Here’s a short list of how to play piano chords in 12 levels, using different techniques from beginner to insane.
What are the 12 levels of playing chords at the piano?
- Root Position | Closed Voicings
- Open Voicings | Drop Voicings
- Octave Displacement & Duplicates
- Functional Chord/Chord-scales pairings
- Upper Structure Triads
- Upper Structure Quartals
- Stacked Structures
- Poly-Structured Clusters
Level 1: Root Position – Closed voicings
In Level 1, when we look at a chord symbol we simply play the notes by stacking thirds starting on the root. So for a C7 chord we’ll play C, E, G, Bb.
Here’s a video tutorial showing all the chords in every key.
Level 2: Inversions
Inlevel 2 what we’re going to talk about are inversions. With the Level 2 chords you’re allowed to use inversions of the Level 1 chords. So now, you can take the root and move it up an octave, creating what’s called first inversion with, the third is on the bottom. Take the bottom note again (now the 3rd) and move it up an octave and you get a second inversion, the fifth is now the bottom note. Do it again and you get the third inversion with this 7th at the bottom.
Level 3 Open Voicings & Drop Voicings
We’re now going to Level 3, open voicings and drop voicings. At this level we’ll take any of the Level 2 voicings and drop some of the notes to a lower octave. If we drop the second note from the top we call it a drop two voicing. So for a C7 in root position the second note from the top is the G. We drop it an octave and we get this drop to open voicing chord. If we use the drop two technique on the first inversion, we must drop the Bb and we get this voicing. Notice how this technique creates larger gaps between the notes. You can choose to drop any note or notes to create nice spread voicings. A famous combination is drop two and four giving you these amazing spread voicings.
Here’s a video tutorial explaining drop 2 & 4 voicings which are essential in jazz.
Level 4: Octave Displacement & Duplicates
In Level 4 we can take any note from the chord and place it in any octave or duplicated on several octaves if we want. Now we can get gaps between the notes as big as we want. Using octave duplicates with an inner note in the upper register is very effective!
Level 5: Extensions
A jazz player will always consider extending the chord by stacking more thirds on top of the chord. So a C7 becomes a C7 9 or a C7 9 13. And of course we can use any of the previous levels voicings techniques to get a jazzy sounding at C7.
Level 6: Rootless Voicings
At this level you can get rid of the root of the chord. Why? Because it sounds cool and if you’re playing in a band, you want to leave it to the bass player to play the root of the chord anyways.
If you are interested in learning this type of voicings, you can take the Essential Voicings For Jazz Piano Course by mDecks Music. This is an excellent piano course with step-by-step tutorials on how to play 4-note Rootless Voicings following 2 simple rules.
So now we’re about to get into the more advanced levels…
Level 7: Upper Structure Triads
To understand the voicings on this level, we have to consider the function the chord is playing. If the C7 is, for example, the V7 / I , then we compare it with the mixolydian scale. And that gives us tensions 9 and 13. But if the C7 is the V7 / VI, it will be better to pair it with the Mixo b9b13 scale. And we’d have to use b9 and b13 as the tensions when building the voicing. Next we have Level 8 upper structure triads! When pairing chords with chord scales, we can find triads that are contained in the scale and then use them on top of the chords. For example: if we a C7 with the Lydian b7 scale, we can then play a D major triad on top of C7. This is an awesome technique since the powerful sound of the triad is played apart from the basic sound of the chord, giving us two independent layers of sound. Just make sure the Triad contains at least one tension, otherwise it’s just a lower structure triad…
Again, here’s a very interesting piano course on Upper Structure Triads for Piano Voicings & Improvisation. These are more advanced voicings and will make you sound like a Pro in no time.
Level 8: Upper Structure Quartals
A quartal is a three note chord built using fourths instead of thirds. There are three types of quartals: the 4/7 which is built by using two perfect fourths, the major 7/4 which is a perfect fourth plus an Augmented fourth, and the major 7#4 which is an Augmented fourth plus a perfect fourth. Now we can use the same technique as in Level 8 where we played upper structure triads but now using quartals. So when a C7 with a mixolydian scale, we can use D47, or an E47, or a Bbmajor 7#4.
Here’s the video tutorial explaining Upper Structure Quartals in detail
At this level we can start combining upper structures to create weird structures with six notes — hexitonic — Let’s say we pair the C7 with the mixolydian scale.
In Level 8, we could have used an Am or a Gm as an upper structure. Now we can use both! But we still want to keep them as a unit at this level. This opens the sound of the C7 beautifully!
There are several hexatonic scales that are very effective for piano chords. This is an advanced topic bu here’s a nice tutorial on what Hexatonics are and how we can use them in music.
Level 11: Stacked Structures…
Forget functions, we’re now in a new realm. In Level 11, we’re going to explore new sounds by stacking structures on top of one another. Let’s pair the C7 with Messiaen “Octatonic Scale” — this is a symmetric scale — Some jazz players call it the symmetric diminished, others the half whole. The C7 is completely contained inside this scale. So we can pair the chord and the scale together to create an incredible new dominant sound! Let’s extract triads from this scale, there are quite a few of them! And now stack them any way you like on top of the C7 or just the C bass. This is a C7 chord sound no other….
To understand scales at this level you might want to check out: The Universal Encyclopedia of Scales
Level 12: Poly-Structured Clusters
Using scales with special properties, we can create clusters (all notes are only a half step or whole step apart) These are dense chords with lots of tensions. But by now, anything goes…
If you want to learn more about this, and many other related music topics visit mDecks.com for an entire catalog of Books, Courses & Apps for Musicians by Musicians.