QUESTION: I often come across chords like G9, D11, B13. What exactly do those numbers mean? Can I learn to figure out the chords on my own based upon the numbering system?
ANSWER: The numbers that you see in chord symbols refer to the major scale from which the chord is derived. For example, a C6 chord has the sixth step (or degree) of the C scale, i.e. the A note.
Most of the advanced chords are based on one of two triads:
the major triad which is 1 - 3 - 5 of the scale
the minor triad which is 1 - flat 3 - 5 of the scale
A sixth chord is a major chord (1 - 3 - 5) plus the 6th note of the C scale. The C6 chord is spelled C E G A.
A minor sixth (e.g. Cm6) is a minor chord (1 - flat 3 - 5) plus the 6th note of the C scale. The Cm6 chord is spelled C Eb G A.
So what exactly is 9th? A ninth is the ninth step of the scale.
But doesnít a scale only have eight steps? Yes, but then it repeats. The eighth step of the scale is the same as the first step. The ninth is the same as the second.
To ontinue the logic the 11th is the same as the 4th, and the 13th is the same as the 6th. So one way to arrive at the answer quickly is simply to subtract the number Ďsevení from the number you see in the chord, and add that note of the appropriate major scale. Nine minus seven is two. A ninth is the same as a second. And so on.
So does that mean a sixth chord is identical to a thirteenth? Not exactly. The hidden meaning behind this logic is as follows: When you find a number higher than eight in a chord, then the chord MUST also contain a flat (dominant) seventh. Whereas a C6 chord has the notes C E G A, the C13 contains C E G A and Bb. (The thirteenth probably has a ninth in it as well, and perhaps an 11th, but we wonít get into that right now.)
Remember that a C6 chord functions as a major chord while a C13 functions as a dominant (or 7th) chord. They are not mutually interchangeable. Never.
There are two exceptions to this rule, although they occur quite rarely. When you see the designation ďmajĒ or ďaddĒ in a chord symbol, it means you do NOT add the flat seventh; and the chord functions as a major chord. In the case of ďmajĒ you should add the natural 7th. Note the distinctions below.
C9 = C E G Bb D
Cadd9 = C E G D
Cmaj9 = C E G B D
Of course thereís a lot more to chord analysis than that. But this is a start. When you understand how chords work (as opposed to merely memorizing them by rote), your horizons of musicianship greatly expand.
For a basic lesson on constructing chords refer to Lesson 20.
As a novice piano player, you eventually discover there is no convention that governs how many chords should be in a measure or how often chords change. Those decisions are left entirely to the composer.
Beginning method books offer song examples in which chords change very infrequently. Often youíll find several consecutive measures lingering on the same chord. Later the student may find songs whose chords change every measure. Then they come across songs with two chords per measure (as seen in The Entertainer in our Popular Chord Style Piano course).
Of course this gradual introduction of complexity is designed to let the student play songs that are not too overwhelming at first; then the songs become increasingly more demanding as the studentís left hand skills improve.
Later the student sees examples that demand he play four chords in a measure. How does one play that? Letís look at this situation in a little more depth.
There is a common, yet mistaken, belief that a musician must be completely accurate and literal in order to be correct. Nothing is further from the truth.
Take the following multiple choice quiz.
- 1) Music is correct when:
- itís played precisely
- it sounds good
- The most important function of the piano playerís left hand is to:
- play each and every chord that is written
- help maintain a steady rhythm
Although this may not be true of classical music, in the world of popular music the answer to both questions is (b). In addition to playing chords the left hand is in charge of maintaining a steady, reliable rhythm. Thus, if you start out playing one chord per measure, you should play the entire tune in the one-chord-per-measure mode. Alternatively, if there are significant sections of the song that call for two chords per measure, you should strum two chords per measure all the way through, even if it means repeating chords in those measures that only call for one chord.
What about four chords per measure? Fortunately, there are few songs, if any, that demand you play four different chords every single measure. In fact, I have never seen even one. What you do find from time to time, however, is a song that calls for a four chord measure once or twice in the song. So here are two strategies for the occasional four chord measure, depending on the level of expertise of the player.
