How to Make Dissonant Piano Chords Sound Beautiful

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
08:21

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Latin Jazz

Have you ever played two completely piano chords at the same time? If so, odds are that the chord sounded pretty terrible! How then, do jazz musicians play two chords at the same time and make them sound so beautiful. The key is how you think of chords. Amateurs think of chords as destinations. Jazz musicians think of chords as vehicles to get them to destinations. So how do you turn an dissonant piano chords into a vehicle that you can use to create more interesting, dynamic chord progressions? Get ready, because that’s the topic of todays Quick Tip! In this piano lesson, you’ll learn:

  • 3 Dissonant Piano Chords (Poly Chords)
  • How to Transform Dissonant Chords into Beautiful Ones
  • How to Use These Chords in Chord Progressions

If you think playing beautiful, complex harmony is only for the pros, then think again. After this piano lesson, you’ll understand chords in a whole new way. Best of all, your chord progressions will sound more beautiful than ever.

Dissonant Chords (Poly Chords)

What are dissonant piano chords? Well, if you just put your fingers on each hand over a random piano note and strike the notes together, odds are that the chord will sound pretty terrible! In this lesson, we’re going to look specifically at playing two major chords at the same time. We call these Poly Chords, and a poly chord is simply when you play one chord in the right hand and another chord in the left hand. If you don’t play jazz very often, these chords will not seem like they go together. However, after learning the Transformation Trick, you’ll understand exactly how to use chords like this in the future to your advantage.

Dissonant Chord #1

The first dissonant piano chord that you’re going to learn is an Ab Major in the right hand over a C Major in left hand. For example, below is how you might play this chord:

Dissonant Chord 1 - Ab major over C major poly chord on piano
Dissonant Chord 1 – Ab major over C major poly chord on piano

This sound’s pretty terrible, doesn’t it?!? This chord doesn’t sound good on its own because there is so much “rub” or “dissonance” between the notes. For example, the Eb in the right hand clashes with the E in the left hand. Also, the Ab in the right hand clashes with the G in the right hand.

Most amateur pianists who play this chord would think, “that chord sounds terrible. I’ll never play that again.” BUT, a pro jazz pianist would love to use this chord in their chord progressions. Why? Because this tense-sounding chord will setup a very happy-sounding, resolved chord, creating a tension-resolution contrast that is very pleasing to the ear. How does a jazz musician do this? That’s the trick that you will learn next.

The Transformation Trick

How do you transform dissonant piano chords like the one you learned above into a beautiful one? The Transformation Trick has 3 steps:

  1. Turn the left hand chord into a dominant 7 chord.
  2. Remove the 5th note from the left hand.
  3. Double the top note of the right hand.

Firstly, turn the chord into a dominant 7 chord by adding a Bb to the left hand. This makes the chord a C7 chord. Secondly, drop the 5th note of a chord (the G) so that the chord has more “punch”. Thirdly, let’s double the top note the right hand (Eb) in the bottom of the right hand. Walah! Now, we have this beautiful jazz chord!

Dissonant Chord 1 transformed to jazz chord C7b13(#9) on piano
Dissonant Chord 1 transformed to jazz chord C7b13(#9) on piano

Doesn’t that sound amazing?!? What we’ve essentially done is transformed the Ab Major / C Major poly chord into a super hip jazz chord called a C7(b13#9). Now, if this doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry! The #9 and the b13 are called Chord Alterations, and you can learn this concept in detail in our Chord Alterations Course.

Another very important thing to understand is that we are still playing a poly chord, but now we are playing the Ab Major in the right hand over C Dominant 7 in the left hand. This is called an Upper Structure, and it’s an extremely important harmonic technique that jazz musicians use. Basically, an upper structure is a major or minor triad that you can above a dominant 7 chord to make it sound super beautiful. You can learn all of your upper structure triads in our Coloring Dominant 7 Chords With Upper Structures Course. Next, let’s look at how to use Dissonant Chord 1 in a progression.

Using Dissonant Chord 1 In A progression

How do you use Dissonant Chord 1 in a progression? Well, if you know a little bit about music theory, Dominant 7 chords are leading chords. In other words, they lead to a major or minor chord down a 5th interval. Since Dissonant Chord 1 is a Dominant 7 chord built on C, you can resolve this chord to an F Major Chord. Below is an example of how you might resolve Dissonant Chord 1 in a jazz ballad chord progression.

