Upper Structures


Here Aimee Nolte shows us some ways we can stack a triad on top of the dominant 7th chord

1 3 5 ♭7

She plays this chord in C so it’s called C7. The 5th is so obvious and bland she often leaves it out, giving what’s called a ‘shell voicing’

1 3 ♭7

Then she puts a triad on top of this, giving ‘upper structures’ like a 9th, 11th or 13th.

This is right at my level now, so I like it. Let me say a bit about it.

The first one she plays is called a ‘C dominant 13 flat 9’. This amounts to

1 3 ♭7 ♭9 10 13

10 is an octave up from 3 so she calls it a 3, and she explains why it’s not bad to double the 3 an octave up this way.

More importantly she points out that you can think of the extra notes

♭9 10 13

as a major triad (in first inversion). So we’re stacking a triad on top of dominant 7th chord.

She jokes: “Dude my chords are stacked.”

She then stacks other major triads on the dominant 7th and sees what they give.

For example, the one I just explained stacks an A major triad on the C7 chord and gives us the C dominant 13 flat 9 or C13♭9 chord.

But she rules out the triads that include the 4 or 7, or more precisely the notes an octave higher than those, the 12 and 15. The first is a minor 9th above our 3, the second a minor 9th above our ♭7. The minor 9th is dissonant!

"No bueno", she decrees.

Being a bit rebellious, I want to practice all ways of stacking a triad on top of a dominant 7th chord, including the dissonant "no bueno" ones. I might decide I like those dissonant ones… or maybe not.

Here is a chart of upper structure chords:

Upper Structure LH    RH    RH Triad Chord Name
USII E B♭ D F# A E♭ C7#11
US♭III E B♭ E♭ G B♭ E♭ C7#9
US♭V E B♭ D♭ G♭ B♭ G♭ C7♭9#11
US♭VI E B♭ E♭ A♭ C A♭ C7#9♭13
USVI E B♭ A C# E A C7♭9 13
USIm E B♭ E♭ G C Cm C7#9
US♭IIm E B♭ F♭ A♭ D♭ D♭m C7♭9♭13
US♭IIIm E B♭ E♭ G♭ B♭ E♭m C7#9#11
US#IVm E B♭ C# F# A F#m C7♭9#11
USVII E B♭ F B♭ D B♭ C7sus

These chords have standard names in jazz, which are listed under Upper Structure. For example the first is USII, meaning an upper structure chord where we stack a major II on the dominant 7th. If you know what you’re doing, these names are enough to reconstruct the chords!

The column LH say what the left hand plays if you’re using the key of C. Here, unlike in Aimee Nolte’s video, the left hand always plays a ‘rootless’ voicing of the dominant 7th. That, instead of playing the dominant 7th in its original form:

1 3 5 ♭7

we leave out the 5th and also the root, so we play only

3 ♭7

which in C means the two notes E and B♭.

The column RH says what the right hand plays. It’s always a triad, which is shown under RH Triad. So RH Triad gives a compressed version of the same information, and a good musician would probably prefer this compressed form.

You may wonder why the chords are listed in the order they are. It’s not random! The chords with major triads are listed first, then the chords with minor triads, and finally one with a diminished triad: USVII.

These chords also have other names, which are listed under Chord Name. These names include the key the chord is played in: for simplicity they’re listed here in the key of C. Here USII is also called C7#11, because it’s a dominant 7th with a 9th and a sharped 11th stacked on top. The 9th is left unspoken here: we could call this chord C79#11 but people consider that notation inefficient. But the 9th were sharped or flatted, we need to mention it. For example US♭V is C7♭9#11.

I find these other names confusing, because they’re not completely logical and people seem to use different conventions. I’ve gotten the names from this page:

Upper structures.

but other names seem more common. For example, the USVI chord, which I discussed at length above, is usually called C13♭9, but this page calls it C7♭9. That makes no sense to me since it omits the 13. So was it a typo, or just a notation I don’t understand? In an effort at logical consistency I made up a name I’ve never seen elsewhere: C7♭9 13. Please don’t take this one seriously!

Do you know a really careful, detailed treatment of upper structure chords, with nice complete charts?

If you find this stuff intimidating or otherwise unpleasant, I recommend ignoring it and watching Aimee Nolte’s video, since she derives the information in this list from first principles in a friendly commonsense way.

Alternatively, you can just sit down at a piano, play some of the chords, and enjoy how they sound. I’m nowhere near able to deploy these chords in improvisation, the way a good jazz musician could—mainly because I don’t tend to improvise with dominant 7ths in the left hand. But at least I can play these chords and enjoy them! And I hope someday I’ll incorporated them in my improvisations.

11 Responses to Upper Structures

  1. Aimee Nolte says:

    Beautifully written. Thanks for the shoutout!

  2. richardelwes says:

    Very nice! In the top row of the table I think the RH Triad for USII should say D not Eb.

    I guess C7♭9 is a typo for C13♭9. I don’t think it’s necessary to include the 7 as that’s generally taken as given, at least in jazz.

    • John Baez says:

      Yes, the RH triad for USII is D! I’ll fix that.

      I guess C7♭9 is a typo for C13♭9.

      Okay, thanks.

      I don’t think it’s necessary to include the 7 as that’s generally taken as given, at least in jazz.

      Makes sense, but do we omit the 7 just in this one chord? Wikipedia doesn’t always omit them: for example, it calls the USii chord C7♯9. I don’t get the logic.

      At the other extreme, the chart I copied gives names for upper structures that include the 7, like C7#11 for USII and so on. Now I think that’s another typo! Wikikpedia calls the USII upper structure C13♯11, which makes more sense.

      I would use Wikipedia’s notation throughout, but the chart I copied includes more chords. I need an authoritative complete source. I’ve had trouble finding one!

      • richardelwes says:

        That ghostly 7 is a bit mysterious I agree.

        C13 definitely implies to me including a 7th – if you didn’t want it you’d write C6.

        Likewise C9 to me implies including the 7th, while Cadd9 (or Cadd2) implies omitting it.

        However when the added notes are not diatonic the “7” seems to be included, so looking through my Real book, I see C9 but C7♯9, as you say.

        I’m not sure there is any ultimate authority on this stuff, but you’ve got Aimee

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks! I’m not expecting a single ultimate authority, but just a better understanding of the range of different conventions on notation, and the logic behind them. I’m in a situation a bit like someone trying to learn algebraic K-theory from YouTube videos, random websites and Wikipedia. So it’s good to talk to actual people who know something and can answer questions. So thanks! And I see there are some appealing books out there on jazz harmony.

        • richardelwes says:

          The more I think about this, I suspect the main reason for writing C7♯9 (but C9 with the 7 implicit) is to avoid ambiguity between “C ♯9” and “C♯ 9”. Quite a boring answer if so!

        • John Baez says:

          That’s at least a plausible, practical answer! Thanks!

  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    You might enjoy Rick Beato’s YouTube channel. He also gets into music theory a bit (and even offers a course in it). Pretty interesting channel for music lovers.

    • John Baez says:

      I watch a lot of Rick Beato! His video on Messiaen’s scales of limited transposition was got me into music theory videos on YouTube in the first place. But I find his theory videos a bit rushed; these days I mainly enjoy his more general discussions of music and interviews of musicians. For light, fun music theory I’m enjoying David Bennett – for example, his series about modes and scales. And for more serious stuff, there’s mDecks Music. For example, check out their insane Universal Encyclopedia Of Scales , which lists and carefully discusses all 2048 subsets of the 12-tone equal-tempered scale.

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