Some musical concepts are intimidating. For me, altered chords were one of those concepts. On our social media, we asked you what you wanted us to talk about in our blog. One of you answered: altered chords. I said to myself: I'm not alone! I'm not the only one who had a hard time understanding what they are 🥲!
I'm not going to lie to you. The subject is a complex harmonic structure. But today, I will explain it to you in the simplest way possible. I warn you that once you understand altered chords, it is a big chance for you to fall in love with them 🤭. It is a beautiful chord that enables many possibilities to compose and make smooth arrangements.
What is an altered chord?
If you google it, you will find different types of approaches. You will find classical musician's explanations, jazz musicians' explanations, etc. In the end, the concept, the idea, is the same, regardless of how many words you use to decorate it.
Let's dive into it.
Where do they come from?
🤯 As for any other chord, an altered chord comes from a scale.
As you might imagine, the altered chords derive from the altered scale. The name refers to the fact that most of the tones have alterations.
🤦 As artists, as they are, musicians don't seem to be very creative for naming things! I confess that I don't escape from that stereotype. What I like least about my songs are the titles.
The altered scale
The altered scale is composed as follows:
Root - b9 - #9 - 3 - #11 - b13 - b7
In other words:
Root - b2 - #2 - 3 - 4 - b6 - b7
🤔 Are you wondering why b9/b2 #9/#2 #11/4 and b13/b6 are equivalent?
It's simple. Let's just count.
Do you see it?
D is the 2d and 9th of C, F is the 4th and 11th of C, etc.
To continue, below you will find the altered C scale. Press play.
What did you noticed?
First of all, there is no fifth!! Also, it has a lot of alterations, as I warn you before.
Other names for this scale: Ravel scale, Super locro, Locrian flat 4, or even Pomeroy scale.
How to build an altered chord?
The altered chord is a dominant 7 type of chord derived from the jazz minor scale called altered scale.
To understand how to build an altered chord, let's use an example: C7alt.
First, let's think about the "unaltered" chord: C7.
Do you remember how it is composed?
Root - 3 - 5 - b7
C - E - G - Bb
Now, do you remember that the altered scale does not have 5?
Very well, to create the altered chord we are going to remove the 5 and alter some of the tones. The tones to alter are 9 - 11 - 13. We can alter all of them or just one, depending on what we want and what the song needs 🙃.
Root - 3 - b7 - b9 - #9 - #11 - b13
C - E - Bb - Db - D# - F# - Ab
Let's listen to those chords (C7 and C7alt):
By the way, we could write it C7(b9-#9b-5or11#), but this is too long. It is better and more practical to write C7alt.
Note: it is possible to find a score with b5 instead of #11. Don't be confused by that. There is still no 5. Some musicians do that only to highlight there is no 5th, preventing the interpreter from accidentally playing it.
Since the chord has many accidentals, the possibilities are limitless. It allows you to resolve harmonically in many ways. It is a perfect chord to enrich our compositions. An altered chord does not tell you where to go, which translates into more freedom. No wonder why it is widely used in jazz 💁.
Instead of thinking of the altered chords as complex, I invite you to think of them as "open" chords. My guitar teacher once told me that chords are like water. You can find them in different states: solid like ice or fluid like water. The more "solid" the chord, the more limited the options are going to be. He told me to always look for "open" chords with that fluid sound that give me more freedom to express myself.
🤩 What a great lesson!
When to use them
As I told you, there is no set formula. In music, anything is possible, as long as we find an elegant way to express it. The altered chord allows you to solve the harmony in different ways. However, I will share some of my favorite resolutions to give you an idea. But please don't stop there 🙅. Dare to explore and find the ones that work for you and the ones you like best.
1. IIm7b5 - V7alt - Im7
2. IIm7 - b117alt - Imaj7
3. V7alt to a major chord
You can see and listen to some examples of those resolutions here:
What makes music beautiful is the mix of prediction and surprise. Contrast is what makes a piece great. When we listen to a song, we hope to connect with the music but also being surprised. Altered chords make this possible. That's why I love them!
The last thing I want to say is, do not be afraid to experiment and fail. It's all part of the process.
See you next time,