Jazz Piano Upper Structures With Minor Triads
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If you’re like me, you probably have had the experience of hearing a great pianist playing some chords on your favorite jazz standards and it sounds absolutely BEAUTIFUL 🤩. But no matter what you do, you can’t quite achieve that full rich sound when you play the chords yourself. The truth is there are several awesome secrets that pro jazz pianists use to fill out their chords, and one of them is using upper structure minor triads in their piano chord voicings.
If that sounds like highly complex math to you 🤓, don’t worry! In this lesson, we’re going to break it down very simply for you, and you will instantly know how to use it. There is going to be something to learn whether you are just getting started on jazz piano or are a more advanced piano player.
We are going to be building GORGEOUS piano voicings using the shape of something you probably learned very early on in your piano journey, the minor chord (triad).
Check out the contents of this lesson below and feel free to skip ahead to any section you wish:
- Intro to Upper Structure Minor Triads
- Minor Upper Structures on 5 Different Chord Types
- Upper Structures and Dominant 7th Chords
- 6 Essential Minor USTs for Dominant Chords
- Sample Progressions with Upper Structure Minor Triads
- Review of 6 Minor Upper Structures for Dominant Chords
Ready? Let’s get started!
Before we talk details, let’s hear these beautiful upper structure minor triad voicings in action first. Hopefully, this will inspire you to absorb this technique into your playing.
Check out the following example. It is a variation on the common jazz turnaround progression, and adds some cool minor upper structure chord shapes in the right hand:
Sounds awesome, right??
Let’s look a litter closer at that so you can actually see what’s going on behind the curtain.
Below you’ll see the same example notated using polychords. Polychords are a related concept to upper structures and use special chord symbols that describe a chord stacked on top of another chord.
Polychordal Chord Symbols
In this case, the chord above the line in the chord symbol is the minor triad upper structure that we are using. The chord below the line is the original basic chord without any extensions or alterations.
This is a nice shortcut to play complex voicings without thinking about many complex extensions & alterations!
To prove it, just look at the second to last chord in the above examples 👆. Is it easier to decipher C7(#11, ♭9), or simply F#m/C7 (an F# minor chord above a standard C7 chord shell)?
Pretty cool, right? Let’s discuss this idea further.
In jazz theory, upper structures are a voicing technique that uses familiar shapes or “structures” as the top portion of a more complex chord. Usually, these upper structures are major and minor triads. These triad chords aim to hit two or more extensions or alterations of the chord. More advanced upper structures include augmented triads, sus chords, 6th chords, and quartal shapes.
TIP: Jazz pianists most often use upper structure triads to voice altered dominant chords. This makes things much simpler since all you need to do is play a triad in the right hand and a two-or-three-note chord shell in the left hand.
NOTE: Sometimes polychords are notated with chord symbols that resemble slash chords. For any of these chord symbols, the upper structure is written before or above the chord shell (see the video above).
If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out our lesson on major chord upper structures (the other most common upper structure shape).
Now that we’ve covered what a minor upper structure actually is, let’s see how to actually use it on the piano to both spice up ordinary chords🔥 and to easily play complex jazz chords from a lead sheet.
Let’s see some examples of building beautiful upper structure minor triads on each of the most common chord types.
On the left side of each example, you will see the upper structure in a basic polychord format (upper structure minor triad over the main chord, both in root position). If you’re more advanced, the right side shows a more interesting voicing of the chord that adds inversions to the upper structure in the right hand and some type of chord shell in the left hand.
Be sure to listen to the demonstration videos to get a sense of these beautiful chords! Pretty soon, these will be part of your vocabulary too:
#1: Major Chords
#2: Minor Chords
#3: Dominant Chords
#4: Half Diminished Chords
#5: Altered Dominant Chords
Do you see how this simple trick unlocks so many lush sounds on each chord type? In the next section, we’re going to be discussing where minor upper structure triads are the most effective in jazz piano music.
Of all the types of chords in jazz, the most powerful one to use upper structures on are dominant 7th chords.
Why is that? If you’ve been studying jazz for some time, you’ll discover that dominant chords allow for the most interesting chord extensions and alterations due to their naturally unstable sound. These extra “tensions” add even more pull to the I chord that typically follows.
Instead of playing these extra dominant 7th tension notes at random, upper structures provide a simpler approach since we can use familiar shapes that hit the desired tension notes. Of course in this case, we’ll be using minor triad shapes.
With this method, not only will it feel much easier to decipher and play complex chords, but they will atomically sound great because our ear will also be able to latch onto the familiar sound of the minor triad shape!
So, we get the point, right? Use minor chord shapes over your dominant chord to create interesting sounds.
But how do we actually know which minor triads will work well as upper structures over our dominant 7th chords?
Here’s the answer: any minor chord that does not contain scale degrees 4 or the major 7th of the root chord will work. On a C7 chord, that means the minor triad cannot contain the notes F or B♮ in it.
🛑 Examples of Upper Structure Triads That Don’t Work 🛑
As long as the minor chord fits those criteria, then it’s safe to use! The next step would be to experiment with each minor upper structure possibility and decide which ones you like best.
If you eliminate the minor chords that don’t fit the above criteria, you’d discover that there are a total of 6 possible minor upper structure triads (USTs) that are usable over a dominant 7th chord.
