How to Play Upper Structure Triads on Piano

Here are the instructions to play Upper Structure Triads on the Piano for any chord you do this:

  1. Find the correct chord/chord-scale pairing for the chord.
  2. Classify your notes into inside note and outside notes.
  3. Within the inside notes determine which is the root, the guide-tones, and the available tensions
  4. Find triads that are all built with inside notes and contain at least one available tension
  5. Play that triad on your right hand while playing the root on the two guide tones on your left hand

That’s all. If you want to dig deeper into the topic and learn these amazing Piano Voicings and play them like the pros, check out our Upper Structures for Piano Voicings & Improvisation

Upper Structures for Piano Voicings & Improvisation.

This is an excellent course with video tutorials, workouts & song demos and every single upper structure over different types of chords explained in detail.

What are upper structures?

What are upper structure triads and how to play them

Upper structures can create rich, complex yet incredibly balanced chord voicings.
The concept is quite simple:

You play the basic sound of a 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’ll explain what tensions are later in the video.

When playing using upper structures, the trick is not to think in terms of just a chord but rather a chord and a chord scale pairing.

What is a chord chord scale pairing?

Simply put, a chord and a scale is a chord scale pairing if they both share the same root and the chord is contained inside the scale.

For example: a C major7 chord and a C Ionian mode, or major scale, is a chord scale pairing. But also C major7 and the C Lydian mode 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 with it. If a C major7 is the I, then the best chord scale for it is Ionian.

If C major7 is the IV, then Lydian would be a better option. Otherwise any chord chord scale pairing is fair game when one is creating voicings.

How is the chord chord scale pairing concept useful? And how do we apply it to upper structures?

A chord chord scale pairing will yield a bigger set of notes than a regular chord. C major7 is 4 notes (C, E G and B). C Ionian is 7 notes. A chord chord scale pairing allows any note in the chromatic scale to be thoroughly classified into one of several categories.

The two main categories are: outside notes and inside notes.

What are outside notes vs. inside notes?

Outside notes, as the name implies, are notes outside the chord scale. And inside notes are notes in the chord scale. Inside notes can be further classified into chord-tones and tensions. Chord tones being notes in the chord and tensions being notes in the chord scale but not in the court itself.

We can further subcategorized chord-tones and tensions into even smaller groups. For example: chord tones can be further classified into: Roots (the root of the chord), Guide-tones (the notes that contain the essence of the sound the 3rd and the 7th, also altered fifths) and, Other chord-tones (non root and non guide tones that don’t add much to the basic sound of the chord).

And tentions can be further classified into:
Avoids — these are notes that create too much tension in the voicing and usually destroy the overall sound of the chord. Usually avoids our a b9 above a guide tone.
Non avoids — these are notes that add color without destroying the chords overall sound.

So now when you see a chord symbol, don’t just think of the notes in that chord but also the notes in the chord scale that you’re gonna pair it with.
For example: The first C7 chord in “When I Fall In Love” is the V7/ii. And the best chord scale will be mixolydian b9 b13. The chord/chord-scale pairing we use is a C7 paired with a C mixolydian b9 b13.

All the notes from the mixolydian 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. And Db and Ab are allowed tensions.

Can you find let’s say a minor triad inside of the C7 C mixolydian b9 pairing that contains at least one tension?

If you said Db minor triad, you are correct!
The notes in the Db minor triad all belong to the mixolydian b9 b13. Db and Ab are non avoid tensions and Fb — which is the same note as E — is a guide tone. Which brings me into an important point!

In our example, Db major — made up of Db, F, and Ab — was the obvious triad to be found over the second degree of mixolydian 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’s why it’s 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 would recommend you watch them because they show you how incredibly powerful the circle of fifths is. Here it is:

If you want to read further check out our blog post

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