In jazz, chords tell the pianist, bassist & guitarist what to play, and tell the soloist what harmony he or she is improvising over.
So whatever instrument you’re learning, some practical knowledge of chords can be very helpful.
In this article we’re going to look at the different types of jazz chords and some key considerations when playing them – including some real life examples from classic jazz repertoire.
A chord is defined as a group of notes – typically three or more – that are played simultaneously to create harmony, the bed of sound that underpins the melody in virtually all music.
A thorough understanding of harmony is essential for the modern day jazz musician.
A typical jazz tune will be presented in the form of a lead sheet which will feature the melody, written in traditional notation, with chord symbols placed above the stave.
The good news is that the same chords and chord sequences appear again and again in standard jazz repertoire, so they should soon become familiar with practice and regular playing.
If any of the information about scales is confusing, you may like to read our piece about jazz scales and modes alongside this one as all of the scales mentioned here are explained in more detail there.
Major chords – major seven and major six
The major chord is everywhere in music.
In its simplest form this would be a simple triad. C, E and G (root, third and fifth) to make a C major chord, for example, and this is used a lot in pop and rock music.
In jazz, however, we tend to make things a little richer by adding an extension to the chord.
This extension often takes the form of a major seventh, so a B natural in this example.
There are various ways of writing this, but the most common one is with a little triangle to denote major seventh.
It’s sometimes also written as C Maj 7.
Clear examples of this are the standards “The Song is You” and “Without a Song”, which both have major sevenths in the melodies of their respective opening bars.
Players of older styles of jazz – swing and bebop, for example – may be more likely to play a major sixth chord as their default on major chords.
This would simply be written as C6, and would feature an A in addition to a C major triad.
“Don’t Be That Way” and “My Ideal” are tunes that feature prominent major sixths in their melodies.
As far as the soloist is concerned, you can take a similar approach to both major seventh and major sixth chords.
The standard major scale (otherwise known as the Ionian mode) will be your default scale when playing over both of these chords, although the Lydian mode (a major scale with a raised fourth) could also be an option, particularly on major seventh chords in the context of more modern/modal jazz.
Dominant seventh chords and sus chords
A dominant seventh chord is a major triad with the addition of a flattened seventh.
So if we add a B flat to our C major triad, we get a C dominant seventh chord, or C7:
Whereas major chords generally sound settled and complete, a dominant chord wants to resolve to its tonic chord.
A dominant chord is built on the fifth degree of the major or minor scale, so C7 (the dominant) wants to resolve to F (the tonic), G7 wants to resolve to C, B7 wants to resolve to E, and so on, to give a few examples in random keys.
Dominant sevenths are the V chords within II-V-I progressions.
The II-V-I is the most common cadence in jazz, and appears in almost every standard jazz song.
For example, the first three chords of “Perdido” are C minor 7 (our “two” chord), F7 (our “five” chord and our dominant seventh), B flat major (our “one” chord).
Your go-to scale on an ordinary dominant chord is a Mixolydian scale – a major scale with a flattened seventh.
We also use the Mixolydian on ‘sus’ chords: dominant seventh chords which have a ‘suspended’ fourth in place of a major third.
These appear often within modal jazz, and have a kind of floating quality.
They are less likely to resolve to their tonic chord, and are more of sound world in and of themselves.
A good example is Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The first chord is D7sus, which is held for four bars. This does not resolve to G, as we might expect with a traditional dominant chord, but instead moves to F7sus, an essentially unrelated chord.
Dominant alterations and extensions
There are a number of extensions we can add to our dominant seventh chords to make them more interesting.
This might be a ninth (a C9 chord, for example) or a thirteenth (a C13 chord).
[Note: dominant extensions always go up in thirds above the seventh, so we use 9th rather than 2nd, 11th rather than 4th, 13th rather than 6th. All of these extensions tell you that you’re looking at a dominant chord, so a C13 chord contains a dominant seventh – a B flat – even though that isn’t directly stated]
Where things get slightly more complicated is when we start to add notes that fall outside of our tonic key, and outside of our Mixolydian scale.
The effect of this is to create more tension, so that we get a bigger sense of release when we resolve to the tonic chord.
Common examples include:
13, flat nine chords
C13(b9) means that we have a C dominant seventh chord with a flattened ninth but a natural 13th (a D flat and an A natural in this example).
This is a common dominant option in major key II-V-Is. The scale choice that corresponds with this chord is a half-whole diminished scale.
Flat 9, flat 13 chords
C7(b9,b13) means that we have a dominant seventh chord with both flattened ninth and flattened 13th.
This is our go-to dominant option in the context of a minor key, and we use the Spanish Phrygian (sometimes also called the Phrygian Dominant – there are various names for this scale, but it is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor).
A good example of this is the first chord of “Caravan”.
Augmented dominant chords
An “augmented” chord is one with a raised fifth.
So an Augmented dominant chord would be an augmented major triad, plus a dominant seventh. (E.g. C, E, G sharp, B flat).
Our go-to scale choice here is the whole tone scale.
These appear as dominant chords in earlier styles of jazz – the second chord of “Foolin’ Myself”, for example, but are also occasionally used in modal jazz as a kind of static sound.
