords. You can learn all you need to know from reading this, but I do recommend watching the video as it includes lots of audio and real-life examples as well as a richness of detail that a blog post can’t always match.

Chord Families

When you harmonize a major scale, you end up with four basic types of chord: Major 7, Minor 7, Dominant 7, and Minor 7 flat 5. Each one of these types forms the basis of a group, or a family of related chords. Chords in a family are all variations based on one of the four types.

The various chords in a family are created in one of two ways: The first way is by extending the basic chord by adding notes from its related scale. The second way of creating different chords in a family is by chromatically altering some of the notes. That just means sharpening or flattening some of the notes.

An example of an extended chord would be Bb9. It is a Bb7 chord with the 9th note of the scale added to it. Here are the scale degrees that make each of these chords:

  • Bb7 = 1, 3, 5, b7
  • Bb9= 1, 3, 5, b7, 9
Summary of the four chord families
The four main chord families

Notice that the Bb9 chord includes all the same notes as Bb7 but with one extra note added. Remove the 9th and it is Bb7 again. That’s how chord families work. All chords in the same family share the same underlying chord type.

Alteration is the other way of varying chords. An altered chord has one or more of its notes sharpened or flattened. It is like accidentals but for chords. If we take the Bb9 chord as an example, you can sharpen the 9th (raise it by one semitone/half step). That makes it Bb7(#9). 

  • Bb7 used the notes 1, 3, 5, b7.
  • Bb9 uses the notes 1, 3, 5, b7, 9.
  • Bb7(#9) uses the notes 1, 3, 5, b7, #9.

Altering a note in a chord changes the sound of the chord without changing the chord family. The notes typically altered are one or more of: 5, 11, 9, and 13.

Emi11, Bb7(#5, #9), Ebma9(#11)
These chords use extensions & alterations

 

The major chord family

The major family of chords all, with a couple of exceptions, have the word ‘major’ in their names:

Maj7; Maj9, Maj11, Maj13

This family also includes Maj6 and major 6/9 (pronounced ‘six nine’). With 6 and 6/9, people usually leave out the word ‘major’, so you’ll just about always see them written as just the numbers so, for example, C6 and F6/9.

The minor chord family

Chords in the minor family all have the word “minor” in their name – shortened to ‘min’, ‘mi’, or even just ‘m’. The minor family includes:

Mi6, Mi7, Mi9, Mi11, Mi13, Mi6/9.

Minor chords can be altered. The most common minor chord alterations are b13 and maj7, as in Cmi (maj7), meaning a minor chord with the usually-flat 7 raised a semitone.

The dominant chord family

The dominant family includes variations and extensions of dominant seventh chords. The chords in this family are easy to recognise because they just have a letter and an odd number with no words. The dominant family includes:

7, 9, 11, 13

For example: C7, C9, C11, C13.

The minor 7 flat 5 chord family

There is really just one chord in the minor 7 flat five family. It gets its own family because it comes out of a harmonised major scale. It is naturally occurring and is not an alteration of a minor chord. It stands alone with its own identity. The member of this family is:

Mi7b5

For example Cmi7b5.

Gmi11 C13 | Fma13 Fma7(#11, #5) F6/9 simplified to Gmi7 C7 | Fma7
Simplifying some complex and intimidating chords

Simplifying chords

Two fundamental ways of interpreting chords in tunes are simplifying and elaborating. In the first of these, you can take a more complicated chord and make it simpler. An example might be if the music says to play F13, you can play F7 instead. You can do that because they are from the same family and share the same basic underlying chord (F7). They don’t sound the same as each other, but one can replace the other.

In another exampe, if the music says play Gmi11, you can play Gmi7 instead.

This is so useful for guitarists and piano players, of course, but also for bassists and horn players too.

Elaborating chords

Of course, because you can substitute a chord with any other chord from the same family, you can also make simple chords more elaborate. If the chart says play Ebmi7, you can play Ebmi9 instead to make it more beautiful. So, you can make chords simpler or more elaborate.

The chords on a jazz chart or lead sheet are often deliberately left simplified. That allows experienced players to interpret them according to their own taste and skill. They might extend and/or alter chords, as well as varying the voicing (the arrangement of the notes in the chord).

Recap: use chord families to read jazz chords & interpret charts

The concept of chord families is just so useful for knowing how to read jazz chord charts. Any chord can be substituted for any other chord from inside the same family. You can do that to simplify or elaborate chords according to your need or your taste. This is not the only kind of chord substitution jazz musicians use when they interpret charts, but it is a key to reading chords and interpreting them fluently.

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