Upper Structure Triads – The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack
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Piano students who embark on the journey to learn jazz usually discover early on that the learning curve is pretty steep. In fact, some jazz lead sheets contain chords symbols that look about as random as alphabet soup. For example, how can professional jazz pianists effortlessly play chords such as G7(♯9♭13)? It’s because they use “chord hacks” that allow them to secretly navigate complex jazz harmonies with simplicity. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May explains how to hack into a professional jazz piano sound using Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack. You’ll learn:
- What are Upper Structures for Jazz Piano?
- 3 Steps to Jazz Piano Chord Hacking
- 5 Upper Structure Major Triads for Altered Dominants
- Applying Upper Structure Triads to Common Chord Progressions
Today’s lesson is the secret back door for playing amazing jazz piano chords without having to first crunch gigabytes of music theory data.
What are Upper Structures for Jazz Piano?
In jazz theory, upper structure refers to a voicing technique that uses familiar shapes or “structures” as the top portion of a more complex chord. The most common upper structures are major and minor triads that contain two or more extensions or alterations. More advanced upper structures include augmented triads, sus chords and quartal shapes. Jazz pianists most often use upper structure triads to voice altered dominant chords by playing a triad in the right hand against a two-or-three-note chord shell in the left hand.
Another common term for upper structure triads is polychords. Some texts even use polychordal chord symbols which resemble slash chords. For these chord symbols, the upper structure is written before or above the chord shell (see video above).
3 Steps to Jazz Piano Chord Hacking
As you can imagine, there is quite a bit of music theory behind these polychordal sounds. In fact, each upper structure triad implies a specific parent scale. Throughout today’s lesson, we’ll be sure to link to related resources for further study on each corresponding scale. However, it’s completely okay to let your hands get out ahead of your brain when learning to play advanced jazz piano chords. The theoretical comprehension generally catches up over time. For now, you can play all the crunchy dominant chords in today’s lesson in 3 simple steps:
- Left Hand: Play a Dominant 7th Chord with the 5th Omitted
- Right Hand: Learn the 5 Major Upper Structure Triads
- Apply to a Chord Progression
Today’s lesson sheet PDF clearly illustrates each of the 3 steps above. You can download the complete lesson sheet and corresponding backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, you can easily transpose the upper structure triads in today’s piano lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
5 Major Triad Upper Structures for Altered Dominants
The topic of upper structures in jazz piano is sometimes applied quite broadly. For example, an “upper structure” doesn’t have to be a triad—it can be any shape, such as a sus chord or a quartal shape. In addition, the concept of upper structures is not limited to chords. It can also be applied linearly when improving.
Today’s lesson, however, focuses on the foundational concept and primary application of upper structures, which is a major triad atop a dominant chord shell. Often times, jazz pianists use only the 3rd & 7th in the left hand, thereby omitting the root. Such voicings are described as a triad over a tritone, since the 3rd & 7th of a dominant 7th chord always forms a tritone interval. Upper structure triads can be used in any inversion, however, it is less common to have an interval larger than a 5th between the two hands. To keep the hands from being too far apart, you can double the top note of the UST an octave below, regardless of the triad’s inversion.
Upper structure triads are generally spelled so that the triadic shape is immediately recognizable. For example, a ♯9 in the chord symbol may appear as a ♭3 in the notation. This will become clearer as you play through the examples in today’s lesson.
What determines if an upper structure triad ‘works?’
Hypothetically, any triad could potentially be used as an upper structure. However, in actual practice, jazz pianists exclude triads that contain avoid notes. For example, we wouldn’t play a D♭ major triad (D♭–F–A♭) over a C7 chord shell. Even though D♭ is the ♭9 and A♭ is the ♭13, the F♮ is the 4th and clashes with the major 3rd—the note E.
In reality, there are only 5 major triads that work as upper structures on any given dominant 7th chord. These five triads can be identified by describing relationship between the root of the UST and the root of the dominant chord. We’ll examine each of the 5 major USTs one at a time in the following sections.
Jazz Piano Upper Structure Triad #1—II Major
The first major triad that we can use as an upper structure on dominant 7th chords is built on the 9th, or more simply, the 2nd. We’ll refer to this as UST II. The UST II results in a dominant 13th sound with a ♯11. For example, if we play a C7 chord shell in the left hand (C–E–B♭) and a D major triad in the right hand (D–F♯–A), the resulting chord is a C13(♯11).
