3 Steps to Play Piano Chord Clusters
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When reading sheet music, there is a correlation for many pianists between the amount of noteheads that appear on a stem, and the amount of uneasiness they experience. And while one may be tempted to shrink back from piano scores with chords appearing like great big clusters of grapes, there is good reason to embrace this challenge. That’s because piano chord clusters are a vital component to playing many modern jazz styles. In fact, keyboardists who play neo soul, R&B, and contemporary gospel music crave the sound of dense clustery chords which are affectionately known as “fat chords,” or even “phat chords.” Indeed, learning to play cluster chords on piano can open up new worlds of inspiration and expression. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn:
- Intro to Piano Chord Clusters
- 3 Steps to Voicings Piano Chords with Clusters
Today’s lesson is perfect for singer-songwriters and anyone who loves to play popular music with a jazz piano influence.
The topic of today’s lesson, piano chord clusters, explores a contemporary jazz piano voicing approach that has become infused with the modern urban sound. As with many modern innovations, terminology varies widely. In fact, the technique commonly described as chord clusters or cluster chords is also referred to as chordal clusters, tone clusters, cluster harmony, group chords and secundal harmony (chords build using the interval of a 2nd).
What are Chord Clusters?
The heart of the cluster voicing technique is the deliberate use of two or more adjacent notes within a piano chord. The adjacent notes can either be a ½ step or whole step apart, and may even combine multiple ½-step and whole-step clusters.
In the final two decades of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century, cluster chords have become a significant stylistic facet of the contemporary urban piano sound found in neo-soul, R&B, hip hop and mainstream pop.
On the title track, “Imagine,” from Herbie Hancock’s 2010 The Imagine Project, Herbie’s beautiful use of piano clusters contribute to the tune’s “eminently accessible, crossover-bound mélange.” ¹
The creative exploration and adoption of piano cluster techniques by composers and performers of the 20th century varies widely. In general, classical composers of the 20th century tended to use clusters as dissonances, often intentionally blurring the lines between music and noise. On the other hand, the use of clusters in popular styles (including ragtime, jazz, rock, pop and contemporary urban music) more frequently integrates clusters with tonal clarity and beauty. Today’s lesson will focus on this latter harmonic usage of clusters, while briefly referencing the former.
Cluster chords are were first extensively employed by the modernist composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, American pianist-composers Henry Cowell (1897–1965) and Leo Ornstein (1895–2002) employed extensive use of tone clusters as a dissonances in their piano works. In fact, the term “tone cluster” is credited to Cowell, who also pioneered new forms of notation for the technique. For example, Cowell’s scores frequently specified the top and bottom notes of an intended cluster connected by a heavy vertical line.
“Wild Men’s Dance” (1913)
“The Tides of Manaunaun” (1917)
A sampling of other early 20th century composers to use clusters in their piano works includes Isaac Albeniz (1860–1909), Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Charles Ives (1874–1954) and Bela Bartok (1881–1945).
Tone Clusters in Ragtime Piano Music
Ragtime pianists such as Scott Joplin (1868–1917) and Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941) also included clusters their original works. While both men’s use of clusters are rightly characterized as dissonance, their usage is quite unlike the more dissonant usage of contemporary classical composers of their day.
“Wall Street Rag” (1909)
Jelly Roll Morton
“Tiger Rag” (1938)
Jazz pianist Bill Evans (1929–1980) was particularly innovative at incorporating clusters in his jazz piano voicings in breathtaking ways. Influenced by French composers Debussy and Ravel, Evans introduced impressionistic colors in the mid-to-late 1950s with his rootless voicings. These piano voicings integrated chord extensions and alterations, often arranged with internal clusters.
“Theme from M*A*S*H” (1979)
“Danny Boy” (2002)
“In a Sentimental Mood” (2009)
It is important to note that the jazz piano term cluster voicing, while related to today’s topic, refers to a different approach than the large and dense voicings taught in today’s lesson. Instead, a typical jazz piano cluster voicing contains only 3 notes and consists of a major or minor 2nd and a major or minor 3rd. In addition, a cluster voicing contains only one of the guide tones, (the 3rd or the 7th), not both. Here is an example of a 2-5-1 progression using cluster voicings.
Neo soul artists emerged in the to the late 80s and early 90s, blending textures of soul music and contemporary R&B. Writing for VIBE magazine in 2002, Dimitri Ehrlich describes neo soul as “a mix of elegant, jazz-tinged R&B and subdued hip hop, with a highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal approach to love and politics.” ² Neo soul music frequently includes cluster chords played on vintage keyboards such as a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer or Yamaha CP70. Surprisingly, Robert Glasper’s genre defying 2012 album, Black Radio, entered at #1 on the Billboard jazz charts and won a Grammy award for Best R&B Album.
“A Long Walk” (2000)
Robert Glasper Experiment
“Ah Yeah” feat. Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele (2012)
The large, cluster-chord stacks presented in today’s lesson appear in a variety of contemporary styles, often invoking a soulful sound. In fact, the selections below present three male, piano-vocal artists from different genres who each use rich piano cluster chords in their accompaniments. Brian McKnight’s “Everything I Do” is of particular relevance because, like today’s lesson, it applies clusters on a I to IV chord progression, albeit in F# major rather than C major.
