Chord Extensions – The Complete Guide
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Do you want to play insanely beautiful chords at the piano, but you’re not sure where to start? Many students think that pro pianists have an innate gift that enables them to simply hear beautiful chords and play them instinctively. However, the truth is that most professionals use a very specific system known as chord extensions to take ordinary piano chords and make them sound exquisite. In today’s Quick Tip, Chord Extensions—The Complete Guide, Jonny May presents 4 easy steps for playing chord progressions in any style with beautiful piano chord voicings using the chord extension system. You’ll learn:
- How Chord Extensions Affect Chord Symbols
- 4 Steps to Play Beautiful Piano Chords Using Chord Extensions
After today’s lesson, you’ll know how personalize any chord progression with a professional harmonic touch.
Why do some pianists grab and hold your attention more than others? Most likely, it has to do with their expression. Of course, musical expression is a broad category that includes multiple factors such as time, touch, phrasing and more. Nonetheless, harmonic expression is all about how you select and arrange the chord sounds that you use in a performance. In fact, chord construction is a major consideration for achieving a professional piano sound. For example, take a listen to the following two chords:
Both chords represent a C major sonority with a melody note of G. However, the second chord sounds richer and fuller due to the application of chord extensions. The purpose of today’s lesson is for you to learn how to supply the sound of the second chord in place of the first chord whenever you desire a more complex harmonic sound.
Next, let’s listen to how this concept dramatically changes the sound of a basic chord progression.
Progression with Chord Extensions
The lesson sheet PDF for this lesson is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can easily transpose the lesson sheet examples to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
In music theory, chord extensions are additional notes that can be added to seventh chords to provide more complex harmonic sounds. While 4-note seventh chords (Root-3rd-5th-7th) sound richer than basic 3-note triads (Root-3rd-5th), chord extensions such as the ninth, eleventh and thirteenth allow for even greater harmonic expression. Chord extensions are most common in jazz, funk, R&B, gospel, soul and blues genres.
Chord extension numbers (9th, 11th, 13th) represent the distance of the extension from the root of the chord, expressed as a compound interval (larger than one octave). However, many music students think of chord extensions in terms of simple intervals instead. For example, the 9th, 11th and 13th are the same pitches as the 2nd, 4th and 6th.
When learning to use chord extensions, it’s important for students to recognize that all 3 chords extensions are not necessarily compatible with each type of chord. For example, the available extensions for major 7th and dominant 7th chords are the 9th and the 13th, whereas the 9th and the 11th are the most compatible extensions for minor 7th chords.
Even though chord extensions are represented as compound intervals above the 7th of the chord, in actual practice, a chord extension can be inserted anywhere in the chord, above or below the 7th.
Modern music notation has limitations when it comes to how chord extensions are represented with chord symbols. When a single chord extension is present in a chord, the chord symbol reflects the additional note. However, when multiple chord extensions are present, the chord symbol only reflects the highest extension. Therefore, the chord symbol C▵13 (pronounced “C major thirteen”) could represent C▵7 with an added 13th, or C▵7 with an added 9th and 13th. Similarly, Cm11 (pronounced “C minor eleven”) may or may not include the 9th.
When a chord symbol contains a chord extension—such as C9—it implies that the 7th is present in the chord. Therefore, the symbol C9 (pronounced “C dominant nine”) includes the notes C–E–G–B♭–D. However, sometimes a basic triad may be colored with an added fourth note without the inclusion of the 7th. In these cases, simple intervals are used instead of compound intervals. Simple intervals in a chord symbol are your clue that the 7th is not included. For example, the symbol C(add2) represents the Root, 2nd, 3rd and 5th (C–D–E-G). The symbol G(add4) represents the Root, 3rd, 4th and 5th (G–B–C–D). Even though the “color notes” that are added in add2 and add4 chords are equivalent pitches to 9ths and 11ths, the use of compound intervals and the term chord extensions is reserved for harmonic contexts in which notes are added to seventh chords.
Today’s lesson focuses specifically on helping students learn to play seventh chords with extensions. However, our Quick Tip on Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide contains additional examples of other chords with added colors, such as add2, add4, sus2 and sus4.
For a deep dive on chord extensions, check out our full-length course on Piano Chord Extensions where you’ll explore additional voicing examples and exercises.
Learning to play piano chords with extensions is fun and exciting. Moreover, it’s actually not too hard once you comprehend the relevant data. The following 4 steps will help students of all levels play insanely beautiful piano chords.
The first step to playing extended chords is to learn the 3 chord extensions that can be applied to seventh chords. They are the 9th, 11th and 13th. Chord extensions are the logical outworking of tertian harmony—a harmonic system which constructs chords by stacking every-other-tone from a source scale. Therefore, tertian chords or tertiary chords are stacks of 3rds. In music history, tertian harmony provides the harmonic foundation for the common practice period of Western art music (approx. 1600–1900) and also for modern pop music.
