Augmented Chords – The Complete Guide
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Perhaps you know what augmented chords are, but how often do you use these peculiar and slightly jarring chords in your piano playing? In today’s Quick Tip, Augmented Chords—The Complete Guide, Jonny May shows you how to use augmented chords to make your music sound even more interesting. Believe it or not, augmented chords are some of the most important chords that professional musicians use to create amazing solos, add passing chords and create complex tonal colors. You’ll learn:
- Introduction to Augmented Chords
- Piano Chord Chart: All Augmented Triads
- 3 Piano Techniques with Augmented Chords
If you can’t remember the last time you used an augmented chord, then this lesson is for you!
The Put a Finger Down Challenge is a fun and popular TikTok trend used to learn more about a particular person based on their responses to yes-or-no questions that revolve around a unified theme. The rules are simple—if the respondent can answer “yes” to a question, they put a finger down. Usually, the total number of fingers they put down after 10 questions reflects to what extent they possess a particular character trait, such as loyalty or toxicity.
The Augmented Chord Put a Finger Down Challenge
As an intro to today’s lesson topic, we’re going to play The Augmented Chord Put a Finger Down Challenge. This fun game will show you how much you how about these enigmatic and elusive piano chords. The more fingers you put down, the greater expertise you have on the topic of augmented chords.
Alright, start with all 10 fingers up, and put a finger down if…
- …you know how to build an augmented triad.
- …you can name two types of 7th chords that contain an augmented 5th.
- …you know which scale(s) have diatonic augmented chords.
- …you can explain whether an augmented triad is symmetrical or asymmetrical.
- …you know which scale has only augmented triads.
- …you know how many unique augmented triads there are.
- …you can name a piano piece you’ve personally played that contains an augmented chord.
- …you can demonstrate a chord progression that uses an augmented chord.
- …you improvise solo lines with augmented triad shapes.
- …you know one or more piano voicings with upper structure augmented triads.
Well, how did you do? Don’t be discouraged if most of your fingers remained up. In fact, while many piano students know what an augmented chord is, most students have no idea where they come from or how they are used. The good news is that after today’s Quick Tip, you’ll be able to answer “yes” to all 10 questions! 🙌
Before we dive in, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF that appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Let’s start by answering the question, “What are augmented chords?” While this lesson focuses primarily on augmented triads, we’ll also cover two unique 7th chords that you can play which contain augmented 5th intervals. First, let’s examine the sound and intervals contained within the most basic augmented chord type—the augmented triad. [Note: Tap or click on the keyboards to hear each chord.👆🎹👂]
An augmented triad is a 3-note chord built by stacking two major 3rds. The term “augmented” comes into play because the interval from the root of the chord to the 5th is an augmented 5th. Another helpful approach for constructing an augmented triad is to begin with a major triad and then raise the 5th by a ½ step. (Think: Root, 3rd, ♯5).
Dominant 7(#5) Chords
Dominant 7(♯5) Chords combine an augmented triad with a minor 7th. (Think: Root, 3rd, ♯5, ♭7). Building this chord on the note C, we get C–E–G♯–B♭. Common chord symbols for this chord are C7+ and C7(♯5). This chord is often associated with the Whole Tone Scale, particularly when the ♮9 is included, as in C9(♯5). However, C7(♯5) is also found in the Altered Scale, where it can be voiced with either the ♭9 or ♯9.
Augmented chords can sometimes be confusing for music students. Certainly, one contributing factor is that out of the four types of triads (major, minor, diminished and augmented), the augmented triad is the only one that does not occur naturally within the major scale. Rather, the augment triad is a diatonic chord that occurs in both the Harmonic Minor Scale and the Melodic Minor Scale (ascending only). In both scales, the augmented triad occurs as the 3-chord (Ⅲ+) as a result of the raised 7th scale degree.
The following examples notate and demonstrate the A Harmonic Minor Scale with its corresponding diatonic triads and 7th chords on piano. Notice that it is the 3-chord that produces the augmented chords (C+ and C▵+).
