Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
15:39

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Gospel
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Would you like to learn how to play beautiful modern gospel chords on piano? In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May introduces Chord Islands—The Hippest Modern Gospel Chords. In this lesson, you’ll discover how contemporary gospel pianists often color outside the lines of the key without breaking the worship flow. You’ll learn:

Intro to Modern Gospel Chords

If you listen to modern gospel music, then you know how important it is for the pianist to play with a worshipful sound. But how do gospel pianists create this sound? Today’s lesson focuses on major add2 chords, a key harmonic ingredient in contemporary gospel music. However, there’s a lot more to this sound than just adding an extra note to a major triad. For example, gospel pianists love to play major add2 chords in 1st inversion. Moreover, gospel pianists and songwriters often use consecutive major add2 chords to introduce borrowed chords from distant keys—a technique that Jonny calls chord islands.

What are chord islands?

The term chord islands refers to chords that are usually not played together because they belong to different keys. For example, in C major, we can use the chord islands technique to introduce chords from outside the key such as A♭ major, B♭ major, E major, D major and more. In music theory, this concept is called borrowed chords.

Example of Modern Gospel Chords with Chord Islands Technique

To give you an idea of what chord islands sound like and how they are used, let’s listen to the final phrase of “Amazing Grace” followed by a contemporary gospel ending that uses the chord islands technique. Our excerpt is in the key of C major and begins where we’d normally hear the familiar lyrics, “was blind but now I see.”

Modern Gospel Piano Chords on Amazing Grace

Final phrase of “Amazing Grace” featuring modern gospel chords with the “chord islands” technique.

As you can see, this ending features 4 consecutive major add2 chords in 1st inversion, including B♭add2, which is not a part of C major. However, the chords still seem to flow together perfectly to create a transcendent texture.

In this example, the chord islands were inserted into a traditional gospel hymn at the occurrence of a long melody note. In this sense, they are functioning somewhat like passing chords. However, this is just one way to use chord islands. Contemporary gospel artists also frequently compose original gospel songs that contain chord progressions formed with the chord island technique. In such cases, the chord islands function as an integral part of the song structure, rather than as an embellishment. Additionally, chord islands can be used to create “talk music” that provides a musical underscore during worship services.

In the next section, we’ll show you how to play these modern gospel chords in 6 steps!

6 Steps to Play Modern Gospel Chords with Chord Islands

There are essentially two aspects to playing modern gospels chords with the chord islands technique. First, there are the chord voicings themselves, which Jonny describes as “floating chord islands” because they have a weightless quality that sounds otherworldly. Then, a second consideration is how these voicings are connected together. In this section, you’ll learn to master both considerations in 6 steps.

If your PWJ member, you can download the lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can transpose the lesson sheet materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Step 1: Major Add2 Chords

The first step to play modern gospel chords with chord islands is to start with a major add2 chord. This is like a major triad with an extra note that is a whole step above the root. For example, C(add2) contains the notes C–D–E–G. Sometimes, you may see this chord called C(add9). That’s because in music theory, the interval of a 2nd and a 9th involve the same two pitches. The only difference is that a 9th is technically a 2nd plus and octave.

Modern Gospel Chords - Chord Islands Step 1

Step 1: Start with a major add2 chord.

Step 2: Third on Bottom

The second step to play modern gospel chords with chord islands is to place the major add2 chord in 1st inversion so that the 3rd is on bottom. In music notation, this requires the use of a slash chord symbol such as C(add2)/E. When reading slash chord symbols, keep in mind that the left side of the symbol identifies the chord whereas the right side specifics the bass note.

Modern Gospel Chords - Chord Islands Step 2

Step 2: Place the major add2 chord in 1st inversion.

At this point, we should mention that there is another common name for major add 2 chords, especially when they occur in 1st inversion. Many musicians refer to these chords as mu major chords, or mu chords for short. This term was coined by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, co-founders of the American rock band Steely Dan.

