• At Last! A foolproof method for naming chords

    in Theory

    As you know, a lot of my blog posts have exercises at the end that invite readers to participate.

    One exercise might be to figure out the introduced chord voicing in all 12 keys, with each reader taking a key of their own (I love those!)

    Others are more complex.

    And while these have been an overwhelming success, sometimes I’ve noticed some common mistakes when it comes to naming chords.

    foolproofbig.jpgSo in this post, I want to introduce a foolproof method (literally) that will ensure that you never misname a chord again. I’m serious! Read carefully as this may be one of the most important posts you read when it comes to musical grammar.”

    But let me say this first…

    At the end of the day, even if you spell the chords wrong, they’ll probably sound totally right! So this may not revolutionize your sound. It’ll just make sure you’re calling something what it is.

    For example, when you talk, you may say, “can you hand me that remote control over there please?” And no one knows if you’re really thinking of the word “there” as “their” or “they’re” or “dare” — because they all sound the same. No one knows because they can’t see inside your brain. When spoken, it’s a lot easier not to mess up. But on paper, one will know, definitively, if you write “there,” “their,” “they’re,” or even “dare.”

    That’s what “enharmonic” pretty much means. Notes are said to be enharmonic when they make the same sound but are spelled differently. Isn’t that similar to the words “there”, “their,” and “they’re?” Spoken, you cannot tell which one I’m thinking of because they sound the same.

    That’s exactly how it is for “ear musicians.” Many of us can get away with spelling it wrong because it supposedly doesn’t matter. All people hear is what comes out!

    “So forget that I think the ‘F# major’ chord is F# + Gb + C#” (which is wrong WRONG WRONG). It doesn’t matter because people hear a nice major chord at the end of the day, right?

    That’s one school of thought. And quite frankly, I don’t totally disagree with it either. That’s why I always say, “if you’re not studying for a music theory exam, you can call this what you want.” Because at the end of the day, most people just want to play.

    Take someone from a remote island somewhere who doesn’t know English and assimilate them here in the States and they will be happy just to be able to communicate with others and ask for directions… the writing part can come later.


    There’s the side of me that believes that knowledge is power and why would I want to spell something wrong if I don’t have to? And that’s what premise this lesson takes :)

    Here’s the big secret…

    Most chords (major, minor, major 7, minor 7, diminished, diminished 7, augmented, etc) use thirds.

    And here’s the secret about thirds (regardless of whether “they’re” major or minor thirds)…

    They always encompass three alphabet letters in their intervals. There’s never a time when they don’t.

    That is the key!

    Which means these are thirds…

    A C
    A C#
    C E
    C Eb
    C E#
    B D
    B D#

    …I can go on and on.

    And these aren’t thirds.

    Gb A
    Ab B
    Db E
    Bb C#
    E F#

    …and so on.

    What’s my point?

    Since the chords I mentioned above ONLY use thirds (in other words, they’re usually constructed with some type of third on the bottom and some type of third on the top — or if they’re bigger seventh chords, they have a third on the bottom, a third in the middle, and a third on top), that means you can never get around this “three alphabet letter” rule.

    But let me make it super plain…

    Encompassing three alphabet letters” basically mean that you’re always skipping an alphabet letter. It’s that simple.

    Take a look at the correct thirds again:

    A C
    A C#
    C E
    C Eb
    C E#
    B D
    B D#

    Notice between the “A” and “C” intervals, they skip “B.”

    Look at the “C” and “E” intervals. They always skip “D.”

    Even the “B” and “D” intervals. They skip “C.”

    So when I say “encompass,” you can think of it two ways:

    1) “A” to “C” includes three alphabet letters: A (B) C (the “B” isn’t played, of course, but it is “wrapped” inside the interval).

    2) “A” to “C” successfully passes the test because it skips one alphabet letter, “B.”

    The second option is what I call my “foolproof” method! Because it’s just too easy!

    Make sure any time you write a major, minor, dominant, diminished, major seventh, minor seventh, diminished seventh, augmented, augmented seventh, etc — that the notes you use always skip an alphabet letter and you can’t go wrong.

