Jazz chord

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Jazz chord
Major seventh chord on C, notated as CΔ7

Jazz chords refer to chords, chord voicings and chord symbols that jazz musicians commonly use in composition, improvisation, and harmony. In jazz chords and theory, most triads that appear in lead sheets or fake books can have sevenths added to them, using the performer's discretion and ear. [1] For example, if a tune is in the key of C, if there is a G chord, the chord-playing performer usually voices this chord as G7. While the notes of a G7 chord are G–B–D–F, jazz often omits the fifth of the chord—and even the root if playing in a group. [2] However, not all jazz pianists leave out the root when they play voicings: Bud Powell, one of the best-known of the bebop pianists, and Horace Silver, whose quintet included many of jazz's biggest names from the 1950s to the 1970s, included the root note in their voicings. [3] [4]


Improvising chord-playing musicians who omit the root and fifth are given the option to play other notes. For example, if a seventh chord, such as G7, appears in a lead sheet or fake book, many chord-playing performers add the ninth, thirteenth or other notes to the chord, even though the lead sheet does not specify these additional notes. Jazz players can add these additional, upper notes because they can create an important part of the jazz sound. Lead sheets and fake books often do not detail how to voice the chord because a lead sheet or fake book is only intended to provide basic guide to the harmony. An experienced "comping" performer playing electric guitar or piano may add or remove notes as chosen according to the style and desired sound of that musician, but must do so in a way that still emphasizes the correct musical context for other musicians and listeners. [5]

In voicing jazz chords while in a group setting, performers focus first on the seventh and the major or minor third of the chord, with the latter indicating the chord quality, along with added chord extensions (e.g., ninths, elevenths, or thirteenths, even if not indicated in the lead sheet or fake book) to add tone "colour" to the chord. As such, a jazz guitarist or jazz piano player might "voice" a printed G7 chord with the notes B–E–F–A, which would be the third, sixth (thirteenth), flat seventh, and ninth of the chord. Jazz chord-playing musicians may also add altered chord tones (e.g., 9, 9, 11, 13) and added tones. An example of an altered dominant chord in the key of C, built on a G would be to voice the chord as "B–C–E–F–A"; this would be G7(911).



Each chord is described as a series of intervallic relationships to the root of the chord. This provides an accurate and easily understandable basis for working out these chords in each key.

The terms used to describe intervals are as follows:

All root chords are described starting with the lowest note, and ascending in pitch. For instance, a chord described as

root, 3, 5.

contains the root, a major third above the root, and a perfect fifth above the root. It is a major triad. If this chord were built on C (with C as the root), it would contain the notes

C, E, G.

Compound intervals

Compound intervals are intervals larger than an octave. They can also be described as an octave plus a simple interval. Note that this is not a complete list of compound intervals, only those that are commonly used in jazz chords.

  • 9 = compound minor second (minor ninth) = 1 semitone + an octave = 13 semitones above the root
  • 9 = compound major second (ninth) = 2 semitones + an octave = 14 semitones above the root
  • 9/10 = compound augmented second/minor third (augmented ninth/minor tenth) = 3 semitones + an octave = 15 semitones above the root.
  • 10 = compound major third (tenth) = 4 semitones + an octave = 16 semitones above the root
  • 11 = compound perfect fourth (eleventh) = 5 semitones + an octave = 17 semitones above the root
  • 11 = compound augmented fourth (augmented eleventh) = 6 semitones + an octave = 18 semitones above the root
  • 13 = compound minor sixth (minor thirteenth) = 8 semitones + an octave = 20 semitones above the root
  • 13 = compound major sixth (thirteenth) = 9 semitones + an octave = 21 semitones above the root


Optional extensions to the chords are written in parentheses, e.g. (11). These notes are not necessary to define the function of the chord, but are included to add colour or fill out the sound according to the tastes of the performer. Extensions may be written into the chords when a specific colour or texture is warranted, or the chords in a lead sheet or fake book may simply state "C7 – A7 – D7 – G7". This does not mean that the chord-playing performer can only perform four-note dominant seventh chords. Chord-playing performers can use their ear, their sense of good taste acquired from listening to jazz, and their knowledge of the style of the tune being played (e.g., is it a bebop tune or a jazz fusion tune) to help guide their use of extension notes, altered extensions, and added tones. In a band, the bandleader might request that certain voicings be used (e.g., 9/11) or request that certain other voicings be avoided (e.g., 13), due to the bandleader's taste.


