Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Lead Sheets
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
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Do you want to learn how to use 9th chords to easily add beautiful color for jazz piano? In this Quick Tip, you will learn how to:

  • Add 9ths to familiar chords
  • Play 9th chords in different inversions
  • Apply 9th chords to the chord progression for “Misty”

Jonny and I both absolutely love 9th chords when playing jazz piano because the simple addition of one note (the 9th) adds so much musical color to chords you already know! Let’s dig in.

Step 1: Add 9ths to Chords

One of the easiest ways to sound more authentic while playing jazz piano is to add 9ths to all your chords! But what is a 9th chord? A 9th chord is simply a 7th chord with the 9th added. This is called an extension. You can think about the 9th of a chord in two ways: either the 9th note of a scale, or the 2nd note of the scale an octave higher:

C Major scale with chord tones circled
C Major scale with chord tones circled

9th chords jazz piano CMaj9
C Major 9 chord

When a chord has both the 7th and the 9th added, we refer to it as a 9th chord. If there’s no 7th present we refer to it as an add2 chord (Cadd2). This is a small difference, but it’s important to know that if a chord is a 9th chord (C9) it means the 7th as well as the 9th are present. If the number following the root of the chord is 7 or greater, the 7th is automatically added to the chord. If the number following the root is less than 7, there’s no 7th present in the chord.

Practice playing diatonic 9th chords in a few different keys. Unless you have big hands, you’ll need to use both hands to play them up and down the scale. Here’s an example of diatonic 9th chords in the key of C:

Diatonic 9th chords in C
Diatonic 9th chords in C

You can easily hear how much more color these chords have when compared to diatonic 7th chords! If you were to only ever add one extension, add the 9th to your jazz piano chords. This one note by itself has a huge impact!

If you want to learn more about chord extensions, check out our Piano Chord Extensions and Coloring Dominant Chords with Extensions courses. Next, let’s look at playing these 9th chords in some inversions.

Step 2: 9th Chord Inversions

As you can imagine, only playing 9th chords in root position can become a nightmare as you work through different chord progressions. The best way to smoothly use these colorful chords is to look for inversions to move between them easily. Let’s try playing our diatonic 9th chords in the key of C, but use inversions to easily move through them:

Diatonic 9th chords with inversion
Diatonic 9th chords with inversion

You probably have noticed that we have moved the root of the chord to the left hand while keeping the rest of the chord in the right hand. From now on we’ll be using rootless voicings in the right hand because 9th chords require four notes on top of the root. It’s much easier to play the root in the left hand and everything else in the right hand. This is best practice for playing jazz piano!

Using inversions with these chords is beneficial for two reasons: they are easier to play, and they allow for some nice voice leading as you move through the chords. You should always try to keep some kind of melodic motion in your harmony, even while playing a melody above the chords. Using inversions is a great way to automatically add melodic voice leading to harmonic support.

Try practicing the above exercise in a few different keys. As you know, jazz utilizes chords from many different keys in most songs, so the more comfortable you are in multiple keys the easier it will be to play! Next, let’s learn how to use 9th chords over the chord progression for “Misty.”

Step 3: Apply 9th Chords to “Misty”

Now for the fun part! Here’s what the chord progression for “Misty” looks like with our inverted 9th chords:

"Misty" chords with 9ths
“Misty” chords with 9ths

As you can see, we’ve added a second note to the left hand. This forms the interval of a 5th, which serves to add a lot of support underneath the colorful 9th chord. You don’t have to always use a 5th with your left hand: a single note or an octave will also sound good. It’s up to you to decide what kind of sound you want!

Pay attention to how each chord smoothly moves to the next. If two chords have common tones, keep those notes the same and only change the ones that need to change. This will prevent you from jumping around to play the chords, and also helps to create a melodic line on the top.

Something else to keep in mind while playing these chords in inversions is if there’s a half step between any two notes. For example, you can see on Fm7 there is a half step between G and Ab on the bottom of the chord. This is fine; it’s also fine to have the half step in the middle of the voicing, like on Am7. Avoid playing half steps on top of the voicing: it will obscure the top note and hide the nice melody you’ve created with your inversions!

If you want to learn more about harmonizing tunes, check out our 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 1 and 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 2 courses.

Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!

Blog written by Austin Byrd / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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