Chord Formula Basics: Understanding How Chords are Made

There are lots of chords that start with Csus2, Dsus4, Gmaj7 etc. What are their names and what do they tell you about the chord? In this lesson, we take a look at chords to help make sense of these names and why they’re made.

Learn the Formula Behind Chords

Most chord-players don’t memorize chords but rather rely on their knowledge of them from looking at formatting or from notes given. Many more also have a very basic understanding of how chord construction works. Memorizing chord progressions is great, but learning how chords are formed and named will make more sense of your chord repertoire.

A knowledge of how to build chords is great for musicians who want to learn more about creating sound and developing new progressions. You might find it particularly useful if you’re not happy with the chords you’ve previously learned, or if you don’t have that much time for learning new ones.

Those who want to adventure to new sounds can use this knowledge of key notes for better improvisation. As a bonus, it alternates chord tones and non-chords to make improv a more comfortable endeavor.

How Chords are Named

Many different chords are based on distinct notes, such as the root of the chord based off of “E” or the chord built off of “F.”. so the second part provides a description of how the other notes of the chord are chosen in relation to the root.

For example, in the chord, C major 7th, the first part of the name (i.e., the root is C and the second part of it is major 7th) and In the chord F minor 7th, The root is F (F sharp) and minor 7th is type of chord. Major chords are pretty easy to identify, and typically have the root note named as its name. In this case, it’s been renamed from Bb to just B.

Finding the root note is easy enough, it’s always given. But in order to know which notes are specified by the second part of the name, we have to do two things:

  1. This is a reference guide for major chords built on the root of C.

  2. We have to know the formula for “that type” of chord. That tells us which notes to select/modify from a given scale.

Note: No, you can’t find chord tones from the major scale or any other scale. They’re just convenient way to use the chord formulas. All diatonic scales have different formulas and differences in sound identity. However, the major scale is the most popular of all of them. That’s why it’s the only one sometimes used for this purpose.

This part lists the formula for some of the most common chord types, which makes it easier to work out advanced and more obscure chords from their names.

Chord Formula List

Here is a list of chord types, each with its formula and amp examples based on the root note C. Chords are formed in a process called harmonization. It happens when you find a chord you want to create, and then build it out by adding notes one at a time in succession. This means learning more about the structure is useful – seeing how chords go up or down, for example.

Chord types are a large category of popular songs and some can be more complicated than others. Hope you’ll be able to find yourself in this post, if not then please leave a comment with a chord type you found that you couldn’t find here!

C major scale (2 octaves) > C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C

Chord Construction and Chord Formula List

Chord type Formula Example in C Notes
Major 1 3 5 C E G Named after the major 3rd interval between root and 3
Minor 1 b3 5 C Eb G Named after the minor 3rd interval between root and b3
7th 1 3 5 b7 C E G Bb Also called DOMINANT 7th
Major 7th 1 3 5 7 C E G B Named after the major 7th interval between root and 7th major scale note
Minor 7th 1 b3 5 b7 C Eb G Bb
6th 1 3 5 6 C E G A Major chord with 6th major scale note added
Minor 6th 1 b3 5 6 C Eb G A Minor chord with 6th major scale note added
Diminished 1 b3 b5 C Eb Gb
Diminished 7th 1 b3 b5 bb7 C Eb Gb Bbb
Half diminished 7th 1 b3 b5 b7 C Eb Gb Bb Also called minor 7thb5
Augmented 1 3 #5 C E G#
7th #5 1 3 #5 b7 C E G# Bb
9th 1 3 5 b7 9 C E G Bb D
7th #9 1 3 5 b7 #9 C E G Bb D# The ‘Hendrix’ chord
Major 9th 1 3 5 7 9 C E G B D
Added 9th 1 3 5 9 C E G D Chords extended beyond the octave are called ‘added’ when the 7th is not present.
Minor 9th 1 b3 5 b7 9 C Eb G Bb D
Minor add 9th 1 b3 5 9 C Eb G D
11th 1 (3) 5 b7 9 11 C E G Bb D F The 3rd is often omitted to avoid a clash with the 11th
Minor 11th 1 b3 5 b7 9 11 C Eb G Bb D F
7th #11 1 3 5 b7 #11 C E G Bb D F# often used in preference to 11th chords to avoid the dissonant clash between 11 and 3
Major 7th #11 1 3 5 7 9 #11 C E G B D F#
13th 1 3 5 b7 9 (11) 13 C E G Bb D (F) A The 11th is often omitted to avoid a clash with the 3rd.
Major 13th 1 3 5 7 9 (11) 13 C E G B D (F) A The 11th is often omitted to avoid a clash with the 3rd.
Minor 13th 1 b3 5 b7 9 11 13 C Eb G B D F A
Suspended 4th (sus, sus4) 1 4 5 C F G
Suspended 2nd (sus2) 1 2 5 C D G Sometimes considered as an inverted sus4 (GCD)
5th (power chord) 1 5 C G

