6th Chords – The Complete Guide
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As piano students progress from beginner to intermediate levels, they gradually begin playing chords with more notes. Generally, this means shifting their focus from triads to seventh chords. Somewhere along the way, they might be introduced to 6th chords—but this is not always the case. Moreover, piano students who do learn how to build major 6th and minor 6th chords don’t always learn how to use them. However, in today’s Quick Tip, 6th Chords—The Complete Guide, Jonny May helps piano students of all levels close any knowledge gaps that they may have about 6th chords and how they are used in popular styles. You’ll learn:
- Intro to 6th Chords
- Two Types of 6th Chords
- 3 Essential 6th Exercises
- 3 Essential 6th Chord Techniques
You’ll discover that the more comfortable you become with shape of 6th chords in your hands, the more useful you’ll find them to be in your piano playing.
Before we introduce 6th chords from a theoretical point of view, let’s listen to an example of one way in which professional pianists use 6th chords in their playing. The following excerpt utilizes a C major 6th chord and an E minor 6th chord to create flashy piano runs in the stride style on the classic tune “It Had to Be You.”
As you can hear and see, 6th chords can make a big difference in your piano playing. While the example above is a rather advanced application, today’s lesson also includes applications for beginner and intermediate students. Therefore, be sure to download the lesson sheet which appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of the lesson sheet examples using our Smart Sheet Music.
The Missing Chapter in Your Music Theory Textbook
In music theory, the topic of 6th chords (or sixth chords) poses a challenge for students and educators alike. Specifically, the question is, “Where is the best place in the learning sequence for students to be introduced to sixth chords?” For example, even though 6th chords and 7th chords both contain 4 notes, they are distinctly different in construction. Therefore, they are rarely grouped together in the learning sequence. Moreover, after students are introduced to 7th chords, the next logical learning unit often seems to be chord extensions, which continue building on 7th chords by adding the 9th, 11th and 13th. Consequently, sixth chords often receive peripheral treatment in the learning sequence. In fact, some college-level music theory textbooks don’t address the topic of 6th chords at all!
Even though sixth chords represent a small classification of chords with an abnormal construction, they are worthy of deliberate study for music students of all levels. This is especially true for students who want to play popular styles including ragtime, boogie woogie, stride, swing, bebop, R&B and gospel.
“Sixth chords are common in older styles of jazz, such as ragtime, boogie-woogie, swing and bebop, where the major seventh chord may not sound appropriate as a tonic chord.”
—Tim Richards, pianist and author
In fact, since 6th chords expand on the concept of triads, beginners can understand and apply them rather early in their learning journey. Furthermore, intermediate and advanced students will find that mastering 6th chords is a pivotal step toward unlocking new avenues for harmonic and melodic expression.
Sixth chords are 4-note chords that come in two varieties—major 6th chords and minor 6th chords. Sixth chords are created by adding a major 6th interval above the root of either a major or minor triad. For example, the chord symbol C6 (pronounced “C six” or “C major six”) contains the notes C–E–G–A. Similarly, the chord symbol Cm6 (pronounced “C minor six”) contains the notes C–E♭–G–A. Music dictionaries refer to 6th chords as “added sixth chords,” also though this term is rare in musical conversations. Sixth chords occur most frequently in popular styles of music, especially jazz.
As a chord family, sixth chords are quite small, with only two varieties—the major 6th chord and the minor 6th chord. Triads, by comparison, come in four types (major, minor, augmented and diminished) and seventh chords come primarily in 5 types (major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished and fully-diminished). In this section, you’ll learn all about the two types of 6th chords.
A major 6th chord is a 4-note chord constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th tones of a major scale. Another way to build a major 6th chord is to start with a major triad and add a major 6th interval above the root. (Think: Root, 3rd, 5th, 6th). For example, C6 contains the notes C–E–G–A. Jazz musicians frequently use major 6th chords and major 7th chords interchangeably. However, whenever a jazz melody contains the root of a major chord, the major 6th sound is generally preferred to that of the major 7th chord.
A minor 6th chord is a 4-note chord constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th tones of either the melodic minor scale (ascending) or the Dorian scale. Another way to build a minor 6th chord is to start with a minor triad and add a major 6th interval above the root. (Think: Root, ♭3, 5th, 6th). For example, Cm6 contains the notes C–E♭–G–A. When compared to a minor 7th chord, the minor 6th chord has more internal tension due to the tritone interval between the ♭3rd and 6th tones. Jazz musicians frequently use minor 6th chords for the tonic chord in a minor key. In addition, minor 6th chords are interchangeable with minor-major 7th chords.
In the previous section, you learned about the scale origins and construction for major 6th and minor 6th chords, along with some general facts. Now, let’s play the following 3 exercises to get your fingers familiar with these unique chord shapes on the piano.
First, we need to get our hands familiar with playing the unique shape of sixth chords. Therefore, we’ll begin by playing a C6 chord in each inversion up and down the keyboard. You may find that this is not as easy as it first appears. However, with a little practice, your hands will acclimate to each shape.