Augmented Triads and Harmonic Function
Even though the augmented triad occurs in both the Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales as a Ⅲ+ chord, it rarely functions this way. In other words, most augment triads you’ll encounter won’t make sense as a 3-chord of a minor key. More often, augmented triads will appear to be a Ⅰ+, Ⅳ+ or Ⅴ+ in a major key. However, as we’ll see later in this lesson, the augmented 5th interval usually results from chromatic voice leading over a major triad (Ⅰ, Ⅳ or Ⅴ). In such cases, the presence of the augmented 5th interval is best understood as a passing tone.¹
“Of the four triads built in thirds, the augment triad is the least used in music composition. In fact, this triad more often than not appears in a context that suggests a nonharmonic analysis rather than a harmonic one.”
—Robert W. Ottman, Music Educator and Author
In addition to the Harmonic Minor Scale and the Melodic Minor Scale, there is an additional scale that is also closely associated with augmented chords. The Whole Tone Scale produces augmented triads and dominant 7(♯5) chords on each scale degree. For a deep dive on the Whole Tone Scale, check out our Quick Tip on Whole Tone Scale—The Complete Piano Guide (Int).
Unlike most other chords which have 12 unique transpositions, there are only 4 unique augmented triads. This is because most other chords are asymmetrical (with the exception of fully-diminished 7th chords). However, the symmetrical structure of augmented chords means that all its chord tones are equidistant. In fact, the interval from the 5th of the chord up to the root is also a major 3rd. Therefore, an augmented triad divides the octave into 3 equal parts. Each part is comprised of 4 half-steps (or a major 3rd). Let’s take a closer look by constructing augmented triads on the roots C, D♭, D and E♭.
Symmetrical Structure = Limited Transpositions
Suppose we were to build an E Augmented triad. This chord is spelled E–G♯–B♯. However, these are the exact same notes as C Augmented (C–E–G♯). In fact, C Augmented in first inversion (C+/E) is identical to E Augmented in root position. As a result, augmented triads don’t have an identifiable root, as far as the ear is concerned. How can this be? Well, it’s similar to the fact that a chromatic scale doesn’t produce or imply any identifiable tonic note.
The following piano chord chart illustrates the four unique transposition groups for augmented chords, given their symmetrical structure. Even though the spelling for each augmented chord is unique, the triads in each column contain the exact same three notes enharmonically. This piano chord chart of augmented chords is included in today’s downloadable lesson sheet PDF.
How to Spell Augmented Triads
Perhaps you’re wondering why some of these augmented triads are spelled as such? One might protest, “Is it really necessary to spell B Augmented as B–D#–F𝄪? (Note, the 𝄪 symbol represents “double-sharp”). Why not spell it B–D#–G?” The answer has to do with what we mean when we use the words “triad” and “root.” Remember, triad does not mean a chord with 3 notes—that’s a frequent misconception. For example, a sus chord like Gsus4 (G–C–D) is not a triad, even though it contains 3 notes. Instead, the term triad means a 3-note chord that can be arranged as a stack of 3rds (Think: Root–3rd–5th). Since Gsus4 cannot be arranged as a stack of 3rds, it is not a triad. However, it still has a root…the note G. The root is the fundamental note upon which a chord structure is built. Sus4 chords use the structure 1–4–5.
So why can’t B Augmented be spelled B–D#–G? Actually, in one sense it can, and in another it cannot. The notes B–D#–G are still a triad because they can be stacked in 3rds. For example, if you rearrange the notes in the order G–B–D#, then you have a stack of 3rds with a clear root-position triadic shape. However, B is no longer the root! The root of G–B–D# is the note G, and that chord is named G Augmented.
So, is there a difference between G Augmented and B Augmented? The sound is identical when they are arranged with the same note on bottom. However, they come from different Harmonic Minor Scales. For example, G Augmented is the Ⅲ+ chord of E minor, whereas B Augmented is the Ⅲ+ chord of G♯ minor. In modern practice, most arrangers opt to spell augmented chords in a manner that is easiest to read.
So far, you’ve learned how to build augmented chords, where they come from and some of their unique characteristics. But let’s not stop there. The goal is to learn how to use this unique harmonic color in your playing. Therefore, this section covers 3 piano techniques with augmented chords that you can use right away.
Certainly, some readers at this point may be thinking, “I’m just a beginner. I’m not ready for augmented chords…I think I’ll stick to the basics.” Actually, there is a very natural way in which beginner students can use augmented chords. Consider the following beginner level excerpt, which bears a resemblance to the jazz standard “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
Problem: Stagnant Major Tonic Triad
Did you notice the initial C major triad lasts 3 full measures? This is an example of what we call harmonic stagnation. Such prolonged use of the tonic triad makes the arrangement feels like it’s going nowhere.
