Structure and Function

Hey Jazz Guy,

I feel like I’m stuck on repeat with the chords I know and I’m searching for something different. Any Advice? –Repeating in Rochester


Dear Repeating,

This is a common sentiment, so sometimes it’s useful to go back to the drawing board and see what we discover. Most of the chords we think about are classified by function, that is, we know what chord we are trying to make such as GMaj7 and then choose the notes to create a voicing [Ex 1]. If we explore this idea, we can take functional voicings through a scale system. In Ex 2 we have a C Major scale voiced out in diatonic 7th chords. Though we will use the major scale for our examples, consider that we can also take functional chords through any harmonic system, like the harmonic minor scale [Ex 3]. By going through a diatonic sequence, we can discover every type of chord that is possible within that scale. Now that we have seen this on a basic level, with simple 7th chords, we can go further. Let us substitute some notes in the major scale sequence, we will substitute 9 for 1 and 3 for 5 in each chord, giving us the sequence in Ex. 4. We get some nice 9th chords, and also two anomalies built on the 3rd and 7th degrees. We could call these several things depending on the bass note. If we examine the chord built on E, we could see it as an Emin7b9 or if we put a G in the bass we get a G13. If we put a D in the bass we get Dmin69. If we put a Bb in the bass we get a BbMaj6(#11), and F in the bass gives us FMaj69. Thus, we see the crucial concept here: One chord voicing can be used for many different things depending on the bass. The next step is to subtract a note from our four note chords and get 7th chords with either no 5th [Ex 5] or 7th chords with no 3rd [Ex 6]. They are not labeled because, as above, that each one of these three note chords can have many functions. For example, the Cmaj7(no 3rd) can work also as Amin9Fmaj7#11, and Dmin13(11). Through this method we can come up with some very interesting, modern sounding voicings usable for a variety of functions. If we really want to expand our palette, we must look beyond constructing voicings from function and construct them from structure. Structure simply refers to the interval combinations and we will stick to three note chords because it is easy to apply this technique. We start by choosing two intervals, say, a 7th and another 7th. If we stay diatonic we get a three note chord consisting of C, B and A [Ex 7]. This chord is built on a structure (7ths), and our voicing can function as a CMaj13Amin9FMaj7#11F#min7b5(11), and Dmin6. If we take the 7ths structure up the major scale [Ex 8] we get some killer voicings with multiple functions. As one more example [Ex 9], we can use a 2nd and a 4th. This little voicing can be used as a Cmaj7, FMaj7, Amin11, Dmin11, Gsus, BbMaj7, EbMaj7, AbMaj7#11…wow! If we take this structure through the major scale [Ex 10], we get more voicings all with a myriad of functions. For a final exercise, we can throw these chords in a sequence [Ex 11] to get the full effect. Be sure to play with bass notes underneath! Playing chords based on structure is an exciting and near infinite way to discover new sounds and we haven’t even scratched the surface. So keep exploring, write down anything you like, and jazz hard!


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Categories: Chords, Harmony, Philosophy/Technique

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