Chords: How Many Are There?
An interesting experiment is to ask people how many
chords there are in music. You'll be surprised to find out
that most musicians don't do any better at answering that
question than non-musicians.
Why do you suppose is that?
It is probably because it sounds like one of those
questions such as "How many grains of sand on the seashore
are there?", or "How many stars are there in the sky?"
And in a sense it is, but in another sense, we can get
a fairly accurate sense of chord population just by
calculating all the chord types and then multiplying them
by the number of inversions that are possible and the
number of octaves that are possible on any given
So let's start with a listing of chord types:
7th with flat 5th
That's 25 of the most-used types. There are several
other variations, but these chord types will do nicely for
our purposes of estimating the total number of chords.
Each chord can be inverted -- turned upside down -- by
the number of notes in the chord. For example, a 3 note
chord has 3 positions -- root position, first inversion,
and second inversion. A 4 note chord has 4 positions, a
five note chord has 5 positions, and so on.
We will say for arguments sake that 4 positions is the
average, knowing that some chords have more and some have
less. So if we multiply 25 chord types by 4 positions,
that gives us 100 possible chords per octave.
But of course we can build chords not just on one note,
but on 12: C, Db or C#, E, F, F# or Gb, G, G# or Ab, A, A#
or Bb, and B -- 12 different roots. So 12 times the
possible 100 or so chords per octave give us a rough total
of 1200 possible chords.
Some instruments only have the range to play 2 or 3
octaves, whereas a piano with its 88 keys can play 7
octaves -- 1200 chords in the lowest octave, 1200 chords in
the next octave, 1200 chords in the next octave, and so on
up to the top octave of the keyboard.
So on the piano we could theoretically play those 1200
chords in all 7 octaves, giving us some 8400 possible
chords. Of course, some would sound so low or so high that
they wouldn't really be useable in a song. But still, they
So what's the answer to the original question? It depends
upon the instrument and how many variations of each chord
the individual musician uses -- but in any case, it's a