Jazz musicians frequently add chord substitutions and passing chords to breakup harmonic stagnation like we find in this example. However, beginners can also approach this excerpt in a similar manner.
The key is to remember that many occurrences of augmented triads are preceded by the major chord built on the same root. In other words, when you encounter a C Augmented triad, it is often coming from a C major triad. In the key of C major, we express this chord sequence with Roman numerals as Ⅰ→Ⅰ+. Afterward, we can either go to a Ⅰ⁶ chord (C major 6) or to a Ⅱ– chord (D minor). Therefore, the complete chord progression is either Ⅰ→Ⅰ+→Ⅰ⁶ or Ⅰ→Ⅰ+→Ⅱ–.
Here is the same melody from the previous example. However, now we have added inner voice movement with augmented triads to address the problem of harmonic stagnation. In fact, this example uses both Ⅰ→Ⅰ+→Ⅰ⁶ and Ⅰ→Ⅰ+→Ⅱ–.
Solution: Augmented Triad Passing Function
Pretty cool, huh? This type of voicing leading can also be used over prolonged major 4-chords (Ⅳ→Ⅳ+→Ⅳ⁶) and 5-chords (Ⅴ→Ⅴ+→Ⅴ⁶). However, this technique is best suited for contexts in which the melody does not feature prominent use of the 5th of the chord. Otherwise, the ♯5 in the inner voice would clash against the 5th in the melody.
Let’s check out another augmented chord technique.
Professional jazz musicians frequently improvise by drawing on a melodic device known as triad pairs. To improvise with triad pairs, jazz pianists select two complimentary triads from a common scale and then create melodies that alternated back and forth between these triadic shapes.
Generally speaking, pianists prefer to pair adjacent triads from their source scale. This way, the triad pair will not have any common tones. In other words, one triad pair typically contains 6 unique notes. If you were to choose non-adjacent triads from the source scale, the resulting common tone(s) will reduce your total number of notes.
Let’s consider an example of triad pairs to bring this concept into sharp focus. For this illustration, we’ll create a triad pair with two augmented chords: C Augmented (C–E–G♯) and D Augmented (D–F♯–A♯). These two triads are adjacent chords drawn from the C Whole Tone Scale (C–D–E–F♯–G♯–A♯).
The first step to improvise with triad pairs is to practice “blocking” the selected pair through each inversion. This familiarizes your hand with the shapes that you’ll be alternating between when improvising with the selected triad pair. Therefore, we’ll start by playing C+ and D+ in root position. Then, we’ll continue to ascend through each inversion. Afterward, it’s a good idea to practice playing the triad pair in descending blocks too.
C Aug & D Aug Triad Pair in Ascending Blocks
Next, try to improvise a melodic line that ascends or descends while seamless weaving back and forth between various inversions of the triad pair. Here is one example.
Sample Improv with Triad Pairs
So far, our discussion in this section has centered primarily on explaining the triad pair technique. However, we haven’t yet discussed why we choose the specific triads C+ and D+. Since our focal topic for today’s lesson is on augmented chords, let’s also explain why we chose these augmented triads. The reason is because these augmented triads work well over C7 to produce an altered dominant sound.
The actual harmonic color that C+ and D+ create is C9(♭5♯5). Generally, this chord symbol appears more succinctly as C9(♯5). Therefore, if you want to add this sound to your improv arsenal, just remember that when you have a dominant 7th chord, you can create a triad pair from the augment triads built on the root and the 9th of the chord.
Professional musicians also use augmented triads as upper structures. This jazz piano voicing technique combines a simple triad shape in the right hand over a basic chord shell in the left hand to create a more complex harmonic sound.
In this section, we’ll explore 3 unique harmonic colors using upper structure augmented triads:
- Dominant 7(♭13) Voicings
- Lydian Dominant Voicings
- Minor-Major 7th Voicings
A Word of Encouragement
Before we dive into this section, a word of encouragement is appropriate. Learning to voice jazz piano chords with upper structure triads (USTs) can be mentally challenging, especially if you are still laying your music theory foundations of intervals, key signatures and chord structures. These challenges are magnified when using augmented triads as an upper structure, because each augmented triad shape has multiple enharmonic spellings.
In examining the examples in this section, students will be need to be fluent with viewing a single piano chord shape with multiple enharmonic spellings, sometimes thinking in a flat key with hand while thinking in a sharp key with the other hand. Be patient with yourself, and use this opportunity to fill in any cracks in your foundation.