For the beginner to intermediate player: Play only the chords that fall on beats one and three. Ignore the chords that fall on beats two and four. Thatís right, ignore them. Those chords fall on the weak beats of the measure, and are likely not absolutely essential to the integrity of the song. Plus these four-chord measures will tend to occur just once or twice in the song anyway.
For the advanced player: Weíll continue this discussion in our next installment (Lesson 33).
In Lesson 32 we posed the problem of what to do when you encounter up to four chords in a measure. The strategies are different depending on your skill level. So here we repeat the advice we gave last time to the beginning and intermediate level player, and weíll continue our discussion from there.
For the beginner to intermediate player: When you encounter a measure with three or four chords, play only the chords that fall on beats one and three. Ignore the chords that fall on beats two and four. Thatís right, ignore them. Those chords fall on the weak beats of the measure, and are not likely to be essential to the integrity of the song. Plus these four-chord measures will tend to occur just once or twice in the song anyway.
The important thing is to keep the left hand playing in a steady fashion. Chords on beats two or four will force the left hand to break this steady rhythm pattern. So itís best for beginners to resist the potential confusing by ignoring those extraneous chords.
For the advanced player: Continue to play the chords that fall on beats one and three with the left hand in the manner, style, and tempo youíve chosen to use up to that point. Then for any chords that might fall on beats two and four, try to sneak them in somehow with the right hand.
The second and fourth beats of the measure are considered to be weak beats, and you donít have to play these weak-beat chords literally. Sometimes just one or two notes from within these chords is all you have to play (especially effective if you experiment and choose the notes that yield the best effect).
Also, these chords donít always need to fall exactly on the beat. Your left hand is responsible for keeping the beat going, and this is best accomplished by playing the chords with the left hand (in whatever style you choose) on beats one and three. The right hand is sometimes called upon to play ahead of or behind the primary beat. So the chords you see in the sheet music that appear to be over beats two and four donít always fall exactly on two and four.
Sometimes, when reading a lead sheet or fake book (just treble clef melody and chords) itís not always possible to deduce exactly what the composer wants. Itís often necessary to read between the lines and interpret this chord music by deduction. Your fall back position is to be familiar with the song already so you can use your ear (meaning your memory in this case) to recreate the song the way you heard it before.
Fortunately, if youíre playing standards or pop tunes from the charts, youíve likely had the luxury of hearing the song the way itís ďsupposed to soundĒ many times over. That in itself should be enough of a clue to help you interpret those measures in the written music that may be deemed ambiguous.
In any case remember the primary function of the left hand is to keep the rhythm. If you can keep rhythm AND play the correct chords too, thatís a bonus. But rhythm always supersedes harmony. So the main message is: whenever you have a measure of four different chords, whatever you do, donít drop the beat.
Question: In Lesson 19 you say that jazz uses first and third inversions, rather than root and second. How do you make a third inversion? Can you also talk about the special jazz chord voicings?
Answer: Quick review. If you donít yet know what an inversion is, read Lesson 19 now and then jump back here.
When a chordís root is the lowest note played, we say the chord is in Root Position. When the third is on the bottom, the chord is in First Inversion. When the fifth of the chord is on the bottom, the chord is in Second Inversion.
One of the basic tenets of jazz theory is that there are no triads in jazz. Every jazz chord is a seventh chord of some type ó containing either a major seventh, a dominant seventh or (rarely) a diminished seventh. Therefore, a chord that has its seventh on the bottom is in Third Inversion.
In the chart below we have some typical jazz chords. Itís a ii V I chord progression in the key of C. Donít be alarmed because you canít find the root in these chords. Jazz chord voicings typically donít include roots. And they do tend to pick up colorful extensions such as 9ths and 13ths.
Without going into too much potentially confusing detail about these voicings, just note how each three-chord (ii V I) sequence alternates between the first and third inversions. Try playing these inversions on the piano. Two things you should notice. First, they sound modern and jazzy. Second, there is very little finger movement when you move from chord to chord in each ii V sequence.