🔎 Check out The Mu Chords (Steely Dan Chord) for Piano for additional piano exercises and song examples featuring major add2 chords.

Step 3: Chord Island Voicings

In Step 2, we learned that it is common to play major add2 chords in first inversion so that the 3rd is on bottom. However, floating chord islands can contain any chord tone on top. Therefore, here in Step 3, the objective is to demonstrate how to voice a major add 2 chord in first 1st inversion for each potential melody note—the root, 3rd and 5th.

The following example shows C(add2)/E with each potential chord tone in the top voice.

Modern Gospel Chords - Step 3

Step 3: Learn specific floating chord island voicings with each potential chord tone on top.

Notice that each of the following chord voicings contain a whole tone cluster in the middle of the voicing. In fact, these cluster chords are a common characteristic that contributes to the modern gospel piano sound.

Step 4: Apply to Common Tones

The fourth step is to play modern gospel chords with chord islands is to develop the ability to re-envision a given melody note as any potential chord tone. In other words, we must determine which chords contain a given melody note as a common tone. For example, if you have the melody note C, you need to be able to quickly recognize the following:

  • Which chord has the note C as the root?
  • Which chord has the note C as the 3rd?
  • Which chord has the note C as the 5th?

After you think through the answers to these questions, then you need to be able to quickly find the corresponding floating chord island voicing. The following example shows the 3 compatible major add2 chords that can support the note C in the melody.

Modern Gospel Chords - Step 4

Step 4: Identify the three compatible floating chord island voicings for any given melody note (in this case, the note C).

Step 5: Practice Island Landings

Here in Step 5, we’ll examine several examples of what Jonny calls “island landings.” These examples demonstrate how distant chords are often connected in modern gospel music. In each case, we’ll begin with a melodic fragment that originates from a C(add2)/E chord. In the first measure of each example, the final note of the melodic fragment is unaccompanied. That’s because it represents an opportunity to land on another chord island. As such, there are three potential solutions for this final note. However, one of the objectives of floating chord islands is to be able to land on a “remote island” that is not expected in the overall key. Therefore, in the second measure of each example, Jonny demonstrates a landing chord that is outside of C major.

Example 1

Let’s take a look at example 1. Here, the melodic fragment contains the notes C→B→G, which are all diatonic notes in C major. However, Jonny treats the final note G and the 3rd of E♭(add2)/G, which introduces a borrowed chord, the ♭Ⅲ.

Island Landing Example 1 – Modern Gospel Chords

Step 5, Ex 1: Movement from Ⅰ to ♭Ⅲ with floating chord islands.
Example 2

Now, let’s look at Island Landing Example 2, which features an ascending stepwise melodic fragment containing the notes C→D→E. Here, Jonny treats the final note E as the 5th of A(add2)/C♯, which sounds like a major Ⅵ chord in C major.

Island Landing Example 2 – Modern Gospel Chords

Step 5, Ex 2: Movement from Ⅰ to Ⅵ with floating chord islands.
Example 3

Island Landing Example 3 features a descending stepwise melodic fragment containing the notes C→B→A. Here, Jonny treats the final note A as the 5th of D(add2)/F♯, which is a major Ⅱ chord in C major.

Island Landing Example 3 – Modern Gospel Chords

Step 5, Ex 3: Movement from Ⅰ to Ⅱ with floating chord islands.
Example 4

Example 4 contains the stepwise ascending melodic fragment C→D→E♭. In this example, Jonny treats the final note E♭ as the 5th of A♭(add2)/C, which is the ♭Ⅵ chord in C major.

Island Landing Example 4 – Modern Gospel Chords

Step 5, Ex 4: Movement from Ⅰ to ♭Ⅵ with floating chord islands.
Example 5

In our final Island Landing example, we have the descending stepwise melodic fragment C→B→B♭. Here, Jonny lands on the remote island of G♭(add2)/B♭ by treating the melody note B♭ as the 3rd of the chord. Note, this remote island landing is the ♭Ⅴ of C major—a tritone away from where we began.

