What are Polychords?
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Sometimes music theory terms sound way more complicated than the actual concepts that they describe. For example, perhaps you’ve come across the term polychords and felt a bit intimidated. Ironically, this concept actually makes playing complex chords way easier, despite its ominous sounding name. In today’s Quick Tip, What Are Polychords?, John Proulx explains how the polychordal approach to understanding advanced harmonies actually makes them more accessible and memorable. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Polychords
- Examples of 2-5-1 Progressions With Polychords
- Polychordal Voicings Every Pianist Should Know
- 3 Levels of Polychords on a Familiar Song
In today’s lesson, students of all levels will play amazing sounding jazz chords by combining basic chords they already know.
The literal meaning of the word polychord suggests “many chords,” as if to imply the usage of several chords simultaneously. In fact, 20th century composers Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Aaron Copland (1900–1990) have sometimes taken this approach in composing works that represent bitonality or even polytonality in a literal sense. However, such examples do not represent the common meaning and usage of the term polychords today. More often, the term polychord refers to an extended or altered chord formed by combining two simpler chords.
In jazz harmony, a polychord is the combination of two simple chord structures to create a more complex harmonic sound. Jazz pianists use polychordal understanding as a mental shortcut for quickly recognizing chord symbols with multiple extensions and/or alterations. For example, the chord symbol C13(♭9#11) is more easily understood as the polychord F♯m/C7 (read as “F♯ minor over C7”). Polychords are also known as upper structures.
Sometimes, music students confuse slash chords and polychords. While the chord symbols for slash chords and polychords look similar, these are actually two different musical concepts. Consider the following diagrams:
In slash chord notation, the hypothetical chord symbol X/Y represents a chord of X over a bass note Y. Slash chords are especially common in pop music and most often indicate a chord inversion. For example, the chord symbol E♭/G represents an E♭ major chord in 1st inversion.
In polychordal nomenclature, the chord symbol X/Y represents a chord of X over a chord of Y. Polychordal symbols are used to more easily express complicated chord suffixes. For example, E♭/G7, which is read as “E♭ major over G7,” is a quick way to arrive at the same sound as G7(♯9♭13).
In some cases, it may be difficult to determine whether a slash chord or a polychord is intended. For example, D/C might imply D7 in 3rd inversion (C–D–F♯–A) or the polychord D major (D–F♯–A) over C major (C–E–G). In such an instance, the context must determine which sound is intended. Keep in mind, slash chords are more likely to appear in sheet music. On the other hand, polychordal nomenclature is more of a conceptual framework that is presented in method books on jazz harmony.
Let’s examine how a jazz pianist might use polychordal voicings on a common 2-5-1 progression in C major. However, first we’ll consider an example that uses simple voicings.
Basic 2-5-1 Progression (Root-3rd-5th-7th)
While the example above is acceptable, jazz pianists often play chord voicings that include extra notes for added color. These additional notes can either be chord extensions (9th, 11th, 13th), chord alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13), or a combination of both. Polychordal voicings allow jazz pianists to add extensions and alterations in the right hand within the context of a familiar chord shape, such as a major or minor triad. Check out the following polychordal 2-5-1 progression in C major in which each right-hand upper structure is a major triad.
Polychordal 2-5-1 Progression – Rooted L.H.
More advanced polychordal voicings may combine rootless voicings in the left hand with upper structure triads in the right hand, like the following example.
Polychordal 2-5-1 Progression – Rootless L.H.
As you can probably already see, the polychordal approach makes complex jazz voicings much more accessible. In the next section, we’ll demonstrate polychordal combinations that you can use when playing major, minor, half-diminished, dominant and altered dominant sounds.
In this section of today’s lesson, you’ll learn how to play 5 common chord sounds using polychordal voicings, including:
- Major 7th Polychords
- Minor 7th Polychords
- Half-Diminished Polychords
- Dominant 7th Polychords
- Altered Dominant Polychords
As you play each voicing, there are three elements that you’ll want to consider. First, be sure to look at the chord symbol. This classifies the specific chord quality, along with any extensions and alterations that are present in the voicing. Secondly, observe the basic chord shape that each hand is playing. Lastly, observe the upper structure triad (UST) label. This label indicates the relationship of the right-hand triad as compared to the root of the chord in the left-hand. Memorizing the upper structure relationship will allow you to transpose the given voicing to any root.
In actual practice, the bottom chord may sometimes be spread out into a more open position than show in these examples. However, spreading out the tones in the left hand does not change the chord symbol or the UST relationship. On the other hand, it is uncommon to spread out the notes of the right-hand triad. However the right hand may be inverted and the bottom note may even be doubled on top for a bigger sound.
Here are three common polychordal voicings that jazz pianists often play in place of a more basic major 7th chord.
Here are three polychordal voicings that sound great for minor 7th chords.
