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#2046491 - 03/11/13 02:16 PM Two advanced thoughts re: polychords
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 125
Hey everyone,

I was thinking a while back about the decisions we make regarding altered dominant polychord voicings- (as in, to voice dom7(#11), play 3 & b7 in LH and the major triad located a whole step above the root in the RH)- and two thoughts struck me. I thought I'd share them here:

1. Although I don't think many people think about it, the impact of a particular voicing/alteration is related to whether or not the chord tones in that chord are diatonic to the original key/key center. This ultimately means that asking yourself what the roman numeral is for the chord in question can help guide your decisions and inform your ear about your own tastes. For example: you're in C major and you're alternating between Cmaj7 and Bb7. What voicing could you use for the Bb7? If you prefer something more "inside," then you could use Bb7(#11) (thinking C over Bb7) because the upper-structure C triad is obviously very diatonic to C major. This will have a "smoother" effect. On the other hand, if you want something more dissonant (which is perfectly fine!) you could choose something like Bb7(#5#9) (thinking approx. F# over Bb7). The F# triad, being a tritone away from C major and having no notes in common with the C major scale, would create a more dissonant sound to most ears. My point is that it's not the chords themselves out of context that are particularly consonant or dissonant. It's their place in the harmony. There are contexts in which one alteration will sound really "harsh," but others where that same voicing will sound more "inside." Therefore, rather than just reflecting on the alterations themselves, you could think in terms of roman numerals, and gain insights into your own musical tastes: "What alterations do I tend to like over borrowed bVII chords? What about over V/vi chords?" And so on.

2. The second point is unrelated to the first: one way to create a very idiomatic, authentic sound is to use polychord voicings as chords change, such that the melody note is a member of an upper-structure triad, regardless of whether that note is an altered note. For example, in C major, for a G7 chord with a melody note of E, you could play LH G-D-F, RH G#-B-E. Here, the E melody note is a member of an E major upper-structure triad, and it is a diatonic (to C major) chord tone (13th). (I enharmonically respelled the b9 to illustrate that it's an E major triad). If you played a tune this way (or a section of a tune, or whatever) such that, with each new chord, you included the first melody note as a member of an upper-structure triad, you can get a really nice sound.

Hopefully the above makes sense! If you'd like to see/hear more, I actually expanded on these two ideas in a podcast episode, and included extensive show notes, with notated examples. You can find it here:


To get to the points I listed above, scroll to about halfway down the page. To get to the discussion of this on the podcast, go to 22:41 on the recording.


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#2046792 - 03/12/13 02:03 AM Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 1304
Loc: New York
Hi James,

I listened to it ALL - the entire podcast, from start to finish - and (after the jaunty introductory remarks) I am very (VERY!) impressed with the content, the most useful INSIGHTS, and especially with the way those insights were presented and demonstrated! To me, this represents a completely new and different way of quickly developing alternate harmonies - always a sticky topic. You deserve significant kudos for tackling it, and pulling it off so elegantly!

In thinking about this further, would you say that the more “inside” (upper) chord extensions are usually built on triads whose roots are A THIRD (either major 3rd, or minor 3rd) away from the root of the base harmony? Just curious . . .

In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.

#2047095 - 03/12/13 05:07 PM Re: Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: LoPresti]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 125
Hey Ed,

Wow, THANK YOU for such kind words! So glad you liked it, and I'm especially glad you found the info to be useful. Hopefully other people will too.

As for your question, I'd say that it mostly comes back to what I was saying above: it's not about the chord/alteration (and, therefore, the upper-structure triad), out of context; it's about that chord's location within the key or key center, and whether such alterations would result in notes that are more or less diatonic to the original key or key center. It happens that most of the usual polychord voicings in common use involve a triad of some kind located a third of some kind above or below the root. So for a given circumstance, there will probably be a list of several "third-related" voicings that are "inside," and other "third-related" voicings that are "outside."

In the mean time, though, most if not all of the non-third-related polychord voicings have no place where they fit completely within a major key (without accidentals), and so you could argue that the more "inside" voicings are to be found among those that do involve a third jump from the root. It's just that there are some "outside" voicings in that group, too. Clear as mud?

Hopefully that answers your question, but because you've got me talking about one of my favorite subjects, I'll keep blabbing, for whatever it is worth to you and/or others here. smile

Before talking about things like elevenths and thirteenths, let's just consider sevenths. Specifically, let's consider that you can think of a seventh chord as being made of some root with some triad located at the third. Here's the usual list:

Maj7 = Root + minor triad located a major third above, as in Emin/C
Dom7 = Root + diminished triad located a major third above, as in Edim/C
Min7 = Root + major triad located a minor third above, as in Eb/C
Half-dim7 = Root + minor triad located a minor third above, as in Ebmin/C
Fully dim7 = Root + dim triad located a minor third above, as in Ebdim/C

(If we really wanted to be thorough we could include every possible version, like maj7#5, min-maj7, etc.)