How to use Dissonant Chord 1 in a jazz piano progression
How to use Dissonant Chord 1 in a jazz piano progression

Doesn’t that sound beautiful? Now, instead of just playing an dissonant chord by itself, we’re using it to get us to another chord. This is what I meant in the beginning when I said jazz musicians use chords as “vehicles”, not “destinations”. If you want to better understand how to resolve beautiful “tense chords” to “relaxed chords”, I recommend that you checkout the 2-5-1 Chord Extension & Alteration Exercises Course. Next, let’s look at Dissonant Chord 2.

Dissonant Chord 2

Dissonant Chord 2 uses the chord E Major in the right hand and G Major in the left hand:

Dissonant Chord 2 - E major over G major poly chord on piano
Dissonant Chord 2 – E major over G major poly chord on piano

Transforming Dissonant Chord 2

How do you transform this chord? Remember our 3 step-process you learned earlier. Firstly, add a F to the left hand to make it a G dominant 7 chord. Secondly, remove the 5th, the D, from the left hand chord. Thirdly, double the top note of the right hand chord so that there is an E on the bottom. The final result sounds beautiful!

Dissonant Chord 2 transformed to jazz chord G13(b9) on piano
Dissonant Chord 2 transformed to jazz chord G13(b9) on piano

What we’ve done on this chord is transform it from a poly chord, E Major / G Major, into a jazz chord called a G13(b9). Next, let’s look at how to use Dissonant Chord 2 in a progression.

Using Dissonant Chord 2 In A Progression

How do you use Dissonant Chord 1 in a chord progression? Well, this chord is a Dominant 7 chord. Therefore, it is typically followed by a major or minor chord a 5th interval down, or a C Major chord. Below is an example of how I might use these chords to harmonize a progression:

How to use Dissonant Chord 2 in a jazz piano progression
How to use Dissonant Chord 2 in a jazz piano progression

As you are learning these chord progressions, I recommend that you practice them in other keys. You can easily do this with this lesson’s Smart Sheet, which allows you to change the key of this entire lesson with the click of one button. In our last section, you will learn how to transform Dissonant Chord 3.

Dissonant Chord 3

Dissonant Chord 3 is a little different from the previous 2 chords. Rather than playing two major chords at the same time, this chord uses only 3 notes that sound pretty jarring:

Dissonant Chord 3 - Db, G, and C on piano
Dissonant Chord 3 – Db, G, and C on piano

This chord is very dissonant for two reasons. First, it has a Db and a C, which clash with one another. Second, it has a tritone interval between the bottom and middle note, which has a very unpleasant sound. Is is possible to save this chord? Absolutely! It’s simply a matter of applying the 3 Chord Transformation principles you learned earlier.

Transforming Dissonant Chord 3

The way to transform Dissonant Chord 3 is to start by making it a Dominant 7 chord. If you try to make it a Dominant 7 chord based on the bottom note, Db, you’ll run into problems because the C will clash with the B from the Dominant 7 chord. You can solve this by choosing another note from the chord and making that the root. For example, let’s put the C on the bottom of the chord and make it a Dominant 7 chord by adding a Bb. Now in the right hand, let’s fill in the missing note of the C7 chord, the E. Now we have a gorgeous chord:

Dissonant Chord 3 transformed to jazz chord C7(b9) on piano
Dissonant Chord 3 transformed to jazz chord C7(b9) on piano

This chord is called a C7(b9) chord, it is a very commonly used chord in jazz piano. Next, let’s look at how to use this chord in a progression.

Using Dissonant Chord 3 In A progression

Just as our last two dissonant piano chords ended up being Dominant 7 chords, this chord too is a Dominant 7 chord. Therefore, it’s best to use this in a progression where the next chord is a 5th down. Below is an example of how I would play this chord in a progression:

How to use Dissonant Chord 3 in a jazz piano progression
How to use Dissonant Chord 3 in a jazz piano progression

Final Steps

Now that you’ve learned how to transform dissonant piano chords into beautiful upper structure jazz chords, what’s next? I encourage you to try this technique on other chords.

Now, if you enjoyed this lesson and want to learn more about upper structure chords, a great course is our Jazz Intro & Outro Runs. In this course, you learn how to use Upper Structure Triads to create beuatiful jazz runs.

If you want to learn more about jazz harmony and theory, checkout our Piano Foundations 2 Learning Track for a deep dive on essential jazz topics. Also, you can learn how to apply chords like the ones you learned in this lesson to different jazz styles, like Jazz Ballads, Jazz Swing, and Bossa Nova.

That’s all for today’s lesson. See you in the next one!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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