Next, we have three common ways to play half-diminished chords using polychordal combinations.
Here are three dominant 7th polychords that are very common. You’ll notice that the 5th has been omitted from the left-hand chords in the first two examples. This practice is quite common, especially on dominant chords. The third example, however, is a dominant “sus” sound, which is a different type of sound. In this instance, the 3rd has been omitted from the left-hand chord to keep from clashing with the sus4 in the right-hand. Additionally, the 5th has been placed back into the left hand for a fuller sound.
Altered dominant chords are the most common type of polychordal voicing. In fact, you can construct many different altered dominant polychords using major, minor, augmented and diminished triads. This section covers 11 different altered dominant sounds that can be formed with upper structure triads. We’ll present the 11 voicings in 3 different categories:
- Altered Dominant Polychords with Major Triads
- Altered Dominant Polychords with Minor Triads
- Altered Dominant Polychords with Other Triads
First, we’ll examine altered dominants with major USTs.
Altered Dominant Polychords With Major Triads
For a deep dive how to use these altered dominant sounds, check out our full-length course on Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Adv). Or, for a more concise overview, check out our Quick Tip on Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Chord Hack (Int).
Next, we’ll consider altered dominant voicings with minor USTs.
Altered Dominant Polychords With Minor Triads
To explore how to apply these altered dominant voicings in common chord progressions, check out or Quick Tip on Jazz Piano Upper Structures With Minor Triads (Int).
Finally, the “other” category of altered dominant voicings contains polychords built with diminished and augmented USTs.
Altered Dominant Polychords With Other Triads
For more examples of altered dominant polychords with augmented USTs, check out our Quick Tip on Augmented Chords—The Complete Guide (Int).
Nice job playing all 11 examples of altered dominant polychords! Now you’re ready to start using these polychords in a tune. Notice, John Proulx offers the following advice when applying these polychordal voicings:
“I would suggest that you go through your music and write in the polychords for chords that have a lot of chord extensions so that you can get to these beautiful sounds quickly. After a while…you won’t have to write them in anymore because you’re going to be so used to these sounds that you’re going to get them automatically…and that’s the goal!”
In the next section, we’ll follow this advice as we apply polychordal voicings to the chord progression from a familiar tune.
So far, you’ve gained a solid understanding of what jazz musicians mean when we speak of polychords. Moreover, by playing the “Polychordal Voicings That Every Pianist Should Know” in the previous section, you’ve experienced how this framework makes it easier to play complex chord sounds. Now you’re ready to start using polychords in a familiar tune.
In this section, we’ll apply a polychordal lens to the primary chord progression from the tune “At Last” by Etta James. This song uses a familiar I→VI→II→V progression, also known as the turnaround progression. The examples below come from today’s lesson sheet. You can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose these examples to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
1. Beginner Polychords
The following beginner approach primarily uses simple triad shapes in each hand to play the turnaround progression with polychords.
Great job! Once you think you’ve got these polychords under your fingers, try playing this progression along with backing track #1.
In the next level, we’ll learn how to apply some secondary dominant chord substitutions on this progression.
2. Intermediate Polychords
The intermediate level example below converts the VI chord and the II chord into dominant chords, resulting in a secondary dominant resolution. This is possible because in both cases, these chords are moving counter-clockwise around the circle of 5ths. In other words, the resolution chord is down a perfect 5th (or up a perfect 4th).
Nice work! You’re ready to play this intermediate level turnaround with backing track #1. Afterward, we’ll add even more passing chords with polychordal voicings in the advanced level.
3. Advanced Polychords
The advanced example below adds even more passing chords so that there is a chord change on each beat! First, we’ve added an E7(♯9♭13) secondary dominant passing chord on beat 2 in the first measure. Then, on beat four, we’ve added an E♭13(♯11). This chord is a tritone substitution for the previous A7(♯9♭13). Not only do A7 and E♭7 share the same tritone interval for their guide tones (the notes C♯/D♭ and G)—the roots of these chords, the notes A and E♭, are a tritone apart. Therefore, the analysis describes E♭13(♯11) as the “subV of II.” In other words, even though E♭13(♯11) isn’t technically the V of II, it is behaving that way.
In the second measure, the A♭13(♯11) is also tritone substitution. Therefore, we can describe A♭13(♯11) as the “subV of V.” Finally, the last two chords present G7 with two different upper structure triads—UST ♭VI and UST ♭V. These two USTs often appear together because they both come from the same parent scale…the G altered scale (G– A♭–B♭–C♭–D♭–E♭–F).
Did you get it? Great job! Now you’re ready to play these polychords along with backing track #2. For a deep dive on passing chord techniques, check out our full-length courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Int, Adv).
Congratulations, you’ve completed this lesson on What Are Polychords?. In doing so, you’ve laid the foundation for building complex and beautiful jazz piano voicings.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:
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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