Advance Music Theory Chords
If you think back on what you have learned about chords from lesson 1 and lesson 2, so far everything is about the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th degree of the scale. We study these first because they are the most pleasing to the ear, and therefore most of the chords we hear. Chords are also built with every other degree of the scale and the same concepts and rules apply. Next we will take a look at some sixth chords; you should already know which notes will be flattened or raised.
The major sixth is simply a triad with a sixth interval, and in the C scale that note is A. The formula 1-3-5-6 gives us the notes C-E-G-A which is notated as the C6 chord. If you notice these are the exact same notes as an A minor seventh chord (just with an A note in the bass instead of a C). How you know which name to use will depend on the key and circumstances where the C6/Am7 chord comes up. As we add more notes to a chord the better chance it has of having more than one name, after all there are only so many combinations of musical notes.
Ukuleles are tuned to C6 as well as some lap steel guitars, that is why the chord has such a Hawaiian vibe to it. One of the best examples of a sixth chord is “Jingle Bell Rock,” the first three jingle bells sung are a major, major 7th, and then a 6th! The major sixth is also used in the famous chord progression C-C+-C6-C7. You now know that chord progression is a major, augmented triad, major sixth, and dominant seventh. Famous songs that follow this are “You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive” and the chorus to “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
One thing to remember about the minor sixth is that it’s a minor triad with a sixth interval. Only the third is minor, not the sixth, giving us C-Eb-G-A and it is notated a Cm6. This also has enharmonically equivalent chords and one is Am7b5.
We don’t mention this to be confusing, its important to point out because sometimes things seem complicated when they are really just another way to name things. It all depends on which note is in the bass, which key it is in, or what else is around it on the staff. To reiterate, as we move up in notes and complicate our chords, we will find a lot of chords that can have multiple names. Follow your theory rules and most of all your ear and don’t let it get overwhelming.
We skip the eighth interval, because that is of course the octave, and get into ninth chords. At this point the formulas can be a little harder to remember, but if you just follow the instructions of the chord name it will be a lot easier. One major difference is between the chords Cadd9 and Cmaj9. Cadd9 is literally a C major triad with ONLY the ninth note added, which is a higher octave D note. Cmaj9 is a major seventh chord with a ninth added.
This chord is often just called the ninth and has the formula 1-3-5-b7-9, it is a minor seventh with a major ninth added. The notes in C would be C-E-G-Bb-D and this is a very common chord in soul, r&b, and funk. Many James Brown songs use the dominant ninth.
As mentioned Cmaj9 or the dominant ninth is a major seventh, C-E-G-B, with the ninth D added. The formula will be 1-3-5-7-9. Just as the dominant 9th has a very funky feel to it, the major ninth has a very light and jazzy mood about it. Along with jazz it is a chord you will see in pop standards and adult contemporary types of music.
Dominant Minor Ninth
This is a dominant seventh chord with a minor ninth added to it. The formula is 1-3-5-b7-b9 making C7b9 the notes C-E-G-Bb-Db. Simply playing this chord lets you hear it is perfect in dramatic and intense situations. It has an eerie and dissonant quality to it.
The minor ninth has the formula 1-b3-5-b7-9, making C-Eb-G-Bb-D or Cm9. This chord is slightly a little more on the blues side of jazz, and even occasionally pops up in funk songs.
When we take a major triad and add a sixth and a ninth, 1-3-5-6-9 we get the 6/9 chord. The C6/9 made up of C-E-G-A-D is used in the place of major chords as it doesn’t require resolution, it sounds good on its own. Occasionally jazz music will use this chord to end on, it adds flavor to the basic major triad.
Another important chord with the ninth interval is the dominant seventh sharp ninth. So take a moment with your keyboard and find the notes for a C dominant seventh (a C7) and then add a sharp ninth. This gives us the formula 1-3-5-b7-#9 so C7#9, or C7+9, has the notes C-E-G-Bb-D#. This chord is also known as the Hendrix chord as it is featured in “Purple Haze” and a few other Hendrix tunes. It is a common chord to find in funk, jazz, and rock fusions. You will most often see this dominant seventh sharp ninth chord in the key of E as E7#9, that is the one Jimi used.
Sus2 and Sus4 Chords
So far, we have been building on our chords, moving from the root, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and now Sus2!!! What? Why did we suddenly jump back to the second interval? Hopefully in the last section on ninth chords when we said D was the ninth interval in the C scale, you may have thought wait a minute, isn’t D the second interval? Well it is both, when we deal with the note an octave above it is considered a ninth.