Now- the question of whether any of these is more or less diatonic is less a matter of the chord itself, and more a matter of where that chord fits into the key. So, for example- is a C7 (a.k.a. Edim/C), more "inside" or "outside"? Well, in the key of F major it is simply V7, which is completely inside. (So although this chord is generically thought of has having "one flatted note" in it, it still has no accidentals with respect to the key). However, if you're in Bb major, it's V7/V, which is less-diatonic. (One accidental). You could argue that in other keys, it might seem even more "outside," such as in the key of Ab minor, where this chord would most likely function as a tritone sub for III.

Likewise, whether or not we're talking about 7th chords, 9th chords, 11th- or 13th chords, it is again more a matter of considering whether those chord tones are diatonic to the key.

Forgive me if you already know all of this, but in the podcast I mentioned that there is a full "system" that jazz players use, of organizing complex chords in such a way that they can think of forming certain triads on top of certain roots or left-hand shapes. Many of these involve a triad located a third away from the root one way or another. However, because of what I said above, the real question of whether a third-related voicing in particular is more "inside" or "outside" comes down to that chord's place in the context of the key or key center.

As an example: a dom13(b9) chord can be thought of as the seventh chord on bottom, with a major triad located a minor third below the root. So there's a voicing like what we've been talking about. A G13(b9), then, would be E/G7. Now, is this "inside" or "outside"? My point is that it depends on the key, and on accidentals. In C major, this chord is "somewhat outside," because it has one accidental. In Bb major, though, the same G13(b9) chord now has three accidentals, and so it will likely sound more "outside."

To look at that one more way, you could consider the same chord being formed in different places in the same key. In the key of C major, G13(b9) sounds more "inside," while A13(b9) is more "outside." This is because G13(b9) = E/G7, and has one accidental in C, but A13(b9) = F#/A7, which contains three accidentals in C. Does that make sense?

For me, the synthesis of all this is to think in terms of roman numerals, and to notice what voicings yield which results, as in: over a V7/vi I like to use X polychord voicing, when I'm in the mood to be "inside," while I like to use Y polychord voicing when I want to be more "outside."

Sorry if the above was more than you cared to read, but hopefully I answered your question somewhere up there. smile


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#2047131 - 03/12/13 05:41 PM Re: Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
jjo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/09/08
Posts: 842
Loc: Chicago
Interesting approach, but I'm not sure I agree with the "inside" "outside" distinction. Adding sharp and flat 9ths and sharp and flat 5ths to dominant chords is such a standard part of jazz that it doesn't seem to be "outside" as that term is usually used. These are usually referred to as "altered" notes. Similarly, raising the 4th in a major chord is hardly considered wild harmony. Perhaps this is just a quarrel over the use of the term "outside" which I generally use to mean a much further drift from accepted harmony.

#2047158 - 03/12/13 06:05 PM Re: Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: jjo]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 125
You're absolutely right that there is a difference, and I almost included a comment to this effect, but didn't for the sake of simplicity. My usage of the terms "inside" and "outside" was meant to illustrate a general difference in the degree to which a chord is connected to a key or key center. Therefore, you could say I meant "outside the key" and "inside the key" (or key-center). I did not mean to suggest the usage often found in discussions of jazz which leans in a more avant-garde direction, wherein "inside" refers to more or less everything that has a basis in tonal harmony, including alterations, and "outside" refers to going outside of the key in something akin to atonality or, at least, bitonality. Sorry for any confusion.

Having said that, I'd definitely stand by my original contention that there is a degree of "connectedness" to a key which is related to the number of accidentals in a chord. A ii chord and a V/V chord are both more or less "simple" by typical jazz standards, but I would still say that the V/V, with its accidental, strikes the ear differently because it breaks from the key. I believe that that was not only the case in Bach's day, but that it still applies today, even when there are many more choices available, too. You're absolutely right that what I was discussing was "altered" notes, and I meant to keep the conversation along mainly tonal, traditional (for jazz) lines. I'm definitely with you, that a #4 is definitely not "wild harmony" in a typical jazz setting. Again, sorry about the confusion, and I hope that the difference in semantics doesn't take away from the ideas presented.
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#2047540 - 03/13/13 09:11 AM Re: Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
jjo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/09/08
Posts: 842
Loc: Chicago
I think your approach is interesting. I think all I was suggesting is that you might consider changing the terminology as "outside" playing generally has a different meaning. My teacher, for example, challenges me when I play what she calls all diatonic notes, meaning I don't used altered notes and chromatic passing tones enough. If all the notes a within the key center you're missing a lot of opportunities.

But in any event, I understood what you were saying and found it interesting!

#2047595 - 03/13/13 11:16 AM Two advanced thoughts re: polychords [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 1304
Loc: New York
Weighing back in ------

I appreciate your further elaboration, which I DID understand (in spite of the “mud”). Like so many of the more advanced concepts, they cannot be explained in very simple terms, and even less so in writing.

While I comprehended your use of the relative terms “outside”, in contrast to “inside”, and how that applies to your tonal center concept; I must also agree with jjo that the metaphor of “playing outside” is widely accepted to mean something quite different. To avoid confusion, I would try to develop a different set of terms to capture that contrast in chord tones. That aside, I would again like to stress that your presentation of the topic is first-rate.

In any event, I found your insight very refreshing -- not so much as something revolutionarily new, but rather as a completely different way of looking at alternative harmonies. For me, it is simply a new and different way of THINKING about the subject.

Thanks again,
In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.


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