Naming Chords on `Ukulele

Determining the correct name of a chord.

Published: 02 Jan 2005 Updated: 02 Jan 2024Visits: 131Code: UL42-misc-name

INSTRUMENTS: Chords Main: Ukulele Others: Ukulele ANY
Subjects: Chords • Theory • Jazz • Progressions • Harmony

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Naming Chords on `Ukulele

A Chord can have alternate names based on how it is being used. A chord's function is an important determining factor in naming a chord.

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Determining the Name of a Chord?

Chord Names?

The naming of chords is a modern invention for naming chords built using tertian harmony — chords built using intervals of major and minor thirds. With the smallest chord composed of three notes, triads, built using thirds.


  • Plain Staff Notation, used in classical music — the Baroque music period (c. 1600–1750).
  • Roman Numerals , commonly used in harmonic analysis to denote the scale step on which the chord is built. A modern variation is the Nashville Number System, substituting Arabic numbers for Roman numeral with some slight variations. only uses Uppercase Roman Numerals (Do We Need Lowercase Roman Numerals for Harmonic Analysis?)
  • Figured Bass , much used in the Baroque era, uses numbers added to a bass line written on a staff, to enable keyboard players to improvise chords with the right hand while playing the bass with their left.
  • Chord Letters , sometimes commonly used in modern musicology, to denote chord root and quality.
  • Various chord names and symbols used in popular music lead sheets, fake books, and chord charts, to quickly lay out the harmonic ground plan of a piece so that the musician may improvise, jam, or vamp on it. These names are only for chords built in thirds and actually a recent, early 20th century occurrence.

NOTE: This is what is in common usage now as far as naming chord. And, only with Tertian Harmony . Chords build in anything other than thirds have now pseudo naming conventions, so we are on our own.

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Naming Chords on `Ukulele…

Naming chords is a problem on any instrument, without knowing a few things about how chords — especially their Harmonic Function. The how is it being used with the other chords?

One essential step in determining the name of the chord is to figure out the root or letter name of the chord, which can only be determined by:

  • Knowing the harmonic function of the chord or
  • Simply ask the bass player. A bass player has extreme power in determining the name of a chord and its harmonic function. They can use this power for good or evil ;-).

Why Name Chords?

Chard names, the Chord Symbols are used by musicians for a number of purposes. Chord-playing instrumentalists in the rhythm section, such as pianists and guitarists, use these symbols to guide their improvised performance of chord voicings and fills. A rock or pop guitarist or keyboardist might literally play the chords as indicated (e.g., the C major chord would be played by playing the notes C, E and G at the same time). In jazz, particularly for music from the 1940s bebop era or later, players typically have latitude to add in the sixth, seventh, and/or ninth of the chord. Jazz chord voicings often omit the root (leaving it to the bass player) and fifth. As such, a jazz guitarist might voice the C major chord with the notes E, A and D—which are the third, sixth, and ninth of the chord. The bassist (electric bass or double bass) uses the chord symbols to help improvise a bass line that outlines the chords, often by emphasizing the root and other key scale tones (third, fifth, and in a jazz context, the seventh). (wikiwand)

What Is It About A Chord?

  • A Chord can have alternate names based on how it is being used — its Harmonic Function. A chord’s function is an important determining factor in naming a chord.
  • A Chord can ONLY have one name at a time. It is what it is, not what it could be.
  • A Chord should NOT be named by its fingerboard shape alone — beyond a basic open position chord you're just guessing.
  • A Chord can NOT be named by its lowest note — might not be the root.
  • A Chord might NOT even have a root — chords have a perceived root.

Am7 or C6?

A good example of this is to play all the open strings of a C tuned ukulele and ask most players the name, and you will either get Am7 or C6 . If the real bass note or perceived bass note is C, it might be C6 , if the note is an A it might be Am7. If the harmonic function is a I chord in the Key of C , it is C6 . If it is the I chord in Am it's Am7 if it is the VI chord in the Key of C is Am7 , if it is the II chord in Key of F its Am7 … you get the idea. One really needs to know its harmonic function, before it can be named.

A Tougher Example

What is the Name(s) of the Above Chord? Unless you know the harmonic function of a given chord, you'll just be guessing to be able to accurately name it.

A Chord can only be named in the context of how it is being used and after determining how it's functioning within that context.

The above are a just a few of the most commonly alternate chord names for the same shape. It's missing it's third and has an added second or ninth.

Turns out that a m6 chord is a common mis-named chord and is really a 9th chord, as in F9 vs. Cm6 above.


A sus2 chord is a very modern construct. In most cases where it is being used it really is a 5add2 or 5add9 chord. It can also be thought of as a chord build using Quintal Harmony . However it most like is being used used in Tertian Harmony so it is the 5add2 or 5add9 .

The Bottom-Line: If you are not worried as to what any bass player will play, and you don't know the level of musician that will be reading the Chord Name. Picking an easy chord name, regardless of the harmonic context, might give you better results. Not right, and probably Harmonically Offensive to professional musicians — but go for it.

Curt's philosophy it to level-up the musician — not Dumb It Down. Most players are happy to learn the proper names and how music works. It makes them better musicians and they will have more fun and get to play with better musicians. A WIN, WIN all around.

• These Chord Naming Principles apply to Any Chord and Instrument •

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End of Lesson - Thanks, Hope You Enjoyed It!

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