“Sweet Baby” (2006)
“Everything I Do” (2005)
“‘Tis So Sweet” (2004)
Now that we’ve covered a brief history of today’s topic, let’s incorporate gorgeous piano cluster chords into your playing.
While the soulful sound of piano chord clusters is quite complex, learning to play them doesn’t have to be. In fact, you can learn to play gorgeous piano cluster chords in just 3 steps.
Today’s lesson sheet presents how to play cluster chords in C major. The lesson sheet PDF and accompanying backing tracks are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Learning to play contemporary piano styles with gorgeous chord clusters begins with a simple major chord, such as C–E–G.
In order to transform this major chord into a cluster chord, we must identify which additional notes will sound good. For major triads, the “money notes” for adding beautiful clusters are the 2nd, 6th and 7th. You can also think of this as adding the 2nd, 6th and 7th notes from the C major scale.
This chord is a C▵13 (pronounced “C major 13”). Where does the number thirteen come from? Well, when this chord is built exclusively using stacks of thirds, the note A is a 13th above the root. Another way to understand a 13th interval is that it is a compound interval—an octave plus a 6th. Major 13 chords frequently include the major 9th also, which is the note D in the example above. In fact, a 9th is a compound interval too (an octave plus a 2nd). Therefore, many students think of extensions like 9ths and 13ths in terms of their simple-interval-equivalents (2nds and 6ths).
Did you notice that the example above only includes one cluster? Remember, a cluster is two adjacent notes (either a ½ step or a whole step apart). You may also think of a cluster as either a minor 2nd or a major 2nd. Therefore, the notes A and B are the only cluster in this example.
In the next step, you’ll learn how to find a total of 5 possible clusters within the notes of this chord!
The second step to playing piano with gorgeous chord clusters is to examine all of the possible clusters available within the notes of a chord. You might call this the chord’s “cluster capacity.” For example, the notes of C▵13 in the previous example can be arranged to create 5 possible clusters. Each potential cluster is shown below with labels identifying the chord tones in each cluster.
If you are especially inquisitive, you may be wondering whether or not it is possible to create a voicing that contains clusters exclusively. The answer is yes! In fact, that is the meaning of secundal harmony. Just like tertian chords are built in 3rds and quartal chords are built in 4ths, secundal chords are built in 2nds. The example below shows shows a C▵13 expressed as a secundal chord.
While it is certainly possible to play C▵13 this way, this is probably not how you will regularly apply the piano cluster chord technique. In fact, in the next section, we’ll break down Jonny’s system for selecting ideal combinations of clusters.
The third and final step to playing piano with beautiful chord clusters is to combine two cluster groups. The voicings in this section are organized around each note of C▵13 serving as a potential melody note. Therefore, we will add two clusters in the right hand below each melody note. In the following example, the voicings shown are representative of how clusters are commonly used in contemporary urban music. However, these voicings are not intended to represent the only possible voicing solution for each melody note.
The voicing shown above are presented in a logical ascending order. However, each voicing also works well when played down an octave, creating a deep and warm major chord sound. In addition, the top note in the left hand can be expanded to a 10th instead (the note E) for an even fuller sound.
Fingering Piano Chord Clusters
You might be wondering what fingering to use for these exceptionally large piano chords. Many of these voicings require a somewhat crude piano fingering technique that some pianists call “fat fingering,” or “phat fingering.” This is simply a colloquial way to refer to a fingering in which the right thumb plays two notes simultaneously. Shhh…don’t tell your classical piano teacher.
Let’s listen to how the cluster chord shown above sounds with a variety of different keyboard patches. After all, cluster voicing techniques are used on acoustic pianos and electric pianos. In fact, many musicians combine layers of strings and pads with their favorite acoustic or electric piano to create thick textures. Here are some examples.
As you can hear, these beautiful clusters are quite at home in a variety of contexts!
So far, we’ve examined 3 steps to construct beautiful cluster chords for C major. To put this in a musical context, let’s build the same clusters for an F major chord. This will allow you to play a I to IV chord progression along with the 2nd backing track that is included with today’s lesson.
Remember, start with the major chord, in this case F–A–C. Then, follow the 3 simple steps:
- #1: Identify Extra Notes
- For F Major the 2nd, 6th and 7th are G, D, & E
- #2 Examine Cluster Groups
- 1 & 2 = F & G
- 2 & 3 = G & A
- 5 & 6 = C & D
- 6 & 7 = D & E
- 7 & 1 = E & F
- #3 Combine Cluster Groups
- see notation below
Following the 3 steps, we get the following clusters chords for F major.
The best part about the 3 steps that you learned above is that they also work for minor chords. In fact, C▵13 and Amin11 contain all the same notes! Similarly, F▵13 and Dmin11 also contain the same exact notes. That means that you can take the cluster voicings for any major chord and apply them to the corresponding relative minor. Simply change your left hand to the root + 5th or root +5th +10th.
In some cases, you may decide to modify which clusters you choose as a matter of preference. As a guide, the “money notes” for minor chords are the 7th, 9th and 11th. Here are some A minor clusters for you to try.
Congratulations, you have completed today’s Quick Tip. If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following resources:
- 4 Steps to Play Neo Soul Chords on Piano (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- What a Wonderful World—Contemporary Piano (Level 2)
- Danny Boy Challenge (Levels 1–3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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