Let’s take a song and walk through all of the chords in it. I chose “Just As I Am” for this exercise because it is a very typical hymn from a harmony perspective. It contains I, IV, and V major chords and has a few 7th chords, a 9th, and a few inversions. Here is the way it might be written in a hymnbook.
If these chords look boring to you, it is because they are indeed very boring. So boring in fact that we need to change them. Below, I am going to show you an alternate harmonization that is much more interesting. But first, let’s make sure you understand why all of the chords are labeled as they are.
The pickup measure and the first two measures contain simple C chords containing only the root, third and fifth. Do not get confused by the last half of the pickup beat. While the D and F do not belong in the C triad, the chord does not really change because it happens so fast. We call these “passing tones” and you can see that the D bridges the C to the E in the melody while the F bridges the E to the G in the tenor line. You will see the same thing happen on the second half of beat two in measure 2.
Measure 3 has a 7th chord in the last beat because of the F in the melody line which is the 7th of a G chord.
The last beat of measure 5 is a slash chord. This means a chord with a different note than the root played in the bass. In this example, the chord is a C chord but it is being played in second inversion with a G on the bottom. A similar slash chord happens in measure 7.
Measure 6 has a 9th chord because of the A. Remember that the 9th is really the second note in the scale that would start on the root of the chord. Because the chord is G and the second note of a G scale is A, the A is referred to either as the 2nd or 9th.
There is nothing unusual about the second line except for the passing tones found in measures 8, 10, 12, and 14.
If you still do not understand how the chords are labeled, study this example a bit more before moving on. If you do not understand this one, you are about to get really confused!
Ready for something more complicated?
Now, here is a reharmonization of “Just As I Am” that is somewhat closer to that I would play it. It is still greatly simplified in that I have left out the passing tones and many other things that would make it more complicated to analyze. However, it is a good step down the road of improvisation and is a taste of where I want you to go. For the time being, I just want you to learn how to identify these more complex chords so I am going to discuss it from that perspective only.
If you cannot read this example every well, you can download a pdf here.
Before we start looking at each chord, I would like to point out a few things. First, notice that every single chord contains a 7th. By the way, if there is a 9th or 11th in the chord, I often name the chord without the 7th in it, but it is implied.
Also, remember that a 7th (dominant 7th) can be a bit confusing because it is actually a lowered 7th in a major scale. In a C chord, the 7th is Bb rather than B natural even though it does not belong in the scale. On the other hand, the major 7th is B natural. I remember it this way–a major 7th is one half step under the root and the dominant 7th is two half steps under the root.
Also, understand that other people will name these chords differently than I do and that is fine. There are so many ways to name chords that we all just agree to get along. In particular, musicians would label many of these chords as slash chords. In fact, the very first chord would be labeled a IV/V or F/G. Even if they read the chord like me, they might represent it differently. For a minor chord, some musicians use a “-“, others use “m” and others use “min”.
Since the song is written in the key of C, a C major chord is used quite often. Let’s examine that chord in particular. Here are the possible notes you might see in a major C chord.
|b9||Db or C#|
|b5||F# or Gb|
|#5 or b6||G#|
You might wonder why I have listed a #9 (sharp 9) because that is also a minor 3rd (which could make the chord sound minor). You can add the #9 to a major chord as long as also play the major 3rd (while it is dissonant, it works sometimes). There are other idiosyncrasies here as well, but I do not want to go into them now.
If you use this chart, you can see why the first chord in measure 1 is labeled Cmaj7(9). It contains C, E, and G with B natural (major 7th) and D (9th).
I don’t want to explain every chord in this song, but let’s take a look at a few of them. As I mentioned before, you will often see the first chord written as F/G. However, I see it as a G7 with the 9th (A) and 11th (C) added. This is a preference and I will readily admit that slash chords in situations like this are probably easier to understand.
Another example of this happens in the last chord of measure 2. This could be written as Gdim/A (“dim” stands for diminished). However, the chord to me is just a A7 with a flat 9 (Bb).
The first chord in measure 7 is an augmented chord, which really just means it is a major chord with a raised 5th. The 9th (A) is also added.
The only chord I have named as a slash chord is the first chord of measure 13. In my opinion, this is a C chord in first inversion. However, you could also label it Emin(13). If you did, notice that there is no fifth (B), but the fifth is not necessary and you will often see it missing from complex chords.
Why are we doing this?
My goal is to get you to the point where you can name chords quickly. You cannot start doing chord substitutions until you understand what the original chords are. Also, once you can read chords quickly, your improvisation skill will improve dramatically. Don’t worry if you have to spend some time analyzing the chords in the second example. However, strive to get to the point where you can analyze the first example at the speed which the song is normally sung.