How to construct chords

You don’t need a “1000 Chords Dictionary” to be able to read and play chords. You can learn how to form chords on your own, because chords are built using simple formulas.

A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. It’s as simple as that. Of course, the trick is to know which three notes…

Obviously, not all combinations of notes sound good. Particular combinations each have their own name: there are “major” chords, “minor” chords, “dominant-7″ chords, “diminished chords”, and so on. See a demonstration of the different chord types

Of each chord type, there are 12 possible chords: one for each note. So there is a C major chord, a C# major chord (which is the same as the Db major chord), a D major chord, and so on. There is also a C minor chord, a C# minor chord… you get the drift.

The note that names the chord is called the root note. So in the Cmaj7 chord, the root note is C. The chord quality (or chord type) is maj7, which is short for “major chord with an added 7th”.

What’s the difference between all these chord types? The way they sound, of course: each type has its own unique sound. For example, major-7 chords such as the Cmaj7 have a warm sound, while dominant-7 chords like C7 sound very bluesy.

Chord formulas

To form a chord you simply apply a formula to the major scale named by the root tone. This formula tells you which notes from the scale make up the chord. Each chord type has its own formula.

So to build any type of chord, you need to know:

  • the major scale for the root tone of that chord, and
  • the formula for that chord.

I am assuming that you already can play the 12 major scales. If not, learn the major scales first.

Let’s put this knowledge into practice.

The formula for major chords is: 1 – 3 – 5

We know that the scale for C major is:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

If we fill in the numbers from the formula, we get: C – E – G. These are the tones of the C major chord. Make sense? That’s all there is to it.

Tip: When we say: “The 3rd of the chord” we mean the third tone from its major scale, E in the previous example. (So we don’t mean the 3rd note in the chord, but in the scale.)

A major scale only contains 7 unique tones but sometimes we count to 13! We call these extended tones because they extend beyond the octave. The most common extended tones are 9, 11 and 13.

It’s important to realize that note “9” is the same as note “2”, 11 is the same as 4, and 13 is the same as 6:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14

There are also formulas that contain the symbols b and #. The b stands for “flatten” or lower by a half-step and # stands for “sharpen” or raise by a half-step.

For example, the formula for a minor chord is: 1 – b3 – 5.

You know that 3 is the third note of the scale, so to get b3 we lower the third note by a half-step.

Likewise, the formula for an augmented chord contains a #5: this is the fifth note raised by a half-step. Any note can be raised or lowered but 3, 5, and 7 are the most common ones.

The chart

Chord naming rules and chord symbols are not always very consistent. Often the same chord can have multiple names. The chart lists the most common symbols.

Note that the numbers in the formulas always indicate positions in the major scale.

Major chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Major (nothing), maj, ma, M, ∆ 1 – 3 – 5
Major 6 6, maj6, ma6 1 – 3 – 5 – 6
Major 7 maj7, ma7, M7, ∆7, j7 1 – 3 – 5 – 7
Major 9 maj9, ma9, M9, ∆9, j9 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9
Major 11 maj11, M11, ∆11, j11 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11
Major 13 maj13, M13, ∆13, j13 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11 – 13
Major add 9 add9, /9 1 – 3 – 5 – 9
Major 6/9 6/9, 9/6 1 – 3 – 5 – 6 – 9

Minor chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Minor m, min, mi, - 1 – b3 – 5
Minor 6 m6, min6 1 – b3 – 5 – 6
Minor 7 m7, min7 1 – b3 – 5 – b7
Minor 9 m9, min9 1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9
Minor 11 m11, min11 1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11
Minor 13 m13, min13 1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11 – 13
Minor major 7 m(maj7), mM7, m∆7 1 – b3 – 5 – 7
Minor major 9 m(maj9), mM9, m∆9 1 – b3 – 5 – 7 – 9
Minor add 9 m(add9), m/9 1 – b3 – 5 – 9
Minor 6/9 m6/9, m9/6 1 – b3 – 5 – 6 – 9

Dominant chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Dominant 7 7 1 – 3 – 5 – b7
Dominant 9 9 1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9
Dominant 11 11 1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11
Dominant 13 13 1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11 – 13

Diminished chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Diminished dim, ° 1 – b3 – b5
Diminished 7 dim7, °7 1 – b3 – b5 – bb7 (bb7 = 6)
Half-diminished (7) m7b5, m7-5, ø 1 – b3 – b5 – b7

Augmented chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Augmented aug, +, +5 1 – 3 – #5
Augmented 7 aug7, 7#5, 7+5 1 – 3 – #5 – b7

Suspended chords:

Chord name Chord symbol Formula
Suspended (4) sus, sus4 1 – 4 – 5
Suspended 7 7sus, 7sus4 1 – 4 – 5 – b7
Suspended 2 sus2 1 – 2 – 5

Tip: If the chord symbol is some kind of complicated chord, like Cmaj13, and you don’t know how to play all the additional tones, then you can simplify the chord to its basics. In this case, the basic chord is the major chord, so you can get away by playing only 1 – 3 – 5. It might not sound entirely as intended, but it will still sound good.