1. Augmented USTs for Dominant 7(♭9)
The first harmonic sound we’ll explore with Augmented USTs is the Dominant 7(♭9) sound. These complex dominant chords sound amazing. The following example shows a common way to voice A♭7(♭13) with an augmented triad in the right hand as an upper structure. In this case, the upper structure is our familiar friend, the C Augmented triad (C+). Sometimes, this voicing is also indicated with the chord symbol A♭7(♯5), since the ♯5 and ♭13 are enharmonically equivalent. The second measure below provides a contextual application in which we resolve A♭7(♭13) to D♭6/9.
The annotation in the example above shows that we can think of this upper structure as UST Ⅲ+ . This means that we can memorize this voicing formula as an augmented triad built on the 3rd of A♭7. In fact, the C+ in the right hand doesn’t even need to be played in root position. You can play it in any inversion, and you can even use your right thumb to double the top note in your pinky as you invert the chord upward.
Source Scale for the Dominant 7(♭13) Sound
You may be wondering where this voicing comes from? Notice that when we resolve A♭7(♭13) to D♭6/9, our melodic line includes the ♯9 and the ♭9. In this case, the source scale for A♭7(♭13) is the A♭ Altered Scale, which is technically spelled as A♭–B𝄫–C♭–D𝄫–E𝄫–F♭–G♭–A♭. However, that is a nightmare to try to read! Therefore, it’s much more helpful to think of the parent scale enharmonically as the G♯ Altered Scale, which is G♯–A–B–C–D–E–F♯. Do you see the C Augmented triad (C–E–G♯) contained within the scale? Since this specific example is uses the Altered Scale, the chord symbol A♭7alt is also appropriate here. If you are not yet familiar with the Altered Scale, be sure to check out our Quick Tip on The Altered Scale—The Complete Guide.
In other cases, a Dominant 7(♭13) chord symbol does not necessarily imply a fully altered sound. In fact, since this particular voicing only contains 4 notes (A♭–C–E♮–G♭), it’s impossible to pin down a specific source scale or parent scale without a musical context. For example, all of the following scales produce the Dominant 7(♭13) sound.
- Mixolydian♭13 Scale: 1–2–3–4–5–♭6–♭7
- Phrygian Dominant Scale: 1–♭2–3–4–5–♭6–♭7
- Altered Scale: 1–♭2–♭3–♭4–♭5–♭6–♭7
- Whole Tone Scale: 1–2–3–♯4–♯5–♯6
A Closer Look…
Let’s find our C Augmented upper structure triad in each scale built on the root of A♭. The notes of C+ are underlined for you.
- A♭ Mixolydian♭13 Scale: A♭–B♭–C–D♭–E♭–F♭–G♭
- A♭ Phrygian Dominant Scale: A♭–B𝄫–C–D♭–E♭–F♭–G♭
- G♯ Altered Scale: G♯–A–B–C–D–E–F♯
- A♭ Whole Tone Scale: A♭–B♭–C–D–E–F♯
Why is this important? There are two reasons. First, you want to be sure to associate the UST Ⅲ+ voicing with each potential chord symbol, which includes V7(♭13), V7(♯5) and V7alt. Secondly, when you are improvising, if you see a V7(♭13) chord symbol, just know that it doesn’t always represent the same scale, so a little detective work is in order. You could choose any of the scales shown above. However, a good rule of thumb is to look to the melody to supply the harmonic context, as we did in the example above.
C Augmented UST Over Other V7(♭13) Chords
Earlier, we discussed the symmetrical structure of augmented triads and examined how each augmented triad shape has three unique spellings. Since C Augmented has two other spellings, it should come as no surprise then that it can serve as a UST for two additional V7(♭13) chords. If fact, the roots of the three V7(♭13) chords that share C+ as an UST outline an augmented triad themselves. In other words, C+ works as a UST for C7(♭13), E7(♭13) and A♭7(♭13). Moreover, it’s not even necessary to change the spelling of the UST.
Looking at this example, we see that the augmented UST relationship for Dominant 7(♭13) sounds can also be represented as UST Ⅰ+ and UST ♯Ⅴ+. This information can come in handy to help you quickly find a Dominant 7(♭13) voicing.
