Spelling Chords Fastly by Knowing Your A,C,E's

Isn't it supposed to be "A,B,C's"? Not in the chord spelling alphabet it isn't.

This "spelling" term is just another name for figuring out the notes in a chord that you see on a chart. You spell out the letters one by one and figure out what makes up the root, third, the fifth etc. Many times as bass players all we get is a set of chord symbols so we have to be all up on that right quick and be able to just *BAM* know what notes it takes to create that scary looking G7#9b13 chord that is staring back at us and giving off that cold clammy feeling. Uh oh, does it have an Bb in it? A D#???

There is a very easy way to spell out any chord you want, and I thought everyone knew this one, but I have shown it to more than one person who said "neat! I didn't know that way", so here it is.

Circle of Thirds

If you arrange all the letters of the musical alphabet in thirds (A,B,C,D,E,F and G thats it, those are all the letters in the musical alphabet) you get something that looks like this -


There is nothing magical about putting "C" at the top of this, I just used it because of the no sharps/flats thing, but if you have a private vowel fetish you can put "E" or "A" at the top and continue the pattern around the circle, or if you quietly yearn for the letter "F" you can start on that letter. Whatever, freak.

It is a circular arrangement, so once you put the letters in this order no matter where you start it will always go around and get all the other letters/notes there are, so start on whatever letter you want, see?


E G B D F A C - same arrangement just starting on E

G B D F A C E - same arrangement just starting on G

B D F A C E G - same arrangement just starting on B

D F A C E G B - same arrangement just starting on D

F A C E G B D - same arrangement just starting on F

A C E G B D F - same arrangement just starting on A

and then back to...

C E G B D..etc. original starting on C

How it works

I will use a crazy sounding chord as an example, say, oh, how about a C7b9#11b13. Whoa, crazy chord huh. Not really. Here is how you figure out what notes are in it:

  1. Pick your root, in this case, it is the "C"
  2. Go around the circle to the right - the next note will be the third of your chord, always. In this case "E"
  3. Go to the next note - this note will always be the 5th - "G"
  4. Keep going - 7th - "B"
  5. Keep going - 9th - "D"
  6. One more! - 11th - "F"
  7. and finally - 13th. "A"
So we got:

R 3 5 7 9 11 13

Those are the raw notes. We know for this chord the 3rd is going to be some kind of "E" it may have to be raised or lowered (sharpened or flattened), but it is gonna be an "E" note of some kind. Same with the llth, its going to be some kind of "F" note, we might have to ensharpenify it or flattenify it to fit the type of chord, but it is going to be an "F". So lets see if we need to modify any notes to fit the chord ... It's a dominant chord so it has a major 3rd and a flat 7, and then this one has some of those fancy altered notes so we have to flat the 9th, ensharpenate the 11, and flatify the 13. So note-by-note we get:
  1. Root - its fine
  2. 3rd - "E" natural is right, it is a major third from C.
  3. 5th - "G" that is fine too, G doesn't need to be changed.
  4. 7th - "B", okay "B" needs to be changed to a "Bb" to fit a dominant chord since dominant chords have flatted 7ths, and "B" is the natural 7 of C.
  5. 9th - "D" also, this needs to be flatted (moved down one fret) to fit this chord and become a "Db"
  6. 11th - "F" - this is opposite, we have raise it by one fret to "F#"
  7. 13th - "A" - we are back to flattening, have to make this a "Ab".
So the final notes in the chord are:
CE G Bb Db F#Ab
R 35 b7 b9 #11 b13

You do still have to know how to construct the basic chord types of Major, Minor, Minor 7 flat 5, Dominant, Diminished and Augmented. You need to know your intervals too and be able to tell that a C7 chords has "E" as a major third, no sharps or flats, but an Ab7's 'natural' notes (so to speak) is going to have an Eb as the fifth, so you you have to know your sharps and flats. There is no trick to that except rote memorization. Lets look at another example starting on a different note so you can see how it works, this time lets do a DMaj9 chord. Same procedure, just start on D instead of "C" and go to the around the circle clockwise.


Same drill, the note after the D is the third, the next note is the 5th, the note after the seventh..you get the hang of it. Now for this chord, we need to raise the "F" to an "F#" and the C to a C# to make the third and the 7th Major. Bam. Done.

Okay, so what about when I have an "Eb" or a "C#" chord, smart guy? Those notes aren't on your little circle there. Huh? What about those? Just start on the letter of the chord you want to spell, so just start on "E", and treat it as an Eb. The next note on the circle is still going to be the third, and then just figure out if you need a G natural, Gb or god forbid a G# for the kind of chord you are making. Same with the sharp notes, just start on the letter C, even in a C# chord, the third is going to be some kind of "E", it may get weird with enharmonic spellings, but it is still an "E" even if it is "E sharp" or F.

So if you memorize any one of those arrangements of the Circle of Thirds that you like, with very little practice you won't even be thinking about it, you will just rattle off "E G B D F A C" and be grabbing the thirds, fifths and sevenths of any chord that gets thrown at ya, sharpening the thirds or flatting the fifths as you go, right quick.


Unknown said...

I love this.

Basso.Ridiculoso said...

Glad it helped! It only takes a few times to get it zipping along and you'll be a real smart feller', and a great chord speller!

Or a smart lady chord speller. In this case.

Tim said...

I notice your first chord spelling example (C7b9#11b13) has the 13th as A(flat) but in your list you put it as G flat.
Great site btw.
I like that you promote Lilypond, my favorite music engraving software.

Bassist Ridiculoso said...

Uh whoops. Maybe I was thinking g# or something, anyway, fixed.

Yes, the more I use lilypond the more I love it. It can do some things that something like finale or sibelius never could. And it looks awesome too. All the embedded music licks on the site use bopland.org which uses lilypond as its back end.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the Circle of Thirds mnemonic.

I've been searching for an better way to learn chord spellings than rote memorization. It took me five minutes to memorize the Circle of Thirds and now I know the spelling of every triad instantly (just add #' and b's as needed).

My first thought when I saw the circle was: Why is this apparently a secret?

My second thought was: The utility of the circle seems so obvious, why didn't I think of it?

Bassist Ridiculoso said...

Well glad it helped! Bono Ridiculoso Grazi!

Shout it from the roof tops, spell chords unprompted, just stop people on the street and tell them what notes are in a G7#9!

Well, don't feel about thinking it up, remember, people have been thinking about and figuring stuff out about music for thousands of years, so it has all been scoped out pretty much. Is it a secret? I don't know, someone showed me, and so I am showing everyone! Show three people and help stamp out chordal illiteracy today!

Alex said...

British pianists may remember a children's learning book called "Jibbidy-F and A-C-E". That's a good mnemonic for the circle of thirds (GBDF and ACE)

Anonymous said...

Throw in the circle of 5ths and it will be much easier to know what accidentals to use.

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