• Can a Triad Get Spicier Without Getting Jazzier?

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    triad image

    A triad is a three-note chord. In traditional practice, triads are built off tertian harmony. In tertian harmony, the interval between chord tones are thirds (major or minor).

    Using the major scale of C:

    If we start from every note and stack thirds, the scale above can give us the following triads:

    C major:

    D minor:

    E minor:

    F major:

    G major:

    A minor:

    B diminished:

    While triads certainly have their place in many genres, including ragtime, blues, gospel, swing, and others, they can sound boring at times.

    In this post, you’ll discover how to spice up your triads in the same way that I learned from our founder over 10 years ago (a long time in internet years) via Gospel Keys 202 (I know he’ll be all smiles while reading this).

    The Power of the Ninth Degree

    One of the ways to spice up your triads is to add the ninth degree of the scale to it. Often times, compound degrees like ninths, tenths, elevenths, etc can be a little challenging to determine unlike thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. However, I’m sure you know that this is an octave:

    Remember that the octave is associated with the number eight. Therefore, every other scale degree that lies beyond the octave can be determined arithmetically. Adjacent to the eight (octave) is the ninth:

    In the same manner, other degrees can be determined – tenths, elevenths, twelfths, thirteenths, etc. For the sake of those who may ask, “why the ‘ninth’ when D is the second tone of the scale?” Here’s my answer:

    There are harmonic reasons why D is considered the ninth degree instead of the second of the C major scale. Owing to tertian harmony, chords are built in thirds.

    In the C major triad above, it is clear that D which is the second is omitted. However, when triads graduate into sevenths and ninths:

    The D (second degree) that was omitted in the triad is finally added. However, the interval between this D and the root is a ninth. With the ninth chord below:

    …we can have something spicier, something that can turn heads. However, we’ve lost the triad. We now have an extended chord – which is difficult for the average human to play with one hand.

    If you look closely, there are actually three triads in the C major ninth chord above.

    C major:

    E minor:

    G major:

    The major ninth chord is more harmonically advanced than the triad.

    Therefore, we cannot consider it as a spicier triad because it is not a triad.

    The “add9”

    Even though we cannot use the maj 9th as a spicier triad (because adding the extended tones no longer make it a triad), we can add the ninth degree of the scale to the triad. Adding D (the ninth) to C major triad will yield an added-tone chord:

    All ninth chords must have thirds and sevenths. Considering that this added-tone chord is still lacking a seventh, the addition of the ninth to the C major triad does not make it a ninth chord. It will take the addition of a ninth to a seventh chord to yield a true ninth chord. So, what we have here with this added-tone chord is a spicier triad, that does not belong to higher classes of chords like sevenths, ninths, etc.

    Adding the ninths to any triad on the keyboard will yield an add 9 chord. Below are F and G add9 chords:

    Harmonic Properties of the Add 9 Chord

    It is non-tertian. The add9 chord is a clear departure from tertian harmony. In the add9 chord, there are three adjacent tones that are major seconds apart.

    Adjacent pitches of the diatonic or pentatonic scale that are played/heard together are called tonal clusters. The add9 chord features tonal clusters.

    It is dissonant. In a previous post, we studied diatonic dissonant intervals, which are basically major 2nds, minor 2nds, major 7ths and minor 7ths. In the add9 chord, we have two exclusive major second intervals – C-D and D-E.

    The dissonance created is permissible because it is diatonic – not chromatic (like the use of the diminished 5th, aka – “tritone” [which is forbidden]).

    It was not common practice to use non-tertian chords in music several centuries ago. Over time, things have changed. Harmony has evolved to this generation where everything seems to be spiced up. The add9 chord contains dissonant intervallic components, no doubt. However, it will sound warmer today because yesterday’s dissonance is today’s consonance.

    Now that we’ve explored the spicier major triad, let me give you two voicings of the C add9 chord. I’ll leave you with the responsibility of replicating the chords in all the keys once you grasp the formula.

    Voicing #1 – Mu Chord

    The mu chord is a voicing of the add9 chord popularized by Steely Dan (a jazz rock band of the 70s). The mu chord was used by this group because they wanted to enrich the triad by making it sound ‘jazzy’. There are many approaches to the mu chord and I’ll dedicate a post to showing you that. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use this voicing of the mu chord:

    In the mu chord voicing of the add9 above, the notes are played in a different order but the dissonance (of a major 2nd) between D-E is retained… and this is the characteristic flavor of the mu chord. Below is the mu chord in three steps.

    Step 1 – Play a second inversion triad on the right hand over your root note (keyboard style).

    Step 2 – add the ninth.

    Step 3 – Remove the duplicate of the root note (C) from the chord.

    If you stick to these three steps in any key, you can form the mu chord. Before we get into the application of add9 chords, let’s consider another voicing.

    Voicing #2 – “Drop 2”

    The drop 2 voicing is one of the most amazing voicing techniques that can literally make keyboard voicings sound like voice parts. It is a voicing technique that transposes the 2nd highest note an octave lower. In the C major triad, G is the highest note, followed by E.

    Therefore, the second to the highest note is E. If E is transposed an octave lower, we’ll have a drop 2 voicing of C major triad:

    If we apply the same concept to the add9 chord:

    The second to the highest note is E. If E is transposed an octave lower, we’ll have a drop 2 voicing of the add9 chord.

    The product of this voicing technique is a slash chord. We have a Csus2 chord over E on the bass which is symbolized as Csus2/E. The add9 chord can be played easily if we think in terms of the slash chord.

    The two steps to building a drop 2 voicing of the add9 chord (while thinking in terms of the slash chord) are given below.

    Step 1 – Play a sus2 chord on the given note. Eg – D:

    Step 2 – Add the third scale tone on the bass. In the major scale of D, the third scale tone is F.

    In terms of slash chords, the chord above can be symbolized as F/C

    Add9 voicings – Applied

    Let’s go ahead and apply the voicings we just learned. Considering that the primary chords (1, 4 & 5) are major triads, we can spice them up using add9 chords. In a previous post, we covered voice leading principles and since then, I trust you have been connecting your triads smoothly.

    In this post, we’ll also apply this principle to primary chords and to do that, we’ll switch from the mu chord to the drop 2 voicing.

    Application #1

    Chord 1 – C mu chord

    Chord 4 – Fsus2/A

    Chord 5 – Gsus2/B

    Application #2

    Chord 1 – Csus2/E

    Chord 4 – F mu chord

    Chord 5 – G mu chord

    The next time you want to stick to triads, spice them up with the add9 and you’ll transform your sound. I was privileged to learn this concept a decade ago and since then, I’ve come up with tons of approaches to voice this same chord. Explore the two we’ve covered today and spice up your triads with them because I’ll be back in subsequent posts to show you more voicings.

    See you then!

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.



    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    1 Joe

    Great post! Thanks for previous replies. Have another question if u don’t mind.
    On the C major scale, E(3rd tone) is a minor triad(E G B). What would be the Mu chord and drop2 add9 voicing because its 9th is F# and that’s not in the C major scale. And can these styles be used on a basic diminished triad? Like B(B D F)on d C major scale. Thanks.


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