• An Easier Way To Play Extended Chords Using The Upper Structure Voicing Technique

    in Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Jazz music,Piano,Theory

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    In this lesson, we’ll be taking a look at the upper structure voicing technique.

    This technique is very important to any musician who wants to use extended chords. A vast majority of musicians shy away from extended chords not just because of the complexity of its harmony but its texture.

    Attention: Texture in music refers to the layers of notes that are heard at once.

    Extended chords have a thicker texture because they have more notes than triads and seventh chords and also encompass nine to thirteen scale degrees when played in root position.

    The upper structure voicing technique makes it possible and easier to play extended chords and you’ll find that out in this lesson. Before going into all of that, let’s take a short note on extended chords.

    A Deep Insight On Extended Chords

    The intervals that a chord can be broken down into are known as its intervallic constituents. According to Jermaine Griggs, “…intervals are the building blocks of chords.” Believe it or not, every chord irrespective of its width and quality, is made up of intervals.

    Extended chords have bigger widths because they contain compound intervals and a clearer understanding of these compound intervals will prove helpful in this lesson.

    Therefore, let’s take a look at compound intervals before proceeding in this study.

    “What Are Compound Intervals?”

    Compound intervals are intervals that exceed the compass of an octave.

    An octave is an eighth, therefore, intervals that their width or compass exceed eight scale degrees are compound intervals. In the key of C major:
    …intervals like the ninth (C-D):

    …tenth (C-E):

    …eleventh (C-F):

    …twelfth (C-G):
    …thirteenth (C-A):
    …fourteenth (C-B):

    …and fifteenth (C-C):

    …are all compound intervals and like I said earlier, extended chords contain these compound intervals.

    “Here’s a chord formation activity that will show you how compound intervals come into the picture”

    In the formation of chords, the basis of the relationship between the chord tones are an underlying scale and a class of harmony.

    Underlying scale: C natural major scale.

    Class of Harmony: Tertian harmony.

    Using the C major scale:
    …you can form an extended chord by starting from C:

    …and making sure that the interval between successive chord tones are in thirds (aka – “tertian harmony“.)

    A third above C:

    …is E:

    …a third above C-E:

    …is G:

    …a third above C-E-G:

    …is B:

    …a third above C-E-G-B:

    …is D:

    …at this point we’ve exceeded the compound of an octave (C-C):

    …and the chord C-E-G-B-D:

    …is known as a ninth chord because it encompasses nine scale degrees from C to D:
    …therefore can be called a ninth. Adding more notes to the ninth chord in thirds produces other extended chords.

    A third above the ninth chord (C-E-G-B-D):

    …is F:

    …which is an eleventh above C:
    Altogether, C-E-G-B-D-F:

    …is an eleventh chord.

    A third above the eleventh chord (C-E-G-B-D-F):
    …is A:

    …which is a thirteenth above C:
    Altogether, C-E-G-B-D-F-A:
    ..is a thirteenth chord and that’s the farthest we can go in extended harmony. Adding another third to the thirteenth (C-E-G-B-D-F-A):
    …produces a fifteenth (C-E-G-B-D-F-A-C):

    …a chord that encompasses two octaves, with a duplicate of C:

    …the root note.

    “In a nutshell…”

    We came across three compound intervals:

    • The ninth
    • The eleventh
    • The thirteenth

    …and they can also be called extensions because when added to seventh chords, they form extended intervals.

    Attention: Other compound intervals like the tenth, the twelfth, and the fourteenth, however, they are not used because they are related to simple intervals like the third, the fifth and the seventh.

    “Check out the relationship between a third and a tenth…”

    A major third interval in the key of C:
    …is C-E:

    …and a major tenth is also C-E:

    Although they differ in width, they are related by spelling (C-E) and quality (both are major intervals.)

    The perfect fifth and twelfth intervals also have that same relationship. C-G:

    …and C-G:

    …are a perfect fifth and perfect twelfth intervals respectively.

