How To Add Alterations To Chords In Jazz

Student’s Question:

How do you know when to add alterations into your playing?

Hayden’s Answer:

Choosing which alterations to include is often a matter of taste. Sometimes the alterations will be specified in the chord symbol, but many time they are not. Here’s what I would recommend:

1) Become familiar with the sound of each alteration.

  • The b9 has a very soft and subtle sound, it the ‘easiest on the ears’.
  • The #9 is more tense and jarring.
  • The #11 has a uplifting and floating quality.
  • The #5/b13 is quite tense, similar to the #9.

You can also use combinations of these alterations, such as b9/#5, #5/#9 or b9/#11.

The First Lesson To Watch On Chord Alterations

I’d recommend checking out this lesson where we look at some basic examples of altering the V chord over major 251s: - learn to add these alterations to major 251 progressions and really listen to the different sound each one produces.

The b9 over any V chord will always sound the same (of course the pitch will be different) but the ’texture’ and ‘colour’ created will be the same.

As you play these sounds more, your ears will be become accustomed to sounds. If I’m listening to a record, I can pick out the different alterations with my ears. For example, I can always hear if the #11 is in the chord because it has such a distinctive sound. This takes time to develop but with time you will be able to do the same.

The lesson highlighted above is the first lesson in the course on Altered Harmony which is a very important area of study for beginner/intermediate level students.

2) Always Analyse The Melody Note

Always look at the melody and analyse it in terms of the scale degree in relation to the underlying harmony.

For example, If I have a dominant chord with the 13th in the melody, we know that 2 upper structure triads will work well…

‘Upper Structure 2’ which is a major triad off the 9th. This gives you 9-#11-13 in your right hand.

Also 'Upper Structure 6’ which is a major triad off the 13th. This gives you 13-b9-3 in your right hand. You would need to invert this to have the 13th on top.

Now both of those upper structures have very different sounds. I would try both and see which one I like the sound of best.

Repeat this every time you have a dominant chord, and you ears will gradually build an appreciation of what the different alterations sound like.

For more information on this, check out the lesson on Upper Structure Triads: - this is also part of the course on Altered Harmony.