Island Landing Example 5 – Modern Gospel Chords

Step 5, Ex 5: Movement from Ⅰ to ♭Ⅴ with floating chord islands.

By the way, if you’re enjoying this lesson, then be sure to check out our Gospel Piano Learning Tracks:

🔎 Gospel Piano Learning Track 1 (Int)
🔎 Gospel Piano Learning Track 2 (Adv)

Step 6: Island Hopping

The final step to playing modern gospel chords with chords islands is to go “island hopping.” Here, you’ll play longer chord progressions that have been formed with the chord island techniques that we’ve covered so far.

Progression 1

Island Hopping Progression 1 draws on the common tone technique outlined in step 4. Notice, the melody jumps from one chord tone to another chord tone. Then, that chord tone is reinterpreted as a common tone of a different chord. For example, over C(add2)/E, the melody jumps from the note C to the note E. Then, the note E becomes the 5th of A(add2)/C♯. This process repeats throughout this progression.

"Modern

Step 6, Ex 1: Island hopping with common tones.
Progression 2

Island Hopping Progression 2 features a whole-half diminished scale in the melody, which has been harmonized with floating chord islands. In this example, the first and last chords contain the root in the melody. All the other chords have the 3rd in the melody.

"Modern

Step 6, Ex 2: Harmonizing the whole-half diminished scale with island hopping.
Progression 3

Island Hopping Progression 3 is less harmonically grounded than our previous examples. For instance, there is no single unifying compositional device that ties this progression together like the common tones in Progression 1 or the whole-half diminished scale in Progression 2.

This example, however, is not completely without internal structure. In fact, each measure implies a different major key. For example, measures 1 and 2 each contain major chords that are a whole step apart. Therefore, each of these measures suggest movement from a Ⅴ chord to a Ⅳ chord. By this analysis, measure 1 suggests B♭ major while measure 2 suggests G major. Then, measure 3 behaves like a Ⅰ→Ⅳ progression in B major. Finally, measure 4 is like another Ⅴ→Ⅳ progression, this time in D♭ major. However, none of these “micro-progressions” feature an emphatic tonicization of the tonic chord. As a result, this progression truly evokes a sense of harmonic floating.

"Modern

Step 6, Ex 3: An island hopping progression that evokes a sense of harmonic floating.
Progression 4

Island Hopping Progression 4 is the beautiful progression that Jonny played in the introduction to today’s featured Quick Tip video on modern gospel chords. This progression features an ascending and descending melodic line that is comprised of  mostly stepwise motion. The melody in measures 1 and 2 loosely outlines a whole tone scale fragment with the notes C→E→E→F♯→F♯→G♯→G♯ (note that D is missing from this whole tone scale fragment). After an initial C(add2)/E chord, the harmony moves up in whole steps just like the melody: A major, B major, C♯ major (noted below enharmonically as D♭ major).

The melody in measures 3 and 4 contains a descending E major scale fragment: A→G♯→F♯→E→D♯ (note: the final melody note is notated enharmonically as E♭). However, harmonically speaking, if we think of measures 3 and 4 in E major, then these measures contain some distant chords relationships, just like we practiced in Step 5 earlier. For example, A major is the Ⅳ chord in E, but F♯ is the Ⅱ chord and A♭ is the ♭Ⅲ chord.

"Modern

Step 6, Ex 4: Melodic scale fragments harmonized with island hopping.

As you can hear, even when the harmony is rather disjunct, a familiar scale fragment can provide a sense of stability that keeps a progression from sounding purely atonal (lacking conventional tonal structures, such as a key).

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Chord Islands—The Hippest Modern Gospel Chords. As you can imagine, the harmonic techniques that you’ve discovered in today’s lesson have the potential to completely revolutionize your piano sound!

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then 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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Writer
Michael LaDisa

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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