Blocked 6th Chord Exercise – Right Hand
You may have noticed that the 3rd inversion of C6 appears to be identical to Am7. That’s correct! Major 6th chords share the same notes as the minor 7th chord of their relative minor. For example, just like C major and A minor share a key signature (zero ♯’s and zero♭’s), the notes of C6 (C–E–G–A) are shared with the notes of Am7 (A–C–E–G). Therefore, the context of how a chord is used determines which symbol is appropriate—C6 or Am7. In some cases, intelligent musicians will come to different conclusions about which symbol is most fitting. Generally speaking, if the bass note is C, it’s a C6 chord, and if the bass note is A, it’s an Am7 chord.
Now let’s play our blocked 6th chord exercise with the left hand.
Blocked 6th Chord Exercise – Left Hand
Next, we also want to be able to play sixth chords in a linear fashion. Therefore, the following exercise features arpeggios, which are also called “broken chords.”
Broken 6th Chord Exercise – Right Hand
Broken 6th Chord Exercise – Left Hand
Finally, let’s apply a melodic pattern over the shape of each sixth chord inversion. This exercise is particularly beneficial for learning to integrate sixth chords into your improvisational vocabulary. The following demonstrations are performed with a swung 16th-note feel.
6th Chord Pattern Exercise – Right Hand
6th Chord Pattern Exercise – Left Hand
Nice work! Keep in mind, these exercises should be practiced with minor 6th shapes also.
Now that our sixth chord exercises out of the way, let’s have some fun with sixth chord applications. In this section, you’ll learn essential techniques for integrating the sound of sixth chords into your playing.
If you are a beginner, you can get started using sixth chords right away. First, we’ll show you how to upgrade your major triads into major 6th chords on the familiar tune “Ode to Joy.” Afterward, we’ll show you how upgrade your minor triads into minor 6th chord using the tune “We Three Kings.”
Substitute Major 6th Chords for Major Triads
In general, any time you have a major triad that is functioning as a 1-chord or a 4-chord, you can substitute a major 6th chord in place of the major triad. Here’s what “Ode to Joy” sounds like with ordinary triads.
“Ode to Joy” with Triads
The example above is in the key of C major, where the 1-chord is C major (C–E–G) and the 4-chord is F major (F–A–C). Therefore, we can replace the C major triads with C6 (C–E–G–A). In addition, we can replace the F major triad with F6 (F–A–C–D). The following example demonstrates these substitutions, while also applying a syncopated rhythm in the left hand.
“Ode to Joy” with Major 6th Chords
Some readers may be wondering about the G major triad—can this be converted to G6? It sure can; however, the most typical application for major 6th chords in a major key is on the 1-chord and 4-chord. The 5-chord is more often treated as a dominant 7th chord or a dominant sus chord.
Now let’s turn our attention to an example involving minor 6th chords.
Substitute Minor 6th Chords for Minor Triads
In general, any time you have a minor triad that is functioning as a 1-chord or a 4-chord, you can substitute a minor 6th chord in place of the minor triad. First, let’s listen to what “We Three Kings” sounds like with ordinary triads. This example is in the key of C minor. Therefore, the 1-chord is C minor and the 4-chord is F minor.
“We Three Kings” with Triads
Now, let’s replace the C minor triads with Cm6 (C–E♭–G–A). We’ll also replace the F minor triad with Fm6 (F–A♭–C–D). If you are not accustom to the sound of minor 6th chords, you may not initially prefer this sound. Remember, minor 6th chords have some internal tension because they contain a tritone interval. However, this sound is popular among jazz pianists.
“We Three Kings” with Minor 6th Chords
Great job! It’s important to note that minor 2-chords are usually not played as minor 6th chords. Instead, stick to minor 7th chords when you have a 2-chord…especially when it is followed by the 5-chord.
Another important observation is that a Cm6 (C–E♭–G–A) in 3rd inversion is identical to Aø7 (A–C–E♭–G) in root position. Therefore, the musical context determines the chord’s function. Generally speaking, minor 6th chords function as 1-chords and 4-chords, whereas half-diminished chords function as 2-chords and 7-chords.
If you are an intermediate piano student and you’ve never considered much about sixth chords, then this section is for you! Here, you’ll learn to use the shape of sixth chords in your right hand as an upper structure for creating rich, warm piano voicings. But first, let’s play a basic 2-5-1 progression using only triads.
2-5-1 Progression with Triads
Now, we’ll drop the bass note down an octave and play 4-note shapes in our right hand. Notice, each right-hand shape is a 6th chord, but these shapes are not built on the root of the given chord symbol! The annotations use the abbreviation “US” for “upper structure” and are followed by a Roman numeral that indicates the root of the upper structure as compared to the root of the overall chord.
2-5-1 Progression with Upper Structure 6th Chords
Now you are probably starting to get the idea of what the term upper structure means. In jazz theory, the term upper structure refers to a voicing technique that uses familiar shapes or “structures” as the top portion of a more complex chord. The most common upper structures are major and minor triads that add desirable extensions or alterations. However, 6th chords are also common upper structures. Other names for this technique include “chord stacking” and “four-part-over-root” voicings.