Chords are described here in terms of intervals relative to the root of the chord, arranged from smaller intervals to larger. This is a standard method used when describing jazz chords as it shows them hierarchically: Lower intervals (third, fifth and seventh) are more important in defining the function of the chord than the upper intervals or extensions (9th, 11th, 13th), which add color. Although it is possible to play the chords as described here literally, it is possible to use different orderings of the same notes, known as a voicings, or even by omitting certain notes.

Jazz chord

For instance, the dominant seventh 11 or Lydian dominant, C711, comprises the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, (5), 7, (9), 11, (13).

Basing this chord on the pitch, C, results in the pitches:

C (often omitted), E, G, B, D, F, A.

The same chord type may also be voiced:

C (often omitted), E, B, F, A, D, F.

This voicing omits both the root and the perfect fifth (G) and raises the major ninth (D) by an octave. The augmented eleventh (F) is also played twice in two different registers. This is known as "doubling".


An arrangement of musical intervals according to how satisfying they may sound. Notes bell curve.png
An arrangement of musical intervals according to how satisfying they may sound.

Jazz improvisation is partly about selecting intervals within the chord or melody being played at a particular place in a song. While there are no right or wrong choices if notes are played in correct context, the graphic suggests how choices can be anything from boring through interesting to 'wrong' sounding, but judgments are strongly a matter of taste and experience and vary depending on the musician. Notes farther from the chord can often be inserted between other notes that are on the chord, such as E-Eb-Db-C over a C7 chord.

Chord types

Basic chord types

The above chords, despite their differences, share the same harmonic function and can be used interchangeably.

Major chords

Jazz chord
Major seventh chord on C i.e. CΔ7

A major seventh chord contains the notes:

root, 3, 5, M7, (9).

The symbols M7 and Δ7 have the same meaning as maj7 or just Δ. Often melody notes or other pitches influence an improviser's choice of chord types. For example, if the melody note is the root of the chord, including a major seventh can cause dissonance.

Jazz chord
Major sixth chord on C i.e. C6

A major sixth chord contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5, 6.
Jazz chord
Major 6/9 chord on C i.e. C6/9

A 6/9 chord (C6/9 or C6add9) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5, 6, 9.
Jazz chord
Lydian chord on C i.e. CΔ11

A Lydian chord (CΔ11) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5, M7, (9), 11 (13).

The Lydian chord has a strange quirk, where if you put the root both above and below the augmented eleventh it creates an unpleasant dissonance of a tritone. This is not usually a problem in a jazz context, as chord-playing musicians often omit the root.

The interval of the sixth is used, even though it is described after other compound intervals and perhaps should also be a compound interval (i.e., 13th). However, a convention in jazz dictates that when describing the major sixth, generally use the simple interval, i.e., 6 is often used instead of the compound interval, i.e., 13. This helps avoid confusion with the dominant thirteenth chord.

Basic dominant chords

The term basic can be used to describe dominant chords based on the major scale.[ citation needed ] In many instances, dominant chords written as a basic chord (e.g., C13) can substitute for a more complex chord, as long as it remains part of the same group (i.e., dominant chords) and does not clash with the melody note.

Dominant chords are considered to sound unstable in a classical music harmony context, and so in a classical piece, these chords often resolve down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth (e.g. C7 tends to resolve onto chords based on F, such as F major or F minor). However, in a jazz context, particularly in music from the 1940s bebop era and later decades, dominant chords were no longer treated as "unstable" chords. Some bebop tunes use a dominant chord as the tonic chord and also use dominant chords for the chords that would typically be minor chords in a Classical piece or a swing arrangement. For example, while a Classical piece and a swing arrangement might use the following chord sequence in the key of C major: "C – Am – Dm – G7", a bebop bandleader might reharmonize the same progression as "C7 – A7 – D7 – G7", making a sequence of dominant seventh chords, so long as the new dominant chord harmonies were compatible with the tune's melody. For more details, see chord progression.

Many of the chordal alterations used in jazz are derived from minor scale modes, as opposed to the major scale modes. (See musical mode). If the performer retains the 13th in the chord and/or avoids playing a 13th, it can be substituted for a C139. Likewise a C9 can often be substituted for a Cmaj95, as long as the 9th is retained or the 9th and 9th is avoided.

Jazz chord
Dominant seventh, ninth, and thirteenth chords on C i.e. C7, C9, and C13

A dominant seventh chord contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5 (often omitted), 7, (9), (13).

A dominant ninth chord (C9) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5 (often omitted), 7, 9, (13).

