Major 9th Chords—The Most Beautiful Piano Chord
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You’ve probably heard about major 9th chords, and maybe it seemed like it was just another chord from the seemingly endless list of different chords you need to know. Or maybe you know a little bit about major 9th chords but you aren’t sure how to apply it to real music on the piano.
Well first off, it’s definitely worth the effort to try to learn and master major 9th chords, as it’s truly one of the most beautiful piano chords! Also, although it might sound like a daunting chord, it’s actually much simpler than you think. It only has 5 notes! 🖐
Music is like going on a journey, and every trip starts with packing your bags. The best musicians have packed their bags well and are ready for anything. They can pull from their many “bags of notes” to create something stunning in any situation.
In this lesson, we’re going to pack a new bag of notes and label it Major 9th Chords, and then learn how to use the contents of this bag. Take a look at the lesson outline below and feel free to skip ahead to any section you wish:
- Intro to Major 9th Chords
- Play Beautiful 9th Chords in a Chord Progression
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Let’s start packing our bag by really understanding major 9th chords. We’ll be learning all the notes that go into this chord to create its stunning sound and know how to play all your major 9th chords in every key.
Before we do, here is a little taste of what these chords actually sound like:
Major 9th chords are rich, 5-note chords which contain beautiful and bright harmonic colors. These chords are especially common on piano and guitar. The easiest way to form a major 9th chord is to start with a major triad and add a major 7th and a major 9th. Therefore, the chord C Major 9 contains the notes C–E–G–B–D.
Major 9th chords can also be formed from a major scale by stacking four diatonic 3rd intervals above the tonic note. Examining the chord form the bottom up, you have an alternating pattern of major 3rds and minor 3rds.
The complete intervallic formula for a major 9th chord includes the root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 7th and major 9th.
The most common chord symbols for C Major 9 in a lead sheet are Cmaj9, CM9, or C△9. Be sure not to confuse this with a dominant 9th chord, which is written as C9.
If you already know all your major scales, you can easily find the right notes to any major 9th chord on the piano by using the major scale of the root note. All 5 notes of the major 9th chord will come from the major scale of the root.
All you have to do starting from the root is play a note, skip a note, then play a note again 5 times in a row while keeping it all within the major scale.
If not, don’t worry! We’ll cover another awesome shortcut later in the lesson that will get you the same result without needing to know all your scales.
For your reference, here is a diagram of all major 9th chords in every key. You’ll see the chord symbol and then the specific notes on the piano to create that chord:
The complete Piano Chord Chart of All Major 9th Chords is included in today’s downloadable lesson sheet PDF. If you want to learn more about chord extensions like these, then check out our Piano Chord Extensions course.
Now that we know how to construct these beautiful 5-note chords, let’s learn how to actually use major 9th chords in real music. This will be a 5-step process where we take a simple melody and chord progression and turn it into something beautiful using these newly learned chords.
We’re going to begin our major 9th chord progression starting with basic root position chords. Then we will gradually flesh out the chords with each step.
Below you’ll see a simple melody in the right hand and a couple of root positions chords in the key of F major in the left hand.
Sounds nice but very basic, right? Let’s move on to the next step in this process and we’ll see how we can flesh it out.
In this step, we will better position our left-hand chords in preparation for adding extra color to them in the following steps. To do this we will be using chord inversions.
These chords are written using slash chords, which means that the note written after the slash will be the lowest note of the chord.
NOTE: There is another important purpose behind using these inversions besides sound color options: we are also creating a descending stepwise motion in the bass. This really smooths out the chord progression and creates a melodic quality in the left hand. This process of choosing inversions and connecting chords together in different ways is called voice leading.
See this in action below:
As you’re going through this lesson, don’t forget that if you are a PWJ Member, there’s a downloadable backing track at the bottom of this page that you can play along with and have some extra fun! 👇
Remember when we said we were going to cover an awesome shortcut that gives us all the notes of a major 9th chord without much theory knowledge? Well, here it is: we play a minor 3rd interval a half step below the root of the chord.
Note: A minor 3rd interval consists of 2 notes, 3 half steps apart. For example, C to Eb.
As Jonny put it in the video, this is the most important step. We are now going to use this technique to decipher the major 9th chords of each of the 3 chords: Bb, F, and Eb:
TIP: For those of you who are theory nerds, we’ve used polychordal notation for the above chords. This is because the right hand happens to be playing the first two notes of another chord (a minor chord in this case, indicated above the horizontal line of each chord symbol). Meanwhile, the left hand is still playing the original chord down below (indicated below the line of the chord symbol).
If you’ve been wondering where the “bags of notes” analogy comes into play, well then here it is. In this next step, we are going to be making chord clusters in the left hand.
Chord Clusters are chord voicings where notes are placed extremely close together. In other words, instead of playing these major 9th chords in their original stacked 3rds position, we try to rearrange them even closer so that there are several 2nd intervals (notes that are right next to each other).
That being said, we can take any of the 5 notes of each chord from step 3 (each chord being its own”bag of notes” so to speak) and arrange them into chord cluster options until they sound just right. This creates a much richer and denser sound than spreading them out.
This can be done in various ways and you can experiment with many different options until you find your favorite choice. You don’t even need to use all 5 notes every time if you don’t want to. Here’s an example of the chords from step 2 arranged into beautiful major 9th chord clusters in the left hand:
The left-hand does sound beautiful at this point. However, the right hand is still just a single-note melody. We should certainly “dress it up” a bit.
To do this we will also be using the chord cluster technique from step 4. You could go all out and do chord clusters in both hands for each and every chord. This may be nice but it can easily get a little clunky, and the dense color may start to become unappreciated.
For that reason, we will only be using chord clusters when we are “landing” on a chord. In other words, chords that feel like we are pausing in motion. In language, these spots would feel like a comma or a period. Putting clusters on these spots not only emphasizes these chords, but their longer rhythmic length gives us time to appreciate the harmony.
In our case, these “landing” chords usually happen on beat 3. The only exception to this is on measure 3 where the motion keeps going until beat 1 of the final measure. For the chords on those specific beats, we’ll make the right-hand into cluster chords containing 2nds, and the rest will contain sparser harmony or single notes. In either case, all harmony notes are still being pulled from our same “bags of notes” from step 3:
Note: Many times Jonny quickly rolls these major 9th chord voicings like a guitar or harp, just like in the example above. While you can play all the notes at the same time (blocked chords), doing a quick roll of the chord from bottom to top adds some sweetness to the sound.
Congratulations on making it all the way to the end of this lesson on major 9th chords! Hopefully, now you understand not only what major 9th chords are and how to form them in every key, but also how they can be used in real music.
Don’t forget the amazing resources available for PWJ members down below, including the lesson sheet, backing track, and smart sheet music which allows you to transpose all notes and chords into any key!
If you’ve enjoyed this lesson, then be sure to check out some of the related resources here at Piano With Jonny:
- Piano Chord Extensions
- Piano Chord Alterations
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack
- What are Polychords?
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Daine is a diverse and award-winning pianist, composer, and producer. Trained from a young age on classical piano, Daine has since ventured into nearly all avenues of music. He began to play professionally starting at age 16. Daine has composed for and performed with nearly every type of ensemble, from...
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