For example, the first chord of Wayne Shorter’s “JuJu” is an augmented dominant chord, although it does not resolve to a tonic like a traditional dominant chord.
This chord can be written as C7aug, C7+, or C7#5
This chord contains all the possible ‘altered’ extensions to a dominant seventh chord, and is the crunchiest, most dissonant dominant sound out there.
Its most distinctive feature is its use of the sharpened ninth, which clashes with the major third, as these two notes are only a half step away from each other.
The altered scale fits this chord – the seventh mode of the melodic minor.
[Note: These dominant options will sometimes be directly specified by the written chord symbols.
However, it is also common for soloists to imply these sounds over dominant chords to create additional tension and interest, even if they are not specifically prescribed.
If the chart simply says C7, it is up to the musicians to use their ears and their understanding of the context to decide which exactly which version of the chord or scale to play]
Lydian dominant chords
A dominant seventh chord with a raised 11th, would be written as C7,#11.
This is slightly different to our other altered dominant chords, as we typically use them for dominant chords that are not going to resolve to a tonic chord, so we wouldn’t generally use it on the V chord in a II-V-I.
These are our go-to on secondary dominant chords – the dominant of the dominant.
For example, in the key of C major, G7 is our dominant, so D7 is our secondary dominant.
Examples of this include bars three and four of “Take The ‘A’ Train”, the first chord of “Our Love is Here to Stay” and bars 13 and 14 of “Donna Lee”.
Even if the #11 is not explicitly specified in the chord symbol, the context and your knowledge of harmony should help you realise that this is a secondary dominant chord and needs to be treated as such.
The scale that works over the chord is the Lydian dominant, the fourth mode of the melodic minor.
It is like an ordinary Mixolydian scale but has a raised fourth.
Minor six and minor/major seventh chords
In the same way that the addition of a major six or major seven makes a major triad slightly more interesting, a minor sixth chord or a minor chord with a major seventh are richer alternatives to a minor triad, and both work as tonic options when we are in a minor key.
A minor sixth chord is a minor triad (e.g. C, E flat, G) plus a natural sixth (A natural, in this case). This would be written as Cm6.
This type of chord works well as a tonic option in minor key centres: for example, the first chord of “How Deep is the Ocean” or “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, or bars seven and eight of “Autumn Leaves”.
It also appears a lot in the common cadence that moves from chord IV major to IV minor.
For example, in the last eight bars of “All The Things You Are” in the key of A flat major, we have D flat major to D flat minor, with the latter working well as a minor sixth chord.
The minor chord with a major seventh is less common, but is sometimes directly specified, such as in the first bar of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”, where the melody note is the major seventh over a minor chord.
A minor/major seventh chord is written as Cm△, or sometimes Cm maj7.
The scale choice for both minor sixth and minor, major seventh chords is the melodic minor (a minor scale with natural sixth and seventh degrees).
Minor seventh chords
A minor seventh chord is a minor triad, plus a flattened seventh.
For example, C, E flat, G, B flat.
This is most commonly found as the II chord in a II-V-I cadence.
For example, the first three chords of “Autumn Leaves” form a II-V-I cadence in B flat major.
The first chord, the II, is C minor seventh.
In modal jazz, we hear this sound outside of the functional context of a II-V-I.
Instead, it is used as its own distinct colour palette.
The classic example of this is “So What”, where there are long stretches of D minor seventh, before a shift up a semitone to E flat minor seventh.
The Dorian mode, the second mode of the major scale, is the standard scale choice for a minor seventh chord.
Half diminished chords
The half diminished chord can also be thought of as a minor seventh chord with a flattened fifth.
This forms the II chord in a II-V-I cadence in a minor key.
For example, the first four bars of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” comprise a II-V-I into F minor, so the first chord is G half diminished.
This is made up of G, B flat, D flat and F, with the D flat (rather than D natural) the key note in making it a half diminished chord rather than a minor seventh chord.
We occasionally see half diminished chords in modal contexts, such as the first four bars of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge”.
The Locrian scale, the seventh mode of the major scale, is generally the default one to play here.
A half diminished chord is denoted with a little circle with a line going diagonally through it. They are sometimes alternatively written as minor seventh chords with a flattened fifth: G minor 7, b5, for example.
Diminished chords are built on stacks of minor thirds and have a somewhat spooky, unsettled sound.
We can have a simple diminished triad – C, E flat, G flat, for example – but in jazz it is more common to see diminished seventh chords, which simply add an extra minor third on top (A in this case).
Diminished chords often help us move smoothly from one chord to another via stepwise bass movement.
For example, the last six bars of “All the The Things You Are” go from A flat major with a C in the bass, down to B diminished seventh, down to B flat minor seventh, from where we begin a II-V-I cadence to finish the tune.
The chromatically descending motion of this bassline is undeniably satisfying.
In the first two bars of “It Could Happen to You”, meanwhile, we move from E flat major to F minor via E diminished seventh, giving us a bass line that ascends chromatically.
A diminished chord is denoted with a little circle symbol. You can play a whole-half diminished scale over it.
Thanks for checking out this guide to the jazz chords that you will come up against as a musician.
If you haven’t already, check our our article on jazz scales and modes which explains how you might start to improvise over these chords. For everything else, you can visit our How To Learn Jazz area.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!