Chord Symbols & How They Work
Chord symbols are often a part of sheet music and usually appear
above each line (music staff), above each individual measure. There
can be as many as five or six chord symbols for the same measure.
For the most part, they are there as a guide for "playing along"
with the music in the sense of accompanying the written music
whether sung, played on piano, or both. These chords symbols are
essentially designed for a guitarist, but can be played by other
instruments such as a ukulele, banjo, mandolin, etc. Sometimes the
chord symbols include the finger positions for a guitarist (to play
the proper chord).
Because they are only symbols, it's up to the musician to play each
chord in whatever way they choose. For example, the chords could be
played by strumming or finger picking a guitar, playing the chords
in Bluegrass style on a banjo, or playing the chords in a very
rhythmic fashion on a mandolin.
This, of course, all depends on the accompanying musician knowing
how to form and play each chord (symbol). Some times, there are
chord symbols the musician is not familiar with (and does not know
how to play). Using the example of a guitar player, they will have
to look up the chord (symbol) in a chord book, or create the chord
using the sheet music as a guide.
An experienced musician will play the chords in a way that
compliments the (piano/sheet) music. Their playing should match the
tempo of the music and compliment it in style and tone. This
requires being familiar with a particular piece of music and how it
is intended to be played. One of the challenges of playing along
using chord symbols is avoiding "conflict" with the sheet music.
Care must be taken to play the proper notes of the chord and avoid
disharmonic "clashes" with particular notes of the music. For
example, playing the note B when the melody asks for the note C, or
playing an E minor chord when the melody asks for an F#.
Using a guitar player as an example, chord symbols allow the
guitarist to sing along with their own accompaniment. The guitarist
may know the piece of music and how it is sung, or if they can read
music, find and sing the melody as it appears in the music.
Professional musicians often use chord symbols to perform a piece of
music they are not totally familiar with. For example, if a vocalist
can sing the melody as presented in a piece of the sheet music, the
guitarist needs to know only the chords represented by the chord
As examples, Fm7 means an F minor 7th chord, Bb6 means a B flat
sixth chord, Adim means an A diminished seventh chord, and G means a
G major chord.
Having chord symbols can also help the piano player. Knowing the
chord name as it is played on the piano is a great learning aid. But
care has to be taken as the chord symbols are usually a very simple
version of the chord on the piano.
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