Read more articles on Piano Clues:

Basic Theory

Chords and Harmony

The Circle of Fifths

Arrangement, Improvisation and Composition

Reading Music and Sheet Music

How to Record Piano

Software and Virtual Instruments

Scales and Exercises

Digital Pianos

Links and Other Stuff


  1. bimalkumar says:

    it is very useful to all music learners

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks soo much!!!!!!!!!!!! That is exactly what i needed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. Luis says:

    This is really really helpful. Clean-cut, straight to the point explanations. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  5. Jacky says:

    What a great job!
    Sure, you get peace in your heart.

  6. Rachel says:

    I have to admit, this is a little confusing:

    When we say: “The 3rd of the chord” we mean the third tone from its major scale, E in the previous example. (So we don’t mean the 3rd note in the chord, but in the scale.)

    Nowhere else do you refer to notes as tones. And, the 3rd tone isn’t an extended tone, so I can’t see why it would make a difference to point out the different labels. Am I missing something?

  7. Matthijs says:

    @Rachel: Yes, I can see that might be a little confusing. I meant the “3rd” refers to the third tone in the scale, also known as the third “degree” or “step”. I just wanted to point out that we weren’t counting the tones in the chord but in the scale. I also use the terms “note” and “tone” interchangeably.

  8. Dbell says:

    So, I hate to burst your bubble, but for the good of anyone who reads this, I have to mention that at least 50% of what you said is wrong. In fact, it would take too much time to correct everything you’ve misled these innocent bystanders to read, so let me just say this: if you want to learn music theory, there are better places to do it than on the internet.

    Imagine you stumbled on a site that taught people how to perform open heart surgery. The site used pictures, and easy to read diagrams, and really fun mnemonic techniques. Let’s pretend the site had a chart to break down every step involved in performing heart surgery on a living and beating heart.

    Here’s what it would read:
    1. Cut person open
    2. Stab around heart area blindly like a drunk with Parkinson’s (Note: I mean no offense to drunks, or sufferers of Parkinson’s.)
    3. Stitch person up with Singer brand sewing machine

    That’s how simple, incomplete, and incorrect your description of chord construction is.
    Do you know your modes? Do you know all fifteen, yes fifteen! major scales? Do you know how confusing enharmonic tones truly are? If you said yes to any of those questions then you are wrong. Because if you did know any one of those things, the above article would have been (more) correct.

    Any musician can tell you that there is a HUGE difference between a Cmaj7 and a C7. The only time you’ll spell C7 as 1-3-5-b7, in reference to scale degrees and not chord tone functions, is if you’re playing in C Mixolydian mode, but you wouldn’t know that. Only someone who knows these things would be able to write an article on chord construction that would be a) simple, b) complete, and c) correct. So please, for the love of God, music, and the integrity of the internet, take a theory class, and pull your head out of your ass.

    Yours truly,
    Someone who knows what he’s talking about.

  9. Matthijs says:

    Normally I wouldn’t have approved a comment such as Dbell’s above but I thought it was funny.

    Because this site is aimed at beginners, the music theory in my articles is simplified and incomplete — but it is not wrong. You might not get away with it at Julliard, but most people just want to learn how to play music for themselves and it is my goal for this website to help them get started. To most people, the Mixolydian mode is irrelevant.

    Of course, if you disagree with my explanations, feel free to write your own article on chord construction. That is more constructive than acting like a jerk. I will even link to your article. ;-)

    I wonder what this guy is going to think of my open heart surgery blog…

  10. Stella says:

    I really arppecatie free, succinct, reliable data like this.

  11. Josh says:

    Very helpful in teaching young students. I guess to me Dbell’s biggest issue is that he thinks music and open heart surgery are somehow comparable. Perhaps to a few butchering someones concerto is heart breaking but I think a little inaccuracy in teaching music to novices results in fewer cardiac arrests. The reality as a student of physics first, and then music, we find that even in teaching the basic laws we use oversimplification all the way up to the grad level and beyond. You have to start somewhere right. Thanks for putting together a nice easy to follow resources for beginners.

