Learn How to Spell Any Chord

Learning how to spell chords is one of the easiest and quickest ways to explode your musical abilities.

If you are unclear on how to construct chords or how to read them on a lead sheet and staff paper, I recommend you master this skill now.

Let me tell you something exciting—If you can memorize the musical alphabet and can count to seven, you can spell any chord! That’s the whole goal of this post but before we get into how to do it, let me tell you a story…

Why is Spelling Chords Important?

When I was learning jazz guitar, my instructor instilled the importance of knowing how to build any chord. His approach to improvisation was based on using arpeggios as the starting point for the phrases in a solo. Did I mention that he was a badass?

For a long time, I used to think that great improvisers relied solely on intuition and just had that element of unknowable greatness—but that’s not really the case. They relied on their mastery of chords and ability to emphasize and deviate from the notes within each chord.

What makes music really interesting is when a musician steps outside, or as jazz guys say “play out” from the key, then return to the home tonic. This contrast adds drama to what you’re playing, and in essence, creates musical phrases that are exciting rather than vanilla.

If you did not now the notes in a chord, you can imagine that it would be pretty difficult to know where to begin—like fumbling in the dark reaching for something unseen. This not only applies to playing a great solo, it’s directly related to composing new music and learning new songs. How can you paint if you don’t have any colors to work with?

So are you ready? Let’s learn how to spell any chord.

The Musical Alphabet

The musical alphabet has seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

These are the only notes that we use in Western music. We can raise or lower their pitches by a half-step, but that’s all we’ll do with them, ever. It’s amazing how we can compose so much great music with just a few notes—don’t you think?

Spelling Triads

Triads are three notes chords that have a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. These are the intervals of a triad, and when played on an instrument, are called arpeggios.

What’s cool about the musical alphabet is that we can use it to spell any triad.

First, select the starting note (root, which you can say is 1), then leap frog to the next note by skipping the note in between to get to the 3rd. Leap frog again by skipping the note in between to get the 5th.

For example, let’s build an A triad.

If we are starting on A it will be our root, or 1. Now we need to add the 3rd and 5th to complete the triad. Keep in mind our counting is relative to the root that we choose.

 A-B-C-D-E-F-G

(1-2-3-4-5-6-7)

If we use our musical alphabet, count up from A. We’ll skip B since it’s 2 and land on C, which is the 3rd. Now we need the 5th so we skip D (4) and land on E. Viola!

So the notes of an A triad are: A(root), C(3rd), E(5th).

Note, if you want to play an A arpeggio, you would just play the intervals, or notes that make up that A triad. This is outlining the notes of that chord.

Right now we are not worried about raising or lowering any of the notes. Our goal is to be able to spell triads without thinking, lightning fast.

Triad Spelling Practice

Name the root, 3rd and 5th of the following triads:

  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • B
  • C

Extensions

Extensions are what make chords exciting!

In a triad, we stopped at the 5th interval but we can keep going—we can add more notes on top of it. This is when we get into 7th chords and beyond.

Let’s take our A triad.

What note would we add if we wanted to make it an A 7th chord? It’s simple! Just refer back to your handy musical alphabet.

Since A is still our 1, and all of our counting is relative to it, our 7th would have to be the G Note.

A-B-C-D-E-F-G

(1-2-3-4-5-6-7)

The A 7th chord would have the following notes in it: A, C, E, G. If we wanted to arpeggiate it, we would play all the notes on our instrument starting on the A.

Car Driving Exercise

The best place to practice spelling chords is in your car—backwards and forwards until it becomes automatic. Not only is it a resourceful use of time, if you can do it easily while you’re driving, it would be second nature in a musical setting.

It will take effort to do this. I recommend visualizing a piano in your mind. This will help you see the notes as you count the intervals.

Summary

Learning how to spell chords is an essential skill to understanding music. Not only will you be able to build any chord that you desire, you’ll know the notes that are "outside" of the chords that you’re playing. This is a fantastic starting point to improvising and composing music. The balance between playing in and out of the chord tones is where all of the creativity begins.

Happy playing!