Understanding Jazz Chords & Voicings used in Piano Phraseology.

alex bohrer cool piano teacher jazz chords jazz voicings piano phraseology Nov 22, 2022

The next three blogs will explain jazz theory covering chords/chord voicings, chord progressions & scales.


Chords in jazz contain more notes than other music styles.


Most styles use 3 notes consisting of the root, 3rd and 5th stacked one over the other to produce a triad.

The four most common triad types are major, minor, augmented and diminished.

Stacking another 3rd above the 5th gives us the 7th producing the 7th chord.

You could also think of this as taking the triad and adding a major or a minor seventh above the root.

Most chord degrees are odd numbers built in 3rds skipping every other note 1,3,5,7.

One exception is replacing the 7 with a 6 which produces a 6th chord.

We can also add odd scale degrees 9, 11 and 13 which is as high as we can go.

Combinaing different types of 3rds, 5ths and 7ths produces different 7th chord types.

The 3 most commonly used 7th chord types are..
1) Major seven chord.
Close your eyes and visualize the C major scale. Now play the root 3rd, 5th and 7th . The resulting chord is a major 7 chord.
2) Minor seven chord
VIsualize the C minor scale. Play root, 3rd, 5th and 7th to get a minor 7 chord. ,
3) Dominant seven chord.

Again visualize the C major scale. Now play the root 3rd, 5th and lower the 7th.

There are other often used chord types such as minor7 flat 5 and diminished 7 but for now let's stick with these three most common types.

Notes contained within the basic 7th chord type are called chord tones.

If we continue stacking in 3rds above the 7th chords ,we get the 9th, 11th, and 13th.

This gives us a huge variety of rich textured chords to play with.

Note how the combination of 1 3 5 7 9 11 and 13 tcovers every note within the scale.

Regardless of chord type extensions are still based on that major scale.

When viewed as a piano key the 9th is physically the same as the 2 of the scale. The 11th is physically the same as the 4th and the 13th is physically the same as the sixth.
Note: Being physically the same on the keys is still theoretically different because of the difference in its harmonic function within the chord.

9, 11 and 13 extensions apply to 7th chord types while 9 and 11 extensions apply to 6th chord types. 2nds and 4ths apply to triad structures with no 7th.

Extensions built from the major scale are called the natural 9th, natural 11th, and natural 13th.

Extensions can also be altered, which means they can be sharpened or flattened. You won't always just see 9, 11, 13. Sometimes you'll see a flat 9 such as C7♭9, sharp nine or C7♯9, sharp 11 or C7♯11 and flat 13 or C7♭13.

Start by finding the natural extension based upon the major scale first and then alter sharp/flat it to produce the desired mood or sound texture.

Chord Voicings

There are many different ways that you can play any chord in jazz. 

The term voicing comes from voice as in choir. Each singer has their part and those vocal lines should transition as smoothly as is possible from one harmony to the next. 

Smooth chord transition or voice leading requires changing the order of chord tones and extensions.

This creates new note structures or chord voicings. 

Chord voicings may or may not contain all of the notes in the basic 7th chord. 

Sometimes the 9 will replace the root or perhaps you might choose 3 notes of the scale in one hand and two in the other. 

The variations are infinite.Hopefully this provided you at least a basic understanding of how we derive jazz chords.

Check back in for the next blog which will cover jazz chord progressions.