Perhaps you are wondering why there are not additional extensions, such as a 15th or more? The answer is that when stacking 3rds above the root, you can only obtain unique pitches up to the 13th. Above that, notes would start to repeat. For example, an interval of a fifteenth is the same note as the root of the chord, albeit two octaves higher.
When we refer to 9ths, 11ths and 13ths in a chord symbol, we are specifically referring major 9ths, perfect 11ths and major 13ths. If a lowered or raised extension is desired, a sharp (♯) or flat (♭) is included with the number in the chord symbol. We call such notes chord alterations. There are four types of chord alterations—♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. Check out our course on Piano Chord Alterations to learn how to build crunchy piano chords with chord alterations.
Since chord extensions are added to seventh chords, the second step to playing beautiful extended chords is to make sure you know how to form the most important types of seventh chords. The most common seventh chords are major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th, diminished 7th and half-diminished 7th chords. The following example shows how to play each chord type with the note C as the root.
PianoWithJonny has plenty of resources to help you master these 7th chords, such as The 60 Essential Chords for Jazz Piano Chart. In addition, we have dedicated courses to help you learn, apply and master each chord type:
- Major 7th Chord Theory and Application
- Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application
- Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application
- Diminished & Half Dim 7th Chord Exercises
The third step to playing beautiful extended chords on piano is to mentally associate which specific chord extensions are compatible with each type of seventh chord. Remember, the 9th, 11th and 13th are not necessarily consonant over every 7th chord type. Just as some improv scales have weak tones or avoid notes, in the same way, we don’t want to add those dissonances as extensions either. The follow chart summarizes the available chord extensions by chord type.
Chart of Available Chord Extensions by Chord Type
Next, let’s explore some beautiful extended voicings for each chord type.
Major 7th Chords with Extensions
The available extensions for major 7th chords are the 9th and the 13th. The 11th is a dissonance because it clashes with the major 3rd. Here are 3 beautiful ways to play major 7th chords with extensions:
Minor 7th Chords with Extensions
The most common extensions for minor 7th chords are the 9th and the 11th. Let’s play some beautiful C minor chords with these extensions.
In some contexts, you may find the 13th added to a minor 7th chord. However, this is less common because the 13th forms a dissonant tritone interval with the 3rd of the chord. Therefore, minor 13th chords are typically reserved for instances in which the 13th is the melody note.
Dominant 7th Chords with Extensions
Dominant 7th chords sound great with the addition of the 9th, the 13th or both! However, the 11th is a dissonance because it clashes with the major 3rd. Here are 3 sweet dominant 7th chords with extensions:
Diminished 7th Chords with Extensions
The available extensions for diminished 7th chords are the 9th and the 11th. (Technically, the 13th is already in the chord because it is enharmonically equivalent to the 𝄫7.) Here are 3 common voicings for fully diminished 7th chords with extensions:
Another note that often appears in a diminished 7th chord voicings is the major 7th (aka ♮7). This is technically not a chord extension in the traditional sense, but it sure sounds sweet. Check out Jonny’s Quick Tip on Diminished Chords—5 Essential Piano Techniques for examples of the major 7th over diminished 7th chords on the popular tunes including “Unforgettable,” “Smile” and “Dream a Little Dream.”
Half-Diminished 7th Chords with Extensions
The available extensions for half-diminished 7th chords are the 9th and the 11th. Here are 3 common voicings for half-diminished 7th chords with extensions:
You’re ready for the fourth and final step. Now, let’s add the chord extensions we’ve covered to some common chord progressions. First, we’ll examine a typical progression found in pop music. Afterward, we’ll apply chord extensions to a jazz progression.
Our first progression is a I→IV→vi→V progression in C major. The chords are C major, F major, A minor and G major. Here’s how the progression sounds with ordinary triads:
Pop Progression with Basic Triads
Now listen to the progression with chord extensions.
Pop Progression with Chord Extensions
As you can hear, the inclusion of chord extensions makes a significant difference. Now, let’s explore a more jazzy example.
Our second progression is a Im→VIø→IIø→VIIº progression in C minor. The chords we’ll play are C minor 11, A half-diminished 11, D half-diminished 11 and B diminished 11. Here’s how the progression sounds with 7th chords:
Jazz Progression with 7th Chords
Now listen to the same chord progression with chord extensions.
Jazz Progression with Chord Extensions
If you like the sound of this jazzy minor chord progression, then you love our course on The Incredible Minor Turnaround (Int).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Chord Extensions—The Complete Guide. You can use the 4 steps from today’s lesson to begin adding beautiful chord voicings to your favorite songs. If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:
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