Upper Structure Formulas for Chord Stacking with 6th Chords
The following diagram provides a concise “pro trick” for upgrading major, dominant and minor chord sounds with upper structure 6th chords.
Let’s take a closer look at each chord in our original 2-5-1 progression in C major. We’ll start with the 2-chord, D minor.
For minor chords, the “trick” is to play a major 6th chord in the right hand built on the 3rd of the chord. We call this US ♭Ⅲ (the “♭” indicates that the 3rd of a minor chord is a minor 3rd interval above the root). Therefore, instead of a D minor triad, we’ll play F6/D, which is pronounced “F Six Over D.” The sound that results is Dm7. The great thing about this voicing technique is that it works for the 2-chord, 3-chord and 6-chord in a major key.
Minor Chords: Play a Major 6th on the 3rd
Next, let’s examine the “pro trick” for dominant chord voicings with upper structure 6th chords. Here, we’ll use a minor 6th chord shape that is a perfect 5th above the root of the dominant chord. For right now, we’ll call the dominant chord G7, but by the time we’re all done, we’ll actually be playing G9. However, one thing at a time. In G7, the 5th is the note D. Therefore, the “trick” tells us to play Dm6 (D–F–A–B) in our right hand. When we stack Dm6 on top of a G in the base, we now have G9.
Dominant Chords: Play a Minor 6th on the 5th
For major chords, the “trick” is to stack a major 6th chord built on the 5th above the root. Start by asking yourself, “What is the 5th in a C major triad?” The answer is the note G. Now, play a G6 (G–B–D–E) in your right hand while you play a C in the left hand. The result is a beautiful Cmaj9 voicing (pronounced “C major nine”).
Major Chords: Play a Major 6th on the 5th
Try Chord Stacking Technique On a New Progression
Let’s practice finding the upper structure 6th chords for another chord progression. The example below shows a Ⅰ→Ⅲm→ Ⅳ→ Ⅴ progression in C major. The chords are C→Em→ F→ G. In the accompanying video demonstration, we’ve added a final 1-chord at the end. In addition, we’ve added the roots in the left hand.
Next, refer to “The Trick” diagram to recall the upper structure 6th chord for each chord type. Once you think you have the answer, compare it to the example below. Don’t worry if you came up with different inversions in your right hand. If you got the correct upper structures, you’re on the right track. The final step is to select inversions that will connect each chord in the right hand with as few leaps as possible, as demonstrated below.
Practice Example with Upper Structure 6th Chords
Did you notice that Cmaj9 and Em7 have the same upper structure? That’s right, they both use G6 in the right hand. This is not a problem. However, if you prefer to hear some movement here, you could invert one of the right-hand shapes to a different G6 inversion. However, if you invert the Em7 voicing, you may need to invert the subsequent chords as well to maintain strong voice leading.
To learn more about jazz piano voicings with upper structures, be sure to check out our full-length course on Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Advanced).
If you are an advanced piano student, then this part of today’s lesson is just for you. In this section, you’ll learn how to play flashy piano runs in the stride piano style like Art Tatum. We’ll demonstrate this technique using the jazz standard “It Had to Be You,” by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn. The following recording from 1939 demonstrates the manner in which Art Tatum used runs to ornament his melodies.
“It Had to Be You” – Art Tatum
Let’s begin by first considering the melody and chords for the first few measures.
“It Had to Be You” – Melody & Chords
Did you notice that the melody contains several long notes? Stride pianists would commonly fill these melodic gaps with descending runs based on sixth chords. In the following example, Jonny demonstrates descending runs with both major 6th and minor 6th chords.
“It Had to Be You” – Piano Runs with 6th Chords
As the annotations indicate, the first descending run is a C major 6th chord. In the stride style, the major 6th sound is the most common way to voice the tonic chord. However, over the A9 chord, the descending run is an Em6 chord (E–G–B–C♯). As we discovered in the previous section, for dominant chords, we can play a minor 6th chord built on the 5th. This is essentially all the notes of a dominant 9th chord, but with the root omitted.
Run Exercises for Major Chords
The following exercises will help you isolate and execute descending runs with major sixth chords. The first example demonstrates a C6 run descending from the root.
Major 6th Run Exercise #1
The next example shows a C6 run descending from the 3rd.
Major 6th Run Exercise #2
Next, we have a C6 run descending from the 5th.
Major 6th Run Exercise #3
Run Exercise for Dominant Chords
Now let’s practice a descending run over a dominant chord. The following example demonstrates Em6 over A9. The descending run begins on the root of Em6.
Dominant Run Exercise
Run Exercise for minor Chords
Finally, let’s also practice an example of descending run over a minor chord. The following example demonstrates an Fm6 run descending from the 6th.
Minor 6th Run Exercise
To learn additional piano run techniques, be sure to check out our course on Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Int/Adv).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip on 6th Chords—The Complete Guide. Hopefully, the exercises and examples in today’s lesson have given you much to consider about different ways that you can integrate sixth chords into your playing.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Richards Tim. Exploring Jazz Piano : Harmony Technique Improvisation. 1. Schott 2005, p 148.
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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