  12. I can see that you are an ‘evolved’ person. You did not take offense in Dbell’s comment and chose to ‘rise’ above his/her ‘pompous’ words. When a child is taught to draw a house, it is enough to teach the child to draw the ground, a wall, a rectangle for a door, a square for a window and a traingle for a roof. If an architect was to draw a house, he would put a lot more detail into the drawing. For my level, what you taught me was just what i needed!
    God bless you!

  13. Jean says:

    I love your tips. They helped me out tremendously. Thanks a lot for sharing. Great job!

  14. Alejandro says:

    This is really helpful, and agree with the comments written above. The post by DBell lets me know that there are more complexity embedded in chord construction… which I didn’t know at all! Sound is such a complex world…

    Thanks so much!

  15. 安麦克 says:

    I’ve been playing music all my life, mostly guitar and bass. I’m a singer and love music. But, as odd as it might seem, I’ve never had the foggiest about any detail of music theory. I decided to stat learning the piano, and for the first time of my life felt the need to learn some theory. I borrowed books, asked the stars and pros, surfed the Internet and whatnot… All I could find was either lethal boredom or way over my head. Then I stumbled over your “blog”…

    Your style is simple, understandable, not snobbish, and just what I needed. The theory here is not all that simple, but it is fun and at a beginner’s level. If I ever get beyond what you have here, that will be an accomplishment in itself.

    Thank you for a well thought through, humorous and friendly piece of self-sacrificing work!

    *drawn out applause and – bow….*

    Yours Truly

  16. Riri says:

    This is truly one of the best websites to learn piano. Very simple and very informative. Thanks you very much. God bless you.

  17. Michael says:

    I recently started learning piano/keyboard and have been doing non stop research on all areas. Some of the concepts and theories are so complicated at times I sit and think maybe this is too much for me to grasp.

    It’s very refreshing to come across a site like this, it gave me instant clarity to the topic of chords, and having already learned the scales and so forth it really helped this article make sense. I have only printed out about 2% of the items that i have come across, your article is one that I have printed and will be keeping to study off of. Thank you so much for spending your time to help others trying to learn and have fun at the same time.

  18. Omobolaji says:

    U’ve done a great joob….God bless u

  19. Rikki says:

    Great site. Thanks alot.

  20. Ligia Grau says:

    In Spanish:
    Tu página es la mejor que he encontrado para iniciar el aprendizaje del piano. Soy adulta, no pretendo llegar a ser concertista, ni dedicarme profesionalmente a la música. Encuentro orden en el formato que tienes para enseñar tus “pistas” (clues) algo que realmente facilita la progresión de la comprensión y en consecuencia el aprendizaje de una forma más clara y sencilla.
    Muchas gracias por compartir generosamente tu tiempo y esfuerzo.

    Your page is the best I’ve found to start learning the piano. I’m an adult, do not pretend to be a concert, or devote to music professionally. Meeting in order to teach your format clues be something that really facilitates the progression of understanding and therefore learning more clearly and easily.
    Thank you very much for generously sharing your time and effort.

  21. piano beginner says:

    HELP!!!!!! i dont get 1-3-5 pattern how will i apply it to Emajor chord because emaj chord is E-G#-B there is a sharp please explain thanks

  22. Matthijs says:

    @piano beginner: The E major scale is E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D#, so the 1st is E, 3rd is G# and 5th is B. You always need to use the notes from the major scale with these formulas.

  23. Nick says:

    If only more people could make music this clear! Thanks.

  24. Nikki says:

    Thank you so much!! This page in particular helped me with a paper for college in which I needed to explain some music fundamentals to people without music experience or knowledge (I am horrible at explaining things). :D

  25. E M Poole says:

    Your, insite to cord progessions are very clear. Thankyou so very much for
    shareing .

  26. ryan says:

    When would you know to play a diminished, augmented, dominant and suspended chord and how are they used and where should they be played

  27. adamduke says:

    this site is very good 4 young musicolist and key board learners.i fank this site so much koz d site wil deposit impactable knowledge into people.THANK U Ooo!!!

  28. Stephen says:

    Anybody that still comes to this site to learn from this, ignore Dbell. You wouldn’t spell a C7 chord in C Mixolydian as 1-3-5-b7 either, it would just be 1-3-5-7, and here’s why. The 7th note in a C Mixolydian is a B-flat. A b7 in C Mixolydian would be a B-double-flat.

  29. sudheer ranji says:

    It is helpful and clear to analyse the given data thank you

  30. Nathan Malaki says:

    Thanks,it is has helped me much

  31. Lyrical says:

    I jzt a beginner. Someone should help n teach me

  32. AK says:

    Hello :)

    What does it mean, when a chord is shown as, for example B/A?

    Thanks :)

  33. Glory says:

    This is in fact wonderful. The instructors here have done a very good job. I think with what I have read, I will improve in my piano skills. Thanks so much.

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