How to Write Lead Sheet Symbols? A Complete Guide to Chord Notation

Gm7b5/Bb lead sheet symbol example

A lead sheet is a concise form of music notation that includes only the melody line and chord progression of a piece. They are great for capturing jazz, pop, and folk tunes, and make it possible for beginner and advanced musicians to approach the same sheet of music.

How Do You Write Lead Sheet Symbols?

Lead sheet symbols are written above the staff. The symbols represent the underlying chords to use for that section of music. These chords are often major, minor, diminished, augmented, or an extended chord. You use a new symbol above the staff each time the chord changes – typically once or twice a measure.

Common Lead Sheet Chord Symbols

Here is a sample blueprint of a lead sheet chord symbol; don’t worry if you don’t understand all the terminology, we will get to that later.

Gm7♭5/B♭

  • “G” – the root of the chord.
  • “m” – the chord quality (major, minor, diminished, or augmented), in this case minor.
  • “7” – the extended tones (7, 9, 11, 13). In this case we have a minor chord with a 7th tone added.
  • “♭5” – the modifications. In this case the 5th of the chord is flatted. In a G minor chord the 5th is D and that moves to D♭.
  • “/B♭” – the lowest note. The slash means “over” – we have a Gm7♭5 chord over a B♭.

Triads

Triads are the simplest chords, made of only 3 notes. (They are more common than dyads or tetrads). There are four types of triads – major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

Triads are so common that a chord is often assumed to be a triad unless specified otherwise. So if I say I have a C major chord that is the same as saying I have a C major triad. But if I say I have a C7 chord, that is not the same as saying I have a C7 triad because a “7” chord has four notes in it.

You can read more detailed descriptions of each of the triads below but here are some examples of the notation used.

Major: C

Minor: Cm, Cmin or C-. (Occasionally just a lower case “c”)

Diminished: Cdim or C°

Augmented: Caug or C+

Major Triad

For review, the root of a chord is the note the rest of the chord is based off of. The root of a D major triad is “D.”

A major triad consists of the root of the chord, the note that is 4 half-steps above the root, and the note that is 3 half-steps above the second note of the chord. For example, a C major triad is C, E and G.

Scrambling the order of a chord does not change its name. So if you see a chord with E, G and C where E is the lowest note of the chord, this is still a C major triad (it’s just inverted).

Major chords often sound happy while minor chords often sound sad.

Since major chords are so common, assume a chord is major unless specified otherwise. So if you see a “G” that is a G major triad.

Minor Triad

A minor triad is the same as a major triad, except the 2nd note of the chord is a half step lower. For example, if our C major triad was C, E, and G, lower the second note from E to E♭ to get a C minor triad.

Again the notation for minor chords is “m” or “-“. For example, Cm and C- both indicate C minor triads.

Diminished Triad

A diminished triad is less common than major and minor chords. We form it by taking the third note of a minor triad and lowering it a half step. So a C diminished triad is C, E♭, and G♭.

The notation for a diminished triad is “dim” or “°” as in Cdim or C°.

Augmented Triad

Augmented triads are the least common of all. They are major triads with the 3rd note of the triad raised a half step. Our C major chord was C, E, and G, so our C augmented triad is C, E, and G♯.

The notation for an augmented triad is “aug” or “+” as in Caug or C+.

Extended Chords

To understand extended chords we need to first understand the chord/scale numbering system.

Chord/Scale Numbering System

Chords are based off of scales. So let’s consider a numbered C major scale

  • C D E F G A B C
  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

A C major triad consists of C, E, and G. Using our numbers we see that C = 1, E = 3, and G = 5. So using our chord/scale numbering system we often call C the “one” or the “root,” E the “three” or the “third,” and G the “fifth” or the “five”.

7th Chords

To make a 7th chord, add in the 7th tone of the scale – we’ll add a B if we are using C chords. So C E G B, is our first 7 chord.

With 7th chords the notation doesn’t follow rules very well. In general we assume that the 7th is flatted – a B♭ in our case.

There are 8 – 16 possible 7th chords (depending on how you count). The most common are in the list below.

NameExampleNumberSpellingComments
Dominant 7C71 3 5 ♭7C E G B♭The most common 7 chord
Major 7CM7
CΔ7
Cmaj7
1 3 5 7C E G BThe “M” signifies that the 7 is a major 7 from the root (B) instead of a minor 7 (B♭)
Minor 7Cm71 ♭3 5 ♭7C E♭ G B♭The “m” signifies a minor chord
Half – Diminished 7Cm7♭5
C-7♭5
Cø7
1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7C E♭ G♭ B♭
Fully- Diminished 7Cdim7
C°7
1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭♭7C E♭ G♭ B♭♭

Other Extended Chords

An extended chord is a triad that has additional tones that stack in thirds above the triad. A 7th chord is an example of an extended chord because a 7th is a 3rd above the 5th of the chord. 9th, 11th, and 13th chords are the remaining possible extended chords.

As we talk about extended chords let’s extend our numbering system.

  • C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Rules of Extended Chords

RuleExample
7ths are flatted unless you see “maj,” “M,” or “Δ.”CM9 is spelled C E G B D
CΔ9 is also spelled C E G B D
C9 is spelled C E G B♭ D because 7ths are flatted by default.
You can include any odd number less than the number of your chord. C11 includes 1 (C), 3 (E), 5(G), 7(B♭), 9(D), and 11(F), but not 13 (A)
The extension notes are based off a major scale unless its a 7 or is modified.C13♭5 is spelled C E G♭ B♭ D F A
(The modified 5, G♭, and the 7, B♭, are the only notes not found in the C major scale)

“Add” Chords

Let’s say you want to add in the 13th (same thing as a 6th) to a chord, but you don’t want have all the extensions below the 13th (7, 9, 11). This is where you start using “add” chords.

An “add” chord is a basic triad with only the specified tones added in. Here are some examples:

  • Cadd2 – C D E G
  • Cadd9 – C D E G (same as C add 2)
  • Cadd4 – C E F G (same as Cadd11)
  • C6 – C E G A (C6 is so common that we drop the “add”)

Sus Chords

Sus chords are similar to add chords, but with a sus chord you actually substitute the 3rd of a basic triad for either a 4th or a 2nd.

They almost always resolve to a standard major or minor triad. Here are some examples:

  • Csus4 – C F G
  • Csus2 – C D G

Slash Chords

Slash chords include a “/” symbol, and indicate a note to be played below the main chord. When you see the slash you can think “over” in your head,

For example, G/B indicates that you play a G chord over a B – the spelling is B D G (instead of G B D). In this case we have a simple inversion of a G major chord.

G/A is another example of a slash chord, but in this case the A is not part of a standard G major chord – this creates a unique sound.

Are Lead Sheet Symbols Ever Lowercase?

Yes, but it is rare. Sometimes the chord symbol is a lowercase letter to indicate that it is a minor chord – so “d” would indicate a d minor chord. More commonly you will see a lowercase “m” to indicate a minor chord. The problem with lowercase chord symbols is that “C” and “c” look too similar.

How To Read a Lead Sheet

Now that you know how to write lead sheet symbols, you can write your own lead sheets, or start reading lead sheets on a piano. If you are new to this, you can start by:

  • figuring out the melody in your rh.
  • playing the chords in your lh.
  • putting them together.
  • spicing things up with your own creativity.

But for more tips on how to make that work, check out this article.

Conclusion

The main symbols you will see written on a lead sheet include triads, 7th, extended, add, sus, and slash chords. Learning the scale/chords numbering system will help you identify chords more quickly, greatly improving your musical ability.

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