It is also the second interval, but it’s not a big deal to confuse sus2 chords as they are very different from 9ths. Like most extended chords a ninth builds on the other chords, a suspended or sus chord, takes a normal triad and drops the third for the second.
As mentioned, the suspended chord drops the third for the second interval. Thus our Csus2 chord will be the formula 1-2-5 or the notes C-D-G. The suspended second is used to create tension that needs resolved, most often back to the regular triad. The best song example for the sus2 is also the best example for the sus4 which is next!
It should be very easy to figure this chord out, like the sus2 we are dropping the third and clearly in this case using the fourth. So a Csus4 has the formula 1-4-5, and the notes of C-F-G. Again this is used for tension and resolution. The first four chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” are a major-sus4-major-sus2, as you play that notice how pleasant it is to the ears. Tom Petty uses very basic and simple, yet very popular chord sequences that our brains love.
If you are writing a song always keep in mind your suspended chords are great and easy ways to create a little drama in your music. Another great song example that has both a ninth and sus4 is the song “Kiss” by Prince. That song is built in the key of A and on sevenths until the strum right before he says ‘kiss’ which is an E9sus4. Sometimes websites have the chord as E9, but we know it is the suspended, as the fourth is the A note and simply fits better in the key of A then E9.
Now it shouldn’t be so surprising that we are moving back to 11th chords, after all sus4 used the fourth interval. In the key of C, F is the fourth and one octave up the eleventh interval also. And again it depends on how it’s built as to the name it gets. This one we use all of our basic chord building blocks to find each variant. As we put all these notes together, we have a very wide range of possibilities, and it can get very overwhelming.
However, if someone asks you for the dominant 11th you can safely assume the formula will be a dominant seventh with a ninth and eleventh note added. The formula being 1-3-5-b7-9-11, so C11 is C-E-G-Bb-D-F. If the chord is Cmaj11 then you know it is a simple matter of raising the seventh to a major. Any eleventh chord thrown your way with a little thinking and maybe some note scribbling you should be able to figure out the notes that make it up!
This is not a common chord especially in pop and rock music. It is theoretically heard in The Beatles “Sun King.” The best example of B11 is in some lap steel guitar tunings, it has a hauntingly Hawaiian sound to it. And not like regular bright C6 tuning, the B11 is a very unique tropical paradise on a rainy day kind of feel. Take some time to listen to some B11 lap steel tunes and you will see what we mean!
Our last chord made of stacked triads will be the thirteenth. And of course there are plenty of variations and inversions, oh the mind boggling agony! Actually the most common time you will find a 13th will be in a dominant function. Once again, we simply take a dominant seventh chord like C7 and add on the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth to get C13. The formula 1-3-5-b7-9-11-13 gives us the notes C-E-G-Bb-D-F-A. Notice the chord has a bright and very extended sound. It’s not a chord you will see very often, mostly in jazz or any form of experimental or fusion music.
Now that you know many of the rules to building chords, we are going to throw a rock at your painfully constructed music theory glass house. By the time we started explaining ninth chords some may have realized that their chosen instrument doesn’t even have that many strings! A guitar usually has six strings, meaning we really can’t fully chord anything past sevenths. Even worse is the ukulele with only four strings! What this means is you will often have to cheat by making partial chords.
Even on a piano where you have all the note options available it’s not necessary to always play a full chord. Often both hands are playing parts of the chord in the treble and bass. It is very common, especially for stringed instruments to only pick the best notes out to represent the chord. Often you try to retain the root, third, or fifth, but sometimes even the root is dropped. It depends on the chord for what intervals we drop and which we keep.
Of course those who play woodwind or brass instruments will only be using single notes and intervals, so they really get to choose which parts to leave in or take from a chord. Deciding which notes to use is another way in which music theory can get frustrating, but it is so worth it in the end. It’s not a skill that needs mastered, knowing the simple rules can take you very far. Even if you excel in music theory you will still find yourself arguing about it with others online. The more notes in a chord the more names and inversions it can have, even those with the best ears and musical education still sometimes can’t agree on a chord!
Now that you have the foundation down in how chords are created from the scale, we can get into the relationships that chords have with each other. As you have seen in some of our song examples you have a good idea in what ways these chords are used. And just as chords have rules based on what sounds good, so do chord progressions. Almost every song you hear on the radio or streaming is made up of specific chord progressions used over and over. In fact, once you understand how few chord progressions are used by the most popular tunes, you will realize you can compose and write your own music!