A Simple Way to Understand "Chord Extensions"

Are you tired of playing the same old chords over and over again, only to produce the same sound? There are always additional notes we can add to chords to add much more “flavor”. In fact, music wouldn’t be the same today without the bold inventions and creativity of artists with unconventional chords. The list of available combinations of notes to form a chord (any three notes played at the same time) is very long, so for the purposes of this article we will explore the most basic options.

Basic Chords

At their roots, chords can be mostly divided into two categories: major and minor. Major has a happy or joyful sound associated with it, and minor has a somber or sad sound. The difference that makes these two sound so different is the distance between its root and its “third”, or the note that is either three or four half-steps away (each step on a piano). One half-step can make a huge difference!

Major Chords

A major chord has a major third (four half-steps) in between its root and third.

Minor Chords

A minor chord has a minor third (three half-steps) in between those pitches.

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Remember, basic chords (or triads) are any three notes that skip a note name (e.g. C-E-G, A-C-E). Skipping certain note names may result in different chords, but they are chords nonetheless.

Extended Chords

This section is reserved for those wanting to take their chord skills to the next level… use these and everyone will think you are a virtuoso!

Dominant 7th Chords

The land of 7th chords… and the many types. In Western common practice music, the dominant 7th chord is likely the most frequent and familiar one. It is constructed by adding a minor 7th on top of an existing major chord, and is usually followed by the “tonic” chord.

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Major 7th Chords

Major 7th chords have a surprisingly refreshing sound, and most commonly used within the last century. Therefore, it does sound contemporary and can be used at almost any time very appropriately. It is constructed by adding a MAJOR 7th (not a minor 7th as with the dominant) on top of an existing major chord.

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Minor 7th Chords

As opposed to the major 7th, the minor 7th chord is used often to add color to an already minor or sad sounding song. It became prevalent to the common ear during the jazz movement in the early 20th century, but has been used by composers for much longer. It is composed by placing a minor 7th on top of an existing MINOR chord.

Further Extensions

Want to take these chords a notch further? Musicians now refer to adding even more notes to these chords as numbers: 9, 11, and 13. If we said that the four notes represented here so far according to their distance from the root were called 1, 3, 5, and 7, it would be logical to continue in this pattern. Therefore, the principle is to continue skipping note names until the 9th note, the 11th note, and the 13th note are all included. For example, if I wanted to play an 11th chord of some type (can be any), I would first play the correct 7th chord, then add the 9th AND the 11th note on the top. This results in an extremely colorful chord, as you could probably imagine!

The western construction of pitches and relating tones have benefitted us in so many ways, but chords are a HUGE way. As long as we stay within the relative key of any song, playing creative chords and adding color to the music is so easy because of the exact distance between every pitch that exists. Music as we know it is quite the beautiful thing!

- Tyler Long, Administrative Assistant/Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy.