A Chord by Any Other Name

Okay, okay, I can hear you out there yelling, “Name the rest of those chords!” But how should we go about naming all those other triads/tri-chords? At the risk of contradicting what I said earlier, I’ve decided to go with what I consider to be the most common function of each chord (Fig. 2). Some are easier than others, the Fsus2 in measure two is obvious to me, even though we could also call it Csus4, G7sus4, and a few others without root notes! If you know your theory, you should feel free to disagree with me on some of these names, otherwise you’re just going to have to trust me.

A very common example of a chord having more than one name is the second chord of the fifth measure. Even though I called it a G7, it’s more of a B diminished because that chord contains no G note! But the other three notes imply the sound of G7. If you find this a difficult concept to grasp you are not alone, this is somewhat complex, but if you use your ear, you can tell that this G7, even without a G, sounds and functions the same as a full G7.

Fig. 3 is an example of the common G7 “cowboy chord” moving to C. Then you can hear the G7 tri-chord moving to C. Can you hear it functioning in the same way? Finally, we have the same G7 tri-chord moving to a different C triad, with smoother voice leading.

I find the easiest way to put any chord into immediate, functional use is to play it in the context of a common chord progression. Fig. 4 is your everyday I–IV–V–I in the key of C. These particular voicings and the arpeggio pattern provide a certain ’90s pop sound to the progression.

Next, in Fig. 5, is a minor Im–IVm–Vm, to which I have added open-string bass notes to emphasize the harmony. This would work nicely as an intro to a late ’80s metal tune.

Finally, Fig. 6 demonstrates some alternative voicings for the ubiquitous I–IV–VIm–V found in so many pop songs from the last 60 years.

These common points of reference are just the beginning. You don’t have to use these everyday progressions in your own songs. Develop some new, unique sounding series of chords that will leave listeners wondering, “What chord is that?” The more harmonic ambiguity the better I say!