Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Whole Diatonic Picture

Q: Somebody was telling me that charts only give the bare minimum regarding chord symbols and you are expected to play something "bigger." How do I know what liberties I can take with certain chords?

A: The trick is to understand the diatonic system with each chord harmonized to its full extent. For example, when we look at the seven harmonized triads from the diatonic system, we notice that there are three major triads, the I, IV and V chords. But when we harmonize to 7th chords the same three chords that were once all the same, we now get two maj7 chords ( I and IV) and one dominant chord (V). The more you harmonize, the more each chord becomes unique until all seven are completely different. 

I first noticed years and years ago after finding 9th chords that while the ii and vi chords sounded nice as min9 chords, the iii chord sounded wrong to me played as such. I didn't know why at the time but after some investigation I figured it out. Using the chart up there, you can see why. It is because while the ii and vi chords harmonize to minor chords with a major 9th interval (in other words, min9 chords), the iii chord has a flat 9th. 

The I and IV chords become different only till we get to the 11th. The IV chord has a #11. Players always ask me; "How did you come up with that chord in that song?" And I always answer that it is simply because I know what the chords could possibly be fully harmonized and take advantage of that information. This means that in any given song, even a simple one, I could take a IV chord for example, and play it as a maj7#11 chord while most other guys would stick to the chart and play a triad or maj7. You have to be careful but you can certainly take liberties. 

Taking a simple song like "Stand by Me," what could you do? The song is basically a I-vi-IV-V progression. You could try taking advantage of the IV chord and adding in a #11. Or maybe make the V chord into a 9sus4 chord. Knowledge is power.

6 chords - The chart up there will give you some insight but there are certain things you should know (the gray boxes). While a dimb6 chord seems weird enough, it sounds pretty good. But the reason is simply because, it looks like a G7/B chord (B-D-F-G). 6 chords look the same as 7th chords in 1st inversion and in that respect are tricky. the vi chord being a minb6 chord spells out the same as a Fmaj7/A chord. 

7 chords - All these are fine and there is nothing to confuse or trip you up here.

9 chords - Gotta watch out for the iii chord, the min7(b9) chord. It isn't a very attractive sounding chord and as I said before, a min9 chord will not work here. Just avoid playing 9th on iii chords and stick to a min7 chord even if you play the other minor chords (ii and vi) as min9 chords. There are however certain things that you pick up with experience. For example, the min7(b9) chord is pretty lame but if you get rid of the minor 3rd and add in the 4th, you get a very nice chord, a 7sus4(b9) chord. You can remove the b7 as well and you get a sus4(b9) chord which is sometimes known as the "phrygian" chord. The viio chord harmonizes to a min7b5(b9) chord... Gross. Again it sounds like a G7 in 1st inversion but this time the C note (b9) sounds like a 4th in the G7 chord which clashes against the B in the chord.

11 chords - beware of major 3rds and natural 4ths in the same chords. That is why the I chord is written as a sus4 chord. With the natural 4th in the chord, you are best to get rid of the 3rd all together (thus making it a sus4 chord rather than a maj11 chord). There are certain voicings that work but be weary. Same with the V chord. You will want to get rid of the 3rd here as well making the chord a 7sus4 or 9sus4 chord. The viio chord sounds ok as a 11th chord. It sounds like a G13 in 1st inversion.

13 chords - similar to 6 chords but with the 7th included.


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