That’s a pretty hip sounding chord! Let’s briefly explore where this sound comes from. The scale that corresponds to this chord is C Lydian Dominant: C–D–E–F♯–G–A–♭B. To construct this scale, simply modify a major scale according to the following formula: 1–2–3–♯4–5–6–♭7. Another name for this scale construction is Mixolydian ♯4.
Ultimately, the Lydian Dominant scale is an example of Melodic Minor Scale Harmony and is derived from the 4th mode of the melodic minor scale. For example, you may have noticed that C Lydian Dominant contains the same notes as G Melodic Minor (G–A–♭B–C–D–E–F♯). When we play G Melodic Minor starting on the 4th note, we call this the 4th mode. The resulting scale is C Lydian Dominant.
The UST II is a perfect voicing when you have the 9th, ♯11, or 13th in the melody. Some common harmonic functions where the UST II shows up are on II7 (aka V7 of V) and ♭VII7. The UST II also works well on tritone substitutions.
Jazz Piano Upper Structure Triad #2—♭III Major
The second major triad that we can use as an upper structure on dominant 7th chords is built on the ♭3. We’ll refer to this as UST ♭III. The UST ♭III results in a dominant 7th sound with a ♯9. For example, if we play a C7 chord shell in the left hand (C–E–B♭) and an E♭ major triad in the right hand (E♭–G–B♭), the resulting chord is a C7(♯9).
Since this chord does not contain any extensions and only 1 alteration, improvisers use various scales that contain the ♯9 degree to solo over this sound. For example, common improv scales for C7(♯9) include:
- C Mixolydian ♭9 ♯9 ♭13 Bebop: C–D♭–E♭–E♮–F–G–A♭–B♭
- C Dominant Diminished: C–D♭–E♭–E♮–F♯–G–A–B♭
- C Minor Blues Scale: C–E♭–F–F♯–G–B♭
- C Mixo-Blues Scale: C–D–E♭–E♮–F–F♯–G–A–B♭
The UST ♭III is characterized as having a distinctive bluesy or edgy sound. In fact, it works great as a V7/IV on a blues. The UST ♭III also works whenever you have the ♭3, 5th, or ♭7 in the melody.
Jazz Piano Upper Structure Triad #3—♭V Major
The third major triad that we can use as an upper structure on dominant 7th chords is built on the ♭5. We’ll refer to this as UST ♭V. Notice that this UST is a tritone above the root, and may be spelled enharmonically as a ♯IV major triad. For consistency, we’ll refer to this upper structure as UST ♭V regardless of how its spelling appears. The UST ♭V contains the ♭9 and ♯11 and suggests a fully altered dominant sound. If we play a C7 chord shell in the left hand (C–E–B♭) and a G♭ major triad in the right hand (G♭–B♭–D♭), the resulting chord is a C7(♭9♯11).
The most common improv scale for C7(♭9♯11) is C Altered Dominant: C–D♭–E♭–E♮–G♭–A♭–B♭. Other names for this scale include The Diminished Whole-Tone Scale, The Altered Scale and The Super Locrian Mode. In addition, this scale is the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale. This means if you play C♯ Melodic Minor (C♯–D♯–E–F♯–G♯–A♯–B♯) starting on B♯, you have the same notes as the C Altered Dominant Scale.
The UST ♭V sounds great on both major 2-5-1 and minor 2-5-1 chord progressions as demonstrated in the final section of today’s lesson.
Jazz Piano Upper Structure Triad #4—♭VI Major
The fourth major triad that we can use as an upper structure on dominant 7th chords is built on the ♭6. We’ll refer to this as UST ♭VI. The UST ♭VI contains the ♯9 and ♭13 and creates a fully altered dominant sound. If we play a C7 chord shell in the left hand (C–E–B♭) and an A♭ major triad in the right hand (A♭–C–E♭), the resulting chord is a C7(♯9♭13).
Just like our previous upper structure, UST ♭VI corresponds to the Altered Dominant Scale. For example, the C7(♯9♭13) above comes from C Altered Dominant: C–D♭–D♯–E♮–G♭–G♯–B♭. To construct this scale, simply modify a major scale according to the following formula: 1–♭2–♯2–3–♭5–♯5–♭7. This scale is considered “fully altered” because all scale tones besides the root and guide tones are altered.
The UST ♭VI is a “go to” voicing for dominants and secondary dominants resolving to minor chords. However, the UST ♭VI can also be used to resolve to major chords.