Chord Formulas for Common

Chords are cool but if you’re not sure what you’re doing, they can be a little complicated. But, don’t worry – this is the cheat sheet! Let’s take a closer look at the formulas for all the most common chord types…

Major Chords

One of the first things to learn about creating an accurate chord progression is understanding the formula for major chords. There are three notes that make up a major chord, which are known as the root, 3rd and 5th note.

Take a closer look at the scale and chord of C major.

The scale of C major consists of the notes: C D E F G A B C

If you combine these notes, you’ll wind up with a chord for C major.

Play them all at the same time (or even one after the other) and we have the chords of C major. We can duplicate any of the notes to make the chord fuller sounding. For example, we can have C E G E G A D, or any other arrangement that your instrument allows.

If for example the root is the lowest sound in a chord, then it’s called ROOT POSITION. If any other note is the lowest note of a chord, that means it’s in INVERTED POSITION and your whole chord sounds an octave higher. Root chords have a more stable, balanced sound than inverted chords. Root Chords also tend to be less subtle and less definite in their effect on the music. They both provide different sounds and therefor can both be useful in certain situations.

The basis for this question comes from the fact that every chord has a bass note that is lower than any other note. For example, the chord C major contains an E as its lowest note. If you’re playing it on your guitar in first inversion, then there is no tonic playing concurrently with another instrument’s bass note. A bass guitar playing an E along with a guitar playing an E will sound stable to a listening ear because it’s the most basic chord formation.

Minor Chords

Here’s the formula for minor chords – 1 b3 (flat 3) 5. It’s similar to a major chord except that the interval between the root and the 3rd is smaller. Basically it means that, as in a major chord, the distance between the root and 3rd of a minor chord is bigger than in a major chord. The minor third interval is called a ‘minor 3rd.’ That’s why the chord is called ‘minor.’

In order to get that b3rd note in order to make the chord of C minor we take the 3rd note of the C major scale and lower it (keeping the same letter name). So instead of C E & G, that the major chord formula gave us, we get C Eb (E flat) & G.

Major 7th Chords

Here is the formula for major 7th chords. It’s a major chord with the 7th note of the scale added. So the chord of C major 7th consists of the notes: C E G B. Sometimes in music, chords can also be named by their number of notes that are stacked on top of each other. In this case, the chord’s 7th is a major 7th interval above the root. The chord is the 7th chord, which uses a minor 7th above root.

7th Chords

The formula for 7th chords (also called dominant 7ths) is 1 3 5 b7.

This formula will help you match chords with notes. Just apply it to the C major scale and find out what chord consists of the notes C, E, G and Bb..

Note: The 7th chord in major and minor scales can be referred to as the “Dominant-7”. Use caution with this terminology as other meanings exist meaning the dominant- 7th is actually built on chains of thirds. Due to their formula, you could name a chord as 1-3-5-b7 regardless of whether it is originally from a key or has its own scale.

Minor 7th Chords

The formula for minor 7th chords is 1 b3 5 b7. So C minor 7th consists of the notes C Eb G Bb..

Extended Chords

The chords so far have stuck to the major scale in alternating black and white notes. That means that they’ve started on the first note, skipped the second, followed by skipping all the way up through the seventh. Here are some chord intervals in thirds, which we can describe by saying that the spacing (or interval) between each note and the next covers three letters.