In the following list, we’ve built each of the 6 minor triads over a C7 chord. We’ve provided the traditional chord symbol on top, the polychordal notation, as well as the relative position of the upper structure triad from the root of the chord.
If you’re interested in the theory, we will also briefly describe the associated chord extensions and alterations of each upper structure as well as their associated emotional color.
Dominant Minor UST #1—♭IIm
As you can see, the above consists of a Db minor over a C7. The quickest way to think of a UST chord is its relationship to the root, which in this case would be a minor chord built on the♭2 of C7.
This emotional quality of this upper structure feels a bit somber and sad compared to the rest (at least to me). This is probably due to the ♭9 and the ♭13 (Db and Ab) in the chord, both of which tend to be associated with minor music.
Dominant Minor UST #2—♭IIIm
This upper structure can be thought of as a minor chord being built on the chord’s♭3. In this case, an E♭ minor over a C7.
You can hear a wide range of flavors and crunch from this minor upper structure. The ♯9 (the note D♯, often spelled E♭ as in the example above) gives a crunchy blues sound while the #11 (F#/Gb) gives us a mysterious and floating feeling.
Dominant Minor UST #3—♯IVm
Now we have a minor chord built on the #4. For C7, that would be an F# minor triad upper structure.
Now because of the tug on the heartstrings from the♭9 (C#), and the mysteriousness of the #11 (F#), this one has a really nice balance of color to me.
NOTE: If you have been observing very closely, sometimes we change up the spelling of chord tones and upper structures. We might call it a C# minor triad here, but then a Db minor triad there. In jazz, it’s good to be aware that we typically aren’t overly concerned with the traditional rules of enharmonics and specific spelling. We often will decide on a spelling based on what feels logical in context, or what looks nicest on paper (sheet music notation).
Dominant Minor UST #4—Vm
The next upper structure here can be thought of as being a minor chord built on the 5th (a 5th above the chord’s root). In the case of C7, that would be a G minor triad.
Upon close inspection, the only color tone this upper structure is hitting is the 9th (the D). If you’re looking for high crunch and tension on your dominant 7th chords, then look elsewhere. However, if you want something subtle, warm, and smooth in the context of a certain piece of music, then this may be a great option!
Dominant Minor UST #5—VIm
Our 5th option here can be thought of as a minor triad built a major 6th above the root. That would be an A minor over C7 in this case.
This one only hits one extra color note as well, the 13th (the A). I’d argue it’s the most subtle of the whole bunch especially since the other two notes are the root and 3rd (C and E). It might provide a nice arpeggio for soloing, or add some sparkle to a dominant blues chord.
Dominant Minor UST #6—Im
Our last minor upper structure option here is not very common, but it is possible and we wanted to mention it here anyway. It can be thought of as a minor chord built off the root (the I) of the dominant 7th chord. In this case, a C minor over a C7.
It gives hints of a crunchy blues sound because of the #9 (Eb), but the other notes are simply doubles of the root and 5th (C and G). Because this isn’t providing too many interesting colors and it has an interesting clash of a minor triad over a major triad of the same root, it isn’t used a whole lot in harmonic contexts.
Additional Jazz Exercise
Awesome job with going through the lesson up until this point! As great as knowing how to build minor triad upper structures are on their own, it will be useless if we don’t learn to apply them in real chord progressions, right?
To do this, we want to ask ourselves 2 questions when deciding on a certain upper structure triad shape:
- What upper structures fit nicely underneath our top line melody?
- If there is more than 1, which one fits the emotion I want to convey the most?
The following examples demonstrate upper structure minor triads in the context of the very common IV-V-I or ii-V-I chord progression. Play and listen to them, and pay close attention to which minor upper structures are being used on each melody chord and melody note, and how it is voiced on the piano.
For each example below, you’ll see a passage that is voiced using simple triads followed by a version of the same passage using upper structure minor triads to enhance each chord with rich color! 🎨
Example 1 (UST ♭IIm Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST ♭IIm
Example 2 (UST ♭IIIm Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST ♭IIIm
Example 3 (UST ♯IVm UST Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST ♯IVm
Example 4 (UST Vm Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST Vm
Example 5 (UST VIm Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST VIm
Example 6 (UST Im Over V7)
Progression with Dominant UST Im
Be sure to play through each example thoroughly and listen carefully. Try really understand the construction of each chord in every passage with your head, hands, and ears.
Additional Jazz Exercises
Some other great things to practice if you want to really solidify everything you've learned here:
- Can you use other minor upper structure shapes for some of the chords passages above and their top melody note?
- Can you create your own melody and voicings on the same chord progression?
- Can you modulate these passages into other keys? Remember the smart sheets are included for PWJ Members to help transpose into any key.
- Can you apply these voicings and concepts in one of your favorite jazz tunes (or any style of tune for that matter)?
Below is a reference chart of all the upper structure minor triad shapes for dominant chords that we covered in this lesson. You can conveniently refer to it at any time.
Remember the lesson sheet music is also available for download at the bottom of the page👇.
Congratulations, you've completed today's lesson on Jazz Piano Upper Structures with Minor Triads. Now you're ready to apply these professional jazz piano voicings to some of your favorite jazz standards.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks so much for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!
Blog written by Daine Jordan & Michael LaDisa
Quick Tip by Jonny May
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