    So tenths, twelfths and fourteenths are not used. So we basically have three compound intervals that are used to form extended chords and those are; ninths, elevenths and thirteenths.

    “Here’s One Of The Reasons Why Extended Chords Are Considered Difficult”

    Extended chords contain compound intervals and the smallest of them which is the ninth can be challenging for the average human hand-span.

    Thirteenths like C-A:

    …are universally impossible to encompass. Although some people can attempt playing ninths like C-D:
    …elevenths like C-F:

    …are very difficult to play and are impossible for those who have small hands.

    If compound intervals range from being difficult to being impossible, how much more extended chords?

    Extended chords are chords that contain these bigger and larger intervals and encompass more than one octave in width. Examples of extended chords include the C major 9th:
    …the C minor 9th:
    …the C dominant 9th:

    “There’s An Easier Way To Play Extended Chords”

    I’m happy to tell you that despite the difficulties associated with extended chords, they can be easily played on the piano using a technique I’ll show you in the next segment.

    Without further ado, let’s take a look at the upper structure voicing technique.

    The Upper-Structure Voicing Technique

    Voicing is the rearrangement of the notes of a chord. We’ve discussed several of these techniques like the skeleton voicing technique, part-over-root voicing technique, drop-2 voicing technique, etc., in the past.

    Today, we’ll be focusing on the upper-structure voicing technique. In the upper structure voicing technique, the goal is to rearrange an extended chord in such a way that a triad or seventh chord is played above a root note or interval.

    The intervals used in the upper-structure voicing technique are usually tenths and sevenths, while the triad [or seventh chord] that is played over the root is known as the upper-structure. The upper-structure is a different chord [harmonic structure], however, its relationship with the root note or interval forms extended chords.

    There are so many factors that determine the choice of the triad [or seventh chord] that is used as an upper-structure and we’ll go into all that in another lesson.

    The C major ninth chord:

    …which is an extended chord, can be rearranged using the upper-structure technique and here’s how it works…

    Playing the top three notes – G, B, and D:

    …the G major triad over the C major tenth interval:

    …on the bass produces the upper-structure voicing of the C major ninth chord:

    The C minor ninth:

    …and C dominant ninth:

    …chords can be voiced using the same procedures as well.

    “Take Note…”

    In the upper-structure voicing technique, the third and the seventh (aka – “skeleton“) are not omitted because they determine the quality of the chord. Consequently, they can be played on the left hand – below the upper-structure triad.

    Playing the G major triad:

    …over the root, third, and seventh tones:

    …of the C major ninth chord, produces the upper-structure voicing of the C major ninth chord:

    The C minor ninth:

    …and C dominant ninth:

    …chords can be voiced using the same procedures as well.

    “In The Same Vein”

    In the upper-structure voicing of a chord, the upper-structure triad can be inverted, and played over the skeleton of the chord. I’ll be showing you step-by-step, how this works.

    In the C major ninth chord:

    …the G major triad:

    …is the upper-structure triad and can be played in any inversion over the third and seventh tones:

    …(aka – “skeleton”) of the C major ninth chord.

    Here are common outcomes of this voicing technique…

    Voicing #1:

    …the second inversion of the G major triad:

    …over the skeleton:

    …of the C major ninth chord.

    Voicing #2:

    …the root position of the G major triad:

    …over the skeleton:

    …of the C major ninth chord.

    Voicing #3:

    …the first inversion of the G major triad:

    …over the skeleton:

    …of the C major ninth chord.

    The permutations of the upper-structure voicing technique are endless and are beyond what we can cover in today’s lesson. In subsequent lessons, we’ll definitely learn more.

    Final Words

    The upper structure voicing  technique helps you play an extended chord using triads and seventh chords that are played above a root note or an interval.

    In subsequent posts, we’ll specifically cover the upper structure voicings of major, minor, and dominant chords and also learn how we can play the 2-5-1 chord progression using the upper-structure voicing technique.

    See you then.

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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