The Root

In this article you will learn to decipher the two most important aspects of any chord symbol: root and tonality. Armed with this knowledge you will already be able to read the basics out of every chord chart, e.g. the example above. We’ll start with the root as the first and most significnat part of any chord symbol. Then we’ll see how major chords and minor chords are written. So let’s get started.

Root and Accidentals

The first and most significant part of any chord symbol is the first letter. This letter gives you the root or bass note of the chord. Thus you will only encounter the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, or B (or H, if you’re reading some German chord symbols). The remaining notes of the chromatic scale are formed by adding an accidental (b or #), e.g. C# for „c sharp“. Please don’t write „Csharp“ or „Eflat“ (or „Cis“ and „Es“ in German), becuse it will confuse everyone. With this simple pattern of the first letter you can write every root of the chromatic scale:

Chromatic Chords

(see „enharmonic change“ for why there are more than 12 names for the 12 notes of the chromatic scale).


You may have seen the first letter written in upper case or lower case. The case is important, since it defines the most important apsect of the chord: the tonality (major or minor). The easiest common case is an upper case letter (e.g. D or F). An upper case letter indicates a major chord. So with one upper case letter you can describe a full major triad. For example the chord symbol C has the following notes: the root „c“, the major third above (since the upper case letter hints at a major chord) „e“ and the fifth „g“. So one upper case letter is all you need to describe a simple major chord!


A minor chord on the other hand can be written in several ways. The most common are (using a „d minor“ as an example):

D Minor

They all represent the same chord „d minor“. The first style simply uses a lower case letter - which makes sense in contrast to the upper case letter for „major“. However, this stlye has its problems when writing chords with a pen on paper: think about the letter „c“

C Chord Problem

In hand writing it can be hard to tell whether a „c“ is upper or lower case. Consequently it might be hard to tell major from minor. That is why many people prefer one of the other styles. In „Dm“ the „m“ is short for „minor“. „D-„ – a capital letter followed by a minus sign – is also read as „d minor“. „Dmin“ and „Dmi“ are basically a longer form of „Dm“ and also mean „d minor“. It is less common, since it’s longer to write and takes up more space. The two styles „Dm“ and „D-„ are the most common in popular and jazz music. The Jazz Real Book uses the „D-„ or „Dmi“ notation (depending on the edition).

Choose a style you like or one that people for whom you write prefer (see table). Feel free to change the stlye for every song you write, but be consistent within one song and stick to one minor chord symbol style. Don’t confuse your fellow musicians by writing a chord progressen like „Cm d A-„.


You learned that the first letter of the chord symbol determines the root note. Add accidentals to produce every note from the chromatic scale. You also learned that major chords are written as upper case letters and minor chords can be written in a variety of ways (c Cm C- Cmin). With this knowledge you can already decipher the two most important apsects of any chord symbol: root and tonality. Go ahead an try to read or play some chord charts. I attached some examples for you.


Example 1:

Smells Like Teen Spirit


Example 2:



Example 3:

In the Midnight Hour


Did you like this article? Have questions I did not answer? Just leave a comment and I'll get back to you.

Matthias Orgler

I play music on stages and in studios :). My passion is to help other musicians wherever I can. With I want to make gigging easier and with my "Real World Music Theory" series I want to make music theory fun to learn.


Submit a comment