Augmented UST Shortcut for Dominant 7(♭13) Voicings
Next, we’ll examine how to use augment triads as an upper structures for a completely different altered dominant sound.
2. Augmented USTs for Lydian Dominants
We can also use Augmented USTs to voice the Lydian Dominant sound. We get these brilliant and uplifting dominant chords from the Lydian Dominant Scale. This scale uses the scale degrees 1–2–3–♯4–5–6–♭7.
Let’s begin by considering the D Lydian Dominant Scale. This scale is D–E–F♯–G♯–A–B–C♮–D. Do you see the C Augmented triad (C–E–G♯) contained in this scale? Since C+ naturally occurs in this scale, we can use it as an upper structure triad to voice the Lydian Dominant sound, just like we did for the Dominant 7(♭13) sound. We simply need to add a D7 chord shell in the left hand.
You might ask, “But wait, won’t this sound the same as the Dominant 7(♭13) voicing?” No, because the relationship of the augmented triad to the root of the dominant 7th chord is different, as we’ll soon see.
Notice that the augmented UST for this voicing is UST ♭Ⅶ+. Another way to say this is that we must build an augmented triad on the ♭7 of D7. The voicing that results is D9(♯11).
C Augmented UST Over Other Dominant 9(♯11) Chords
Of course, there are two other Lydian Dominant chords that share C Augmented as and upper structure. They are G♭9(♯11) and B♭9(♯11). Notice that the roots of these related Lydian Dominants outline an augmented triad: G♭–B♭–D.
Let’s play an example using G♭9(♯11), shown below. Notice, for this chord, the C Augmented upper structure is not spelled quite correctly, enharmonically speaking. Technically, the 7th of G♭7 is the note F♭, not E♮. However, it is much easier to read this voicing by spelling the right hand as a C+ upper structure and the left hand as a Root+3rd chord shell.
Since the C Augmented triad is built on the #4 of G♭7, we can call this a UST #Ⅳ+. However, what key has G♭7 as a 5-chord? How about C♭ major—yuck! Therefore, we’ll spell this Lydian Dominant enharmonically as F♯9(♯11) and we’ll resolve it to B major. However, our UST is not #Ⅳ+ anymore. It is now a UST ♭Ⅴ+. This is a minor detail, but one worth noting.
We have one more Lydian Dominant chord that can use C Augmented as and upper structure. Let’s play our augmented UST for B♭9(♯11).
In this B♭9(♯11) chord, the C Augmented triad is built on the 9th, so we call it a UST Ⅱ+. When we resolved this chord, we inverted the C+ chord so that the note C is on top. We could have left it spelled E–G♯–C (from the bottom up), but instead we spelled it F♭–A♭–C. Either spelling is permissible. However, F♭–G♯–C would not be appropriate because that would obscure the fact that the right hand is playing a triadic shape.
Let’s review our UST formulas for Lydian Dominants.
Augmented UST Shortcut for Lydian Dominant Voicings
Next, we’ll examine how to use augment USTs for a completely different sound altogether—the minor-major 7th chord.
3. Augmented USTs for Minor-Major 7th Chords
We can also the augmented triad as a UST for Minor-Major 7th Chords. Jazz pianists frequently substitute minor-major 7th chords in place of regular minor 7th chords, especially in contexts in which the minor chord is not a 2-chord. For example, pianists sometimes play a I–▵ as the final chord of a minor 2-5-1 progression. In addition, jazz pianists frequently use inner voice movement to create voice leading from R→♮7→♭7→♮6. This melodic gesture passes through a minor triad, a minor-major 7th chord, a minor 7th chord and a minor 6th chord, all with the same root (see example below).
Let’s play Am(maj7) using a C Augmented UST. Our right hand will play C–E–G♯ while our left hand plays an open 5th with the notes A and E. Since our right is playing the ♮7 (the note G♯), we must be sure to not play the ♭7 in our left hand (the note G♮). However, you can play the ♮6 in the left hand if you want.
We can describe this voicing as a UST ♭Ⅲ+.
Augmented UST Shortcut for Minor-Major 7th Voicings
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Augmented Chords—The Complete Guide! Now you’re ready to start incorporating these unique harmonic colors into your piano arrangements and improvisation.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following related resources:
- Piano Triads—Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords (Int)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack (Int)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Ottman, Robert W. Advanced Harmony : Theory and Practice. 4th ed. Prentice-Hall 1992, p 226.
Introductory image created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.
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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