Here is the C major scale again with a C major 7th chord outlined in bold.


A third is the interval in music that spans 3 letters and C to E would be a 3rd. Similarly, E to G would also be a 3rd because it spans three letters. And G to B is also the third interval because it spans 3 letters too – G A B. They are not all the same size. The pitch is smaller for G which is one semitone smaller than E and C. If you want to make sure your song is in perfect key, it’s important that your noteheads line up with each of the thirds.

As we’ve added more notes over 2 octaves, we can see that the scale goes deeper and deepens in sound quality. Here is the C major scale written out from two octaves to ten. The bold notes are 3rd apart and the final note is a D which is the 9th note of a scale. This gives us a chord with the formula 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9. The word major here is referring to the 7th being a major 7th interval above the root. It does not refer to it being lowered because of the seven’s flat nature.


The D note is the same as the C, but we use 9ths to show how it’s been built. The other notes are also in 3rd intervals. The pitch of the notes doesn’t matter – they can be at different ends of a piano.

With extended chords, we take a note and make it repeat additional notes, giving us chords with more notes that can be played. An 11th chord has the same notes as our 3rd scale but 1 less in the key of C, and a 13th chord has different notes but 2 less than our original 3rd scale.

We often leave out the 11th note of a 13th chord because it can clash with the 3rd. Playing the 5th doesn’t really add much to the chord overall. All that’s needed is a 3-note combination in order to convey the sound of an 13th – which can be rightfully implied by using b7 and 13 together alone.

Augmented and Diminished Chords

So far, all the chords have used note 5 straight from the major scale, but there are two other important chord types that modify note 5. These are the chords by raising or lowering it.

Augmented Chords

If you take a major chord on the piano and raise the fifth of that chord to G, then you get an augmented sixth (C, E and G) in place of it. C augmented consists of C, E and G.

We sometimes see other chords that contain the same 5 notes. For example, C major 7 has C E G B in it and C major7 5 has the same notes but in a different order.

Augmented chords have the symbol +, e.g., C+ means C augmented.

Diminished Chords

If we take a minor chord (1 b3 5) and lower the 5 to b5, we get a diminished chord. So, as C minor consists of C Eb G, the chord, C diminished consists of Cb, Eb Gb.

An important type of diminished chord is the diminished chord with a raised 7th. This creates tension and anticipation, which can be helpful in creating tension-filled endings to songs. There are also two other types of diminished chords – the half diminished seventh chord and the half-diminished seventh suspended chord.

The diminished 7th chord has a strange sounding structure because it consists of notes: 1 b3 b5, like the simple diminished chord, but it also includes a 7th note which has been lowered twice!! We call that note a double flatted 7th (bb7). So, the formula for this chord is 1 b3 b5 bb7. The chord, C diminished 7th consists of C Eb Gb and … wait for it … Bbb. It has to be called Bbb because it’s a type of 7th chord.

Since the half diminished 7th chord is a 7th that’s been lowered just once, one notable difference with the fully diminished 7th is that it keeps all of its notes. The notes are C Eb Gb Bb on the C half diminished 7th chord. The chord here is the minor 7th with a b5 interval.

Diminished chords have the symbol ° e.g., C°7 means C diminished 7th.

Half diminished chords have the symbol Ø7 (or sometimes just Ø by itself), e.g., Cö7 means C half diminished 7th.

Going Forward

If you can see the logic in chord names, then it will make things easier when encountering any chord construction problems. Memorize the important chords and you’ll find that most of the others are just extensions and can be constructed quite easily by making simple modifications. The clue is usually in the name.


You should now have a solid understanding of chord formulas and how they work to create chord progressions. This should also help you strengthen your knowledge of scales and chords. In future lessons we’ll take a look at applying this knowledge of scales over chords to creating interesting guitar solos.

FAQ for Chord Formula Basics

What is a Chord Formula?

Chord formulas are great shorthand for making up chords and learning an instrument, but if you want to understand what they mean exactly, you’ll need a bit of knowledge about intervals. In this lesson we’ll go over what that is.

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