    Some people are going to get me on this. You’ve undoubtedly seen me write a C diminished 7 chord as “C + Eb + Gb + A.” yes, I’m guilty! But usually I do that for simplicity’s sake because I don’t want new readers stumped over a “B double flat (Bbb)” and that’s when my “JUST WANNA PLAY” philosophy from above kicks in. But usually, I will preface what I’m saying by writing, “this is an informal spelling” (which takes care of my mega theory heads). But yes, it’s a fine line.

    Why is the “informal spelling” of C diminished 7 wrong (C + Eb + Gb + A)?

    Well, the first three notes pass the foolproof test. That is, C to Eb skips the “D” alphabet letter. Eb to Gb passes the foolproof test, too. It skips the alphabet letter “F.” But the Gb to A. Hmmm, it fails. It doesn’t encompass three alphabet letters which means it’s impossible to skip one. G and A are right next to each other in the alphabet. That “A” needs to be some kind of “B.” It can’t be a real “B” because that’s not what the chord needs. It basically needs a “B” that sounds like “A” — and the only way you can get a “B” that sounds like “A” is to flat it TWICE: “B double flat.”

    (I used to think music theory just made up its own rules when it needed them. Lol, “double flat?” But really, “flatting” or even “sharping” something for that matter doesn’t mean to make it a black key. That’s what people think since the black keys are called “sharps” and “flats.” Sharp means to raise and flat means to lower. It’s that simple. If you sharp “C,” yes, it will give you a black key, “C#.” But you can sharp or flat a black key, too, making it a white key. You can even sharp or flat some white keys and they will still be white keys (e.g. – “E#” is basically “F”). And in this case, you can flat something TWICE making a white key another white key. It’s crazy!!!! I know!!!)

    This may still confuse people right now! But if you think about it, some still don’t know the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re” so it’s the same battle. No worries. It will click over time if that’s the case.

    So, let me take one example from a student (which actually inspired this post)…

    Gb minor chord

    (First off, it’s very hard to write a Gb minor chord without using crazy spellings. That’s why when you run into these sorts of problems, you should try changing the chord to its “enharmonic” counterpoint. Regular terms: Change the flat version to its sharp version and see if that makes things easier. So, that’s what I would do here. I’d make that Gb an F# minor in a second! Helps out a lot).

    But let’s take on that Gb minor anyway.

    For that to work, we must make sure we follow the foolproof method. We MUST skip a letter between each note but it still needs to sound like a minor chord.

    Gb minor
    Gb + Bbb + Db

    (Not Gb + A + Db!)

    There you have it! But as you see, it got ugly again with a “B double flat.” But we had no choice. Gb to A would have failed the foolproof test.

    So Gb to Bbb works because it skips a letter. And Bbb to Db works because it also skips a letter. Bingo! Passes the test!

    Let’s do something extremely hard and attempt to spell all the diminished 7 chords CORRECTLY. They are among the hardest because they usually have to be spelled weird. For all you who don’t know how to form diminished 7 chords — they’re basically 4 notes all separated by minor thirds. That means if you start at “C,” for example, and count up 3 half steps, you’ll arrive at a minor third. Do this every time and you’ll have yourself a diminished 7 chord. Make sure your chord has 4 notes, all separated by minor thirds. And make sure they pass the foolproof test. I’ll start it off. This will be challenging but follow the foolproof plan!

    Update: Here’s a lesson on diminished seventh chords

    Until next time —

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 25 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Jermaine

    A long one! I know!

    Here’s the first diminished 7 chord. (these will get easier as you’ll notice that there are really only 3 distinct diminished 7 chords. So you can actually cheat off someone else’s answer by using their diminished chord and moving the notes around… HINT HINT).

    C diminished 7

    C + Eb + Gb + Bbb

    _x_ = Foolproof test passed. All notes skip one alphabet letter.


    2 John

    I see what you mean Jermaine. like if i wanted to cheat, I could just take your chord, and remove the C from the bottom so that Eb is on the bottom and that would be all I needed to do to play an Eb dim 7?

    Well, here goes:

    Eb diminished 7
    Eb + Gb + Bbb + C

    made sure each of these skips an alphabet letter even though i copied and pasted from jeramien’s answer! heheheh


    3 John

    Also, I followed your advice where you said it’s often times easier to use the opposite version. Like if you’re using flats, try using the sharp version.

    I noticed that if I don’t use Eb but change to D# i dont have to use any double flats. Is that true?

    D# diminished 7

    D# + F# + A + C

    seems better to use this.