Jazz Piano Upper Structure Triad #5—VI Major
The fifth major triad that we can use as an upper structure on dominant 7th chords is built on the 6th. We’ll refer to this as UST VI. The UST VI contains the ♭9 and the 13th. If we play a C7 chord shell in the left hand (C–E–B♭) and an A major triad in the right hand (A–C♯–E), the resulting chord is a C13(♭9).
The scale that this beautiful chord comes from is C Mixolydian ♭9: C–D♭–E–F–G–A–B♭. To construct this scale, simply modify a major scale according to the following formula: 1–♭2–3–4–5–6–♭7.
A secondary improv scale that supports UST VI is C Dominant Diminished: C–D♭–E♭–E♮–F♯–G–A–B♭. Another name for this scale construction is the Half-Whole Diminished Scale because it is constructed from alternating ½ steps and whole steps, beginning with a ½ step.
The UST VI sounds great on any dominant or secondary dominant that resolves to a major chord.
Applying Upper Structure Triads to Common Chord Progressions
Now that we’ve covered the five major USTs for dominant 7th chords, it’s time to put them to use. A great way to explore altered dominant sounds with upper structure triads on piano is to use the 12-bar blues form. That’s because the traditional blues form contains only dominant 7th chords.
Practicing Upper Structure Triads on the Blues
To play a C blues, you only need the dominant 7th chords built on the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees of C major. We’ll use chord shells containing the root, 3rd and 7th in the left hand.
Chord Shells for C Blues
Next, simply plug in the left-hand chords from the previous example over the complete 12-bar blues form. Notice, however, that we have inverted the guide tones (the 3rd and 7th) on F7 and G7. These “open chord shells” are voiced R-7-10 from the bottom up. (Note: a 10th is a compound interval spanning an octave + a 3rd). This allows for smooth voicing leading between the chord changes. Don’t worry if your hand cannot reach a 10th interval. In fact, many players cannot. Instead, simply play the root on beat 1 and the guide tones on the “and of 2.”
Voice Leading with Chord Shells
Now you’re ready to add USTs in your right hand! Today’s lesson includes three downloadable backing tracks for play-along practice at different tempi. Try playing each of the following UST variations over the 12-bar form as Jonny demonstrates in today’s Quick Tip video.
Variation 1: ♭6–2–2
Variation 2: 2–6–6
Variation 3: ♭3–♭5–♭5
Additional Practice Suggestions for Upper Structure Triads on a Blues
- Try mixing “pure dominants” (unaltered) with the USTs in the previous examples. For example, try using dominant 9th and dominant 13th voicings while inserting the UST voicings as passing chords. You can learn pro voicings for pure dominants on a C Blues in our Coloring Dominant Chords with Extensions (Intermediate) course.
- Professional jazz pianists also play USTs in the right hand over 3–7–9 or 7–3–13 rootless voicings in the left hand. Keep in mind that the LH voicing should match the source scale. Here is a quick guide for each UST:
- UST II → Lydian Dominant: 3–♭7–9 | ♭7–3–13
- UST ♭III → C Mixolydian ♭9 ♯9 ♭13 Bebop: 3–♭7–♭9 | 3–♭7–♯9 | ♭7–3–♭13
- UST ♭V → Altered Dominant: 3–♭7–♭9 | 3–♭7–♯9 | ♭7–3–♭13
- UST ♭VI → Altered Dominant: 3–♭7–♭9 | 3–♭7–♯9 | ♭7–3–♭13
- UST VI → C Mixolydian ♭9: 3–♭7–♭9 | ♭7–3–13
Practicing Upper Structure Triads on 2-5-1 Progressions
Would you like to be able to add upper structure triads to jazz standards? In this section, you’ll play 2-5-1 chord progressions using each of the upper structures we’ve learned in this lesson. Each upper structure appears in two (or more) voicing examples.
UST II – Major 2-5-1 Application
UST ♭III – Major 2-5-1 Application
UST ♭V – Major 2-5-1 Application
UST ♭V – Minor 2-5-1 Application
UST ♭VI – Minor 2-5-1 Application
UST VI – Major 2-5-1 Application
Congratulations, you’ve have completed today’s lesson on Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack. With the pro tips and tricks you’ve learn in today’s lesson, you’ll be able to instantly play professional sounding jazz piano voicings.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out our full-length course on Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Advanced).
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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