• The secret behind “big picture thinking”

    in Experienced players

    bigpicthinking.jpgOur last radio show was awesome! We took several callers, gave away tons of prizes, and delved into some more music theory concepts!

    One of our callers had a question about a particular altered chord and I spent some time unraveling it with her. In this post, I just want to take some time to review what I told her on the air. I think this will be extremely helpful for people in the same situation.

    Her question had to do with playing a C diminished 7 chord over F bass. She wanted to know what type of chord it was.

    So we broke it down…

    F on bass
    C diminished 7 on right hand: C Eb Gb A

    Note: I’m using “A” on purpose. If you were taking a music theory exam, you’d make that “B double flat” (Bbb). But let’s just keep it informal so I can make my point easier. That disclaimer is just for my theory heads. Most people can careless (just being honest).

    Here’s something to help you out…

    Whenever you don’t know the name of a chord, try starting with the 3rd and 7th tones of the keynote. In this case, the keynote is “F,” our bass.

    (This is when knowing all your scales as numbers is important. If you can know the 3rd and 7th of virtually any key without having to think much about it, then finding the names of chords will be super easy for you. So work on that in the meantime).

    Notice there is an “A” and “Eb” in the chord. Immediately when I see that, I think “F dominant 7 chord.” I don’t even think about it. Unless there’s something crazy going on with the other tones we haven’t analyzed yet, this chord has a very high probability of being some kind of dominant seventh chord… but we’re not done yet!

    So that’s the kind of the thought process I go through. I find and hold on to the best match until it is dethroned. Make sense?

    Notice the “C” in this chord. What is its relation to the keynote?

    The “C” is simply the perfect fifth. From past lessons, you know that the fifth isn’t really as helpful as the other tones because you’ll find it equally in major, minor, and dominant chords. So it can’t really be the deciding factor when trying to differentiate among those chords.

    In this case, the “C” doesn’t change our answer. It just further confirms we’re on the right track by adding another note to our F dominant 7 chord, which is “F + A + C + Eb.”

    Back to the chord that was posed on the show…

    F on bass
    C diminished 7: C Eb Gb A

    There’s just one more tone left… the “Gb.” And that’s what makes this chord more than an “F dominant 7” chord.

    So what we do from here is figure out what tone of the scale Gb is based on.

    First off, there’s no Gb in the F major scale so we know it’s not a tone directly out of the major key of F. Something is either going to be sharped, flatted, augmented, or diminished — we just haven’t figured out what it is quite yet.

    “G” is the 2nd or 9th tone in the F major scale.

    Yes, I know that may sound confusing but here’s where the numbers come from.

    If you play an F major scale only using one octave and number each tone as you play it, “G” will undoubtedly be the 2nd tone of the scale. This is the norm. You probably already know this.

    However, if you extend the scale another octave (basically keep going), “G” will be the 9th tone in the next octave. You don’t stop counting… you basically keep going.

    1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7 > 8 > 9 > 10 > 11… and so on.

    So that’s where 9s, 11s, and 13s come from.

    But here’s the thing…

    Just think of:

    • 9 as 2
    • 11 as 4
    • 13 as 6

    It will be so much easier.

    Now, there does come a time when you use 2, 4, or 6 and this is usually when you’re playing simple triads with added notes. Like if I play an F major chord (F+A+C) and just add the “G” in between the “F” and “A,” I could simply say “add 2” (F + G + A + C).

    However, when you start getting into dominant seventh chords and your chords start reaching across octaves, that’s when the higher numbers come in. For example, some will say if you add “G” in the next octave and still maintain that regular F major triad (F + A + C + G), then you can reference it as “add 9.” Chord naming is very ambiguous like that but as long as you’re in the right neighborhood, people will know what you mean!

    So, indeed, “G” is the 9. But “Gb” is what’s in the chord so we have to say “flat 9” (a.k.a. – “b9”).

    In other words, this is an F dominant 7 chord with a lowered 9.

    Big picture thinking

    Now how can you easily play this chord in every key?

    Here’s what I like to do.

    I try to find some commonality that I can turn into a “rule” that works any time.

    Also, “rules” (in the way that I’m defining them) don’t use specific notes or else they wouldn’t be rules. They use universal numbers so that they can be applied to any situation.

    There’s several ways to approach coming up with your own internal rule for this chord.