A dominant thirteenth chord (C13) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5 (often omitted), 7, (9), 13.

This symbol is often used if the 13th is found in the melody.

Jazz chord
Sus chord on C i.e. Csus4

A sus, or suspended, chord (C7sus4) contains the notes:

root, 4, 5, 7, (9), (13).

Minor seventh chords

Jazz chord
Minor seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords on C i.e. Cm7, Cm9, Cm11, Cm13

A minor seventh chord (C−7, Cmin7, Cmi7, or Cm7) contains the notes:

root, 3, 5, 7, (9), (11), (13).

A minor ninth chord (C−9, Cmin9, Cmi9, or Cm9) contains the notes:

root, 3, 5, 7, 9, (11), (13).

A minor eleventh chord (C−11, Cmin11, Cmi11, or Cm11) contains the notes:

root, 3, 5, 7, (9), 11, (13).

A minor thirteenth chord (C−13, Cmin13, Cmi13, or Cm13) contains the notes:

root, 3, 5, 7, (9), (11), 13.

Complex dominant chords

Jazz chord
Augmented seventh chord on C i.e. C7(5)

These chords can be voiced in a great variety of ways, including building the chord on the 7 (minor seventh). They usually, but not always, lead to a minor chord built on an interval a fourth up from the root. It is also not unusual to express either the 9 or 9 or the 5 in the melody. For expediency, musicians may use the abbreviation "alt"—as in C7alt—to describe the family of dominant chords with altered tones (including the 5, 5, 9, 9, or 13). Coincidentally, all altered tones mentioned above are present in the melodic minor scale whose root is a half-step above the root of the alt chord (i.e., E melodic minor for D7alt) In the previous dominant chords, it was noted that the perfect fifth is often omitted. An augmented fifth adds extra tension and dissonance which strengthens the resolution to the i chord. [6]

Jazz chord
Dominant 9/5 chord on C i.e. C7(95)

A dominant 9/5 chord (C7(59)) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5, 7, 9.
Jazz chord
Dominant 9/5 chord on C i.e. C7(9/5)

A dominant 9/5 chord (C7(59)) contains the notes:

root (often omitted), 3, 5, 7, 9.


  1. Lavengood, Megan, "Lead sheet symbols", Open Music Theory, retrieved 2021-04-23
  2. Nettles, Barrie; Graf, Richard (1997). The Chord Scale Theory & Jazz Harmony. Advance Music. ISBN   978-3-89221-056-6.
  3. "Bud Powell Chord Voicings - The Jazz Piano Site". The Jazz Piano Site. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  4. "5 Ways to Play Like Horace Silver | Jazz | Piano". Scribd. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  6. "Altered Jazz Chords and the Major 251 Progression". PianoGroove.com. Retrieved 2021-04-23.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

In music theory, the term minor scale refers to three scale patterns – the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale – rather than just one as with the major scale.

Harmony Aspect of music

In music, harmony is the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analysed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches, or chords.

In music theory, an interval is a difference in pitch between two sounds. An interval may be described as horizontal, linear, or melodic if it refers to successively sounding tones, such as two adjacent pitches in a melody, and vertical or harmonic if it pertains to simultaneously sounding tones, such as in a chord.

In music theory, the tritone is defined as a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones. For instance, the interval from F up to the B above it is a tritone as it can be decomposed into the three adjacent whole tones F–G, G–A, and A–B. According to this definition, within a diatonic scale there is only one tritone for each octave. For instance, the above-mentioned interval F–B is the only tritone formed from the notes of the C major scale. A tritone is also commonly defined as an interval spanning six semitones. According to this definition, a diatonic scale contains two tritones for each octave. For instance, the above-mentioned C major scale contains the tritones F–B and B–F. In twelve-equal temperament, the tritone divides the octave exactly in half as 6 of 12 semitones or 600 of 1200 cents.

An altered chord is a chord in which one or more notes from the diatonic scale is replaced with a neighboring pitch from the chromatic scale. According to the broadest definition any chord with a nondiatonic chord tone is an altered chord, while the simplest use of altered chords is the use of borrowed chords, chords borrowed from the parallel key, and the most common is the use of secondary dominants. As Alfred Blatter explains,"An altered chord occurs when one of the standard, functional chords is given another quality by the modification of one or more components of the chord."

A seventh chord is a chord consisting of a triad plus a note forming an interval of a seventh above the chord's root. When not otherwise specified, a "seventh chord" usually means a dominant seventh chord: a major triad together with a minor seventh. However, a variety of sevenths may be added to a variety of triads, resulting in many different types of seventh chords.

Chord (music) Harmonic set of three or more notes

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords in the right musical context.

Root (chord)

In music theory, the concept of root is the idea that a chord can be represented and named by one of its notes. It is linked to harmonic thinking—the idea that vertical aggregates of notes can form a single unit, a chord. It is in this sense that one speaks of a "C chord" or a "chord on C"—a chord built from C and of which the note C is the root. When a chord is referred to in Classical music or popular music without a reference to what type of chord it is, it is assumed a major triad, which for C contains the notes C, E and G. The root need not be the bass note, the lowest note of the chord: the concept of root is linked to that of the inversion of chords, which is derived from the notion of invertible counterpoint. In this concept, chords can be inverted while still retaining their root.

Augmented sixth chord

In music theory, an augmented sixth chord contains the interval of an augmented sixth, usually above its bass tone. This chord has its origins in the Renaissance, was further developed in the Baroque, and became a distinctive part of the musical style of the Classical and Romantic periods.

Ninth musical interval

In music, a ninth is a compound interval consisting of an octave plus a second.

Thirteenth musical interval

In music or music theory, a thirteenth is the note thirteen scale degrees from the root of a chord and also the interval between the root and the thirteenth. The interval can be also described as a compound sixth, spanning an octave plus a sixth. The thirteenth is most commonly major Play  or minor Play .

Eleventh chord

In music theory, an eleventh chord is a chord that contains the tertian extension of the eleventh. Typically found in jazz, an eleventh chord also usually includes the seventh and ninth, and elements of the basic triad structure. Variants include the dominant eleventh, minor eleventh, and the major eleventh chord. Symbols include: Caug11, C9aug11, C9+11, C9alt11, Cm9(11), C−9(11). The eleventh in an eleventh chord is, "almost always sharpened, especially in jazz," at least in reference to the third, with CM11 (major eleventh): C–E–G–B–D–F, Cm11 (minor eleventh): C–E–G–B–D–F, and C11 (dominant eleventh): C–E–G–B–D–F.

In jazz, the term upper structure or "upper structure triad" refers to a voicing approach developed by jazz pianists and arrangers defined by the sounding of a major or minor triad in the uppermost pitches of a more complex harmony.

Guitar chord

In music, a guitar chord is a set of notes played on a guitar. A chord's notes are often played simultaneously, but they can be played sequentially in an arpeggio. The implementation of guitar chords depends on the guitar tuning. Most guitars used in popular music have six strings with the "standard" tuning of the Spanish classical guitar, namely E-A-D-G-B-E' ; in standard tuning, the intervals present among adjacent strings are perfect fourths except for the major third (G,B). Standard tuning requires four chord-shapes for the major triads.

Jazz improvisation

Jazz improvisation is the spontaneous invention of melodic solo lines or accompaniment parts in a performance of jazz music. It is one of the defining elements of jazz. Improvisation is composing on the spot, when a singer or instrumentalist invents melodies and lines over a chord progression played by rhythm section instruments and accompanied by drums. Although blues, rock, and other genres use improvisation, it is done over relatively simple chord progressions which often remain in one key.

In music theory, the word inversion describes certain types of changes to intervals, chords, voices, and melodies. In each of these cases, "Inversion" has a distinct but related meaning. The concept of inversion also plays an important role in musical set theory.

In jazz music, the lydian chord is the major 711 chord, or 11 chord, the chord built on the first degree of the lydian mode, the sharp eleventh being a compound augmented fourth. This chord, built on C, is shown below.

Seventh (chord)

In music, the seventh factor of a chord is the note or pitch seven scale degrees above the root or tonal center. When the seventh is the bass note, or lowest note, of the expressed chord, the chord is in third inversion Play .

Musicians use various kinds of chord names and symbols in different contexts to represent musical chords. In most genres of popular music, including jazz, pop, and rock, a chord name and its corresponding symbol typically indicate one or more of the following:

  1. the root note,
  2. the chord quality,
  3. whether the chord is a triad, seventh chord, or an extended chord,
  4. any altered notes,
  5. any added tones, and
  6. the bass note if it is not the root.
Major thirds tuning

Among alternative tunings for guitar, a major-thirds tuning is a regular tuning in which each interval between successive open strings is a major third. Other names for major-thirds tuning include major-third tuning, M3 tuning, all-thirds tuning, and augmented tuning. By definition, a major-third interval separates two notes that differ by exactly four semitones.