    But i noticed that it doesn’t work for C because C + D# + F# + A (fails the test between C and D# because it doesn’t skip an alphabet letter).


    4 Jermaine

    @John! You have made an awesome observation!

    You can make that last example of yours work by changing C to B#…

    B# + D# + F# + A

    So yes, when i say there are really only 3 diminished chords, that’s totally in regards to the sound they produce. When you start spelling them, that’s a whole different beast and they will be spelled differently (even chords that share the same notes and thus create the same sound as you’ve learned by changing your Eb dim 7 to D# dim 7).

    To everyone else… don’t let this talk confuse you! Keep em coming and just skip a letter and you can’t be wrong!


    5 Roland

    Ab diminished 7

    Ab + Cb + Ebb + Gbb
    That’s wild
    G# + B + D + F


    6 Jermaine

    LOL Roland! now you know why I’d rather say G# diminished 7 ANYDAY!

    usually one or the other will be much easier. Some circumstances, you can’t get around it but most of them will be like yours — a “wild” one vs an easier one.


    7 Roland

    This must be one of the worst:
    Db diminished 7

    Db + Fb + Abb + Cbb


    C# + E + G + Bb


    8 Jermaine

    @Roland: Lol, you aren’t lying about that one! “I’ll take C# diminished 7 for $100 alex!”



    B DIM7
    B + D + F + A

    Cb DIM7
    Cb + Ebb + Gbb + Bbb





    11 chawk

    E dim 7

    E + G + Bb + Db


    12 ak w/o_the_47


    A + C + Eb + Gb


    13 Chevonne Reynolds

    I hope this is right, Lord help me..LOL!

    Bb dim7

    Bb + Db + Fb + G


    14 ajjazz

    I’ll try this one. No one’s done G yet.

    G dim 7

    G + Bb + Db + Fb

    I finally got my keyboard today, yay! Now I can hear this diminished sound.


    15 Jermaine

    @Brian: Good to see you on the show tonight! Add an Ab to your first chord and you’ll be good! Don’t worry about that second chord.. it’s too crazy.


    16 Jermaine

    @Ak, chawk, aajazz… looks good!

    @Chevonne: It will be easier to use A# dim 7. Try that one.

    As for your Bb dim 7, remember the rule about always skipping an alphabet letter. You have an “F” and “G” at the end which does not pass the rule.

    If you wanted it to pass, you’d do: Bb + Db + Fb + Abb but that’s too crazy.

    Try A# dim 7, it will be super easier!!!!! Here’s when using the “enharmonic” counterpart works best.



    B dim7
    B + D + F + Ab


    18 Eresmas

    Hey Jermaine, i bet i am the student who inspired this. My hat is off for this lol.

    I’ll bounce back with Ddim7

    Would have been D + F + Ab + B (the I JUST WANNA PLAY WAY)

    It becomes D + F + Ab + Cb (the MUSIC THEORY TEST WAY).

    Am i right?


    19 Jermaine

    @Eresmas:HAHA! You are right!

    I like your “I just wanna play way” lol


    20 sammie

    happy to hear from you jermaine,,,
    Is there number formula for playing root chords, First inversion,Second inversion of chords using numbers systems,,,

    keep up goog job u r doing for supporting musicians,God bless you


    21 Obinna Peter

    Jermaine, I really know that I can’t thank you enough. This concept here “C + Eb + Gb + Bbb” is a unique one indeed with ur explanations, but i wanna know the real places I am suppose to be fixing this chords on my progressions, is it as a direct chords or passing chords or what because the sound is a kind of pushing my fingers to other keys, which mayn’t be my original keynote. Please Sir, can you explain on this. Thanks & God bless.

    Remember, you are just more than a music teacher and I’ve been inspired by you!


    22 Jermaine Griggs
    23 Avery Brzezinski

    Hey very nice blog!! Man .. Beautiful .. Wonderful .. I will bookmark your site and take the feeds also


    24 Joel sarpong

    Pls u said.Encompassing three alphabet letters” basically mean that you’re always skipping an alphabet letter” but in the case of “A C#” u skipped B and C … Pls I don’t kinda get that part


    25 Jermaine Griggs

    A to C# is still three alphabet letters – A, B, C.

    And in the key of A major, you’re skipping one scale tone (B) just like you would in the key of C major.


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