    Let’s try a few…

    1) I can think of this chord as the keynote plus a diminished 7 chord played on the 5th tone of the keynote’s scale. Yes, I know it sounds complex but it really isn’t. Basically, I’m telling myself that whenever I want to play a dominant chord with a flat 9, all I have to know is the diminished seventh chord a fifth up from my bass note and I’m good to go!

    If I want to play an Ab 7 (b9) chord, all I do is put Ab in my bass and go up to the 5th tone (Eb) and play its diminished seventh chord (F on bass + Eb diminished 7).

    If I want to play a D7 (b9) chord, I do the same thing. Play D on my bass, go up to the 5th tone of D and play its diminished seventh chord (D on bass + A diminished 7).

    If I want to play a C7 (b9) chord, my rule works there too (because my rule works in EVERY situation). I just play a G diminished seventh chord over C bass and “BAM,” there it is!

    But this isn’t the only rule. If thinking of the “fifth” on the spot works for you, then go for it! But maybe I can get closer…

    2) There’s something unique about diminished 7 chords. Take that C diminished 7 chord (C + Eb + Gb + A) and play it with Eb on the bottom. It still sounds like a diminished 7 chord right? That’s because it is a diminished 7 chord… Eb diminished 7 (Eb + Gb + A + C). Do the same thing with Gb… play the same exact notes starting on Gb — Gb + A + C + Eb. So basically, once you know 1 diminished chord, you know the other 3 in the group because they all share the same notes. So if that’s the case, maybe I don’t have to play the C diminished 7 because I have three other choices that will pretty much give me the same sound (…now if you want your melody to be on top, you’ll have to pick the chord that does that). With that said though, I’m going to use Gb diminished 7 (Gb + A + C + Eb). Keep in mind that the ONLY difference in this chord and the C diminished 7 is the order of notes. That’s all.

    Now that I’ve figured this out, I can change my rule a little bit. I can simply think of this chord as the diminished 7th chord RIGHT ON TOP of my bass. Get it?

    My bass is F right? Now, I’ve figured out that my C diminished 7 chord can actually be Gb diminished 7 if I want it to. And Gb is just one half step higher than F right? So that means instead of having to think of this chord as the keynote plus the 5th tone’s diminished chord, I can ease my mind a little bit by simply thinking of this chord as the keynote plus the diminished 7 chord a half step up!


    So let’s compare:

    Rule #1
    Keynote plus 5-diminished7 chord
    F + C diminished 7
    F + (C + Eb + Gb + A)


    Rule #2
    Keynote plus diminished 7 chord half step up
    F + Gb diminished 7
    F + (Gb + A + C + Eb)

    Up to you!

    But that’s the idea.

    It’s not always about having to do a lot of thinking. For me, at least, it’s about finding universal rules I can apply on the spot. Heck, your rules are your rules… even if they don’t make sense to others! :)

    So try taking some of your favorite chords and come up with some numerical rule that you can apply to easily take these chords to any key you want on the spot (assuming you know the underlying chords you’ll be using — if your rule includes playing a big 9th chord with smaller major chords, then you had better know all your major chords or even the rule won’t do you any good).

    Well, this post was a little long but I hope it helps!

    All the best —

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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


    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }





    2 Chevonne Reynolds

    Thanks Jermaine, once again you have provided us another priceless tool. Remain blessed!!


    3 Laketa

    Thanks again Jermaine…. This is the type of review that helps a visual learner like myself. This stuff is sticking to my brain and I’m loving it.





    5 Eresmas

    I love the great thinker’s rules. It doens’t really matter whether other people understand them, so long as you play well and easy. They won’t even understand how you play with flair. He he.


    6 rayjohnson83



    7 Thomas

    Here is the help I needed. I knew much of what you were talking about on the show, but to see it on paper has helped me greatly. Thank you for this tremendous lesson. Be Blessed!!!


    8 Jermaine

    @Thanks thomas!


    9 MS

    WOW!!! Great lesson. This is yet another example of VOICING!! I love the idea of the semitone above, for the dim7 chord; less thinking, less moving around, so that should be smoother playing and sounding. Thanks to Jermaine and the member who asked the question. God bless you all.


    10 frank t

    another relationship that came to my mind from this lesson was that for example, if we use the same home key as the example (Bb), when you go to the fifth step from the V(F) chord, you are going to the same note that is the 2nd step(C) of the home key(Bb), ie F7 would resolve to Bb normally… so the solo over a 2-5-1 progression could be spiced up easily by simply thinking of it as 2-2dim7-1. just a thought that seemed worth sharing


    11 zachary

    you are the bomb


    Leave a Comment

    Previous post:

    Next post: