Here’s the complete lesson in video format
In this series we are going to talk about Piano Voicings, specifically voicings that use upper structures.
It’s said that the average piano player spends 2 to 3 hours daily, searching for cool voicings over different chords and harmonic progressions. Finding new voicings, cataloguing, memorizing and playing them in all twelve keys is not an easy task.
Let me show you the concept of building chord voicings using upper structures. How to think about them, how to find them and, most importantly, how to practice them in order to add this fantastic sound color to your palette.
Although it is crucial to understand the concept first, we also know the amount of possibilities this concept creates is enormous. So we’ve done all the research, cataloguing and creating exercises with every single possible upper structure triad and quartal over minor seventh and dominant seventh chords in every single key. If you want to save a few years and have all possible upper structures in a neat book that you can pull out any time you want for the rest of your life, I’ll show you what’s in these pdfs at the end of this video.
Visit https://mdecks.com/ust.phtml to learn more about the collection
What are upper structures?
Upper structures can create rich, complex, yet incredibly balanced chords voicings.
The concept is quite simple: you play the basic sound of the chord on the left hand and a triad or quartal (or some other simple structure) on the right hand. The structure on your right hand is called an upper structure if it contains at least one tension. We will explain what tensions are later in this video.
When playing using upper structures the trick is to think, not in a chord, but in a chord / chord-scale pairing.
What is a chord / chord-scale pairing?
Simply put, a chord and a scale is a chord/chord-scale pairing if:
- They both share the same root and,
- The chord is contained inside the scale.
For example Cmaj7 / C Ionian (or major scale) is a chord/chord-scale pairing, also Cmaj7 / C Lydian is a chord/chord-scale pairing.
If a chord in a progression is playing the role of a specific harmonic function then there probably is a “best chord-scale” to pair it with. If a Cmaj7 is the I then the best chord-scale for it is Ionian. If Cmaj7 is the IV then Lydian would be a better option. Otherwise any chord/chord-scale pair is fair game when one is creating voicings.
How is the chord/chord-scale pair concept useful. And how does it apply to upper structures?
- A chord/chord-scale pair will yield a bigger set of notes than a regular chord.
Cmaj7 is four notes C E G B
C Ionian is 7 notes C D E F G A B
- A chord-chord-scale pair allows any note in the chromatic scale to be thoroughly classify:
Outside notes (notes outside the chord-scale)
Inside Notes (notes in the chord-scale)
Chord-Tones (notes in the chord)
Root (the root of the chord)
Guide Tones (the notes that contain the essence of the sound, 3rd and 7th, also altered 5ths)
Other chord-tones (non-root & non-guide-tones they don’t add much to the basic sound of the chord)
Tensions (notes in the chord-scale but not in the chord)
Avoids (the create too much tension in the voicing and usually destroy the overall sound of the chord, usually avoids are a b9 above a guide-tone)
non-Avoids (or Allowed. or Available, the add color without destroying the chord’s overall sound)
From now on, when you see a chord symbol, don’t just think of the notes in it. Think first of the chord-scale you want to pair this chord with.
For example: here’s a C7 chord in When I Fall in Love. It is the V7/ii and the best chord-scale will be Mixolydian b9 b13. The chord/chord-scale pairing I will use is C7 and C Mixolydian b9 b13
All the notes from the Mixo b9 b13 are my inside notes.
The chord-tones are C E G and Bb.
The root is C.
The guide-tones are: E and Bb.
The Tensions are: Db F and Ab.
F is an avoid tension because it creates a b9 interval with one of the guide-tones.
Db and Ab are allowed tensions.
Can you find a, let’s say, minor triad inside the C7 / C Mixo b9 b13 chord/chord-scale pair that contains at least one non-avoid tension?
If you said Db minor triad you are correct. The notes in the Db minor triad all belong to the Mixo b9 b13. Db and Ab are non-avoid tensions and Fb which is the same note as E is a guide-tone.
Which brings us to an important point in this lesson: As you can see, finding a triad might be sometimes tricky, because you can have enharmonic spellings of notes that are hiding some of the triads.
In our example Db F Ab was the obvious triad to be found over the second degree of Mixo b9 b13
If we didn’t look carefully we would have missed that Db E Ab is also a triad since E is the enharmonic of Fb and Db Fb Ab is the Db minor triad.
That is why it is better to look at scales and chords as graphs over the circle of fifths.
If you haven’t seen our videos on the Circle of Fifths I recommend you watch them because they show you how incredibly powerful the circle of fifths is we have more than six videos on it and the amount of music theory you get from such a simple concept is amazing.
Let me show you the C7 / C Mixolydian b9 b13 pairing inside Tessitura Pro which uses the circle of fifths to study scales and modes.
Here’s the C MIxolydian b9 b13 paired with the C dom7 chord.
Now if we try to fit the graph of a minor triad inside the graph of a Mixo b9 b13 we can find all possible triads contained in that scale. Tessitura shows all possible minor triads inside the Mixo b9 b13 and there are 3.
- On the bII which is Dbm which is the one we found already.
- Another one on the bVII which is Bbm
- And one more on the IV which is Fm
If we look each of the triads individually we see that the Bb minor triad contains one chord-tone (the b7) and 2 tensions (the b9 and the 11) but that 11 is an avoid tension because it creates a b9 with the 3rd of the chord and that destroys the sound quality of the chord
The Fm triad has the same problem
And the Dbm is perfect, and as you can see (CHANGE TO NOTE NAMES) Tessitura is showing the Db minor triad as Db E and Ab in the graph because is using the circle of fifths based on the pair C7 / C Mixo b9 b13
Just by looking at this information I can tell you right away the Dbm triad is going to add a lot of color to the C7 chord without destroying the dom7 sound. And, since we will be using the Dbm triad as an upper structure, positioning it above and separate from the basic sound of the chord, we will create a dual sound which will be balanced and pleasant to the ears. See, triads are very recognizable, the have their own cool sound, and putting them up there apart from the other notes helps to conserve the original sound. So now we have the basic sound of the C7 chord on the left by using the root and the two guide-tones (3 and 7) and the cool sound of the minor triad on top which we can still hear clearly and blends perfectly with the C7 chord since we have chosen it using a chord/chord-scale pair
Isn’t that cool?
Now try the Db major triad over the C7 which contains an avoid note.
Can you hear how bad that sounds in this context? It’s all caused by this b9 interval between the E and the F. Of course, there is a b9 between the C and the Db and between the G and the Ab, but the E is the third in the chord, a guide-tone, and it’s purpose in life is wanting to resolve to that F. When you play that F in the voicing you are already fulfilling E’s purpose and the soul of the dominant chord is no more.