Jazz Chords For Dummies

Probably one of the most prominent characteristics of jazz music is it’s rich harmony.  As opposed to many other forms of music, it’s full of intricate chord progressions and full bodied chords. To an outsider looking in, it can look a little bit intimidating, but truly anyone with a basic knowledge of chord structures is not too far off!

Calling a chord a “jazz chord” may be a bit misleading. These chords are present in other styles of music no doubt, but in jazz they are nothing short of common place! You will want to have a firm understanding of all of these chords in order to help you learn jazz standards and get your jazz chops into shape. These chords are not just for piano players, guitar players, and other chordal instruments. Every instrumentalist should know and understanding these chords, as they are essential for learning how to improvise in a jazz setting!

For our purposes, I will be demonstrating everything with the root note of C and giving numeric formula’s for each chord. Note that the numeric formulas are based off of each chords respective scale. For example there are 8 tones in a C major scale (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8) and for each number is a note (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C). I will also provide examples of where the notes lay on the piano keyboard. These are not suggested voicings, simply just a visual aid to help you see them placed in order. Also if you want to practice improvising on any of these chords, check out our Jazz Chord Workouts.

Let’s dive in and start identifying and discovering all of the chords you will need to know to play jazz:

Major 7th Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-7th

Notes for Cmaj7: C-E-G-B

This is a basic major 7th chord which is commonly used as a I chord of a given key center. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Major 7th

Major 9th Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-7th-9th

Notes for Cmaj9: C-E-G-B-D

This chord is an extension of the Major 7th chord. You are basically adding the 9th to the top of the voicing. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Major 9th

Major 7(b5) Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-b5-7th

Notes for Cmaj7(b5): C-E-Gb-B

This chord is also often used as a I chord in a given key and is sometimes substituted for the Cmaj7 for more of a Lydian approach. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cmaj7(b5)

Major 6/9 Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-6th-9th

Notes for C6/9: C-E-A-D

This one is often either written out as a I chord in a tune or simply used as a replacement for a major 7th chord. Note that the 6th replaces the 5th and the 7th is left out. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C6-9

Dominant 7th Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-b7

Notes for C7: C-E-G-Bb

Dominant 7th chords are used for many different purposes. In a blues it can represent the I7 or IV7 chord. It often is used as a V chord moving to a I, or it can sometimes be substituted for a minor vi chord among others. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C7

Dominant 9 Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-b7-9th

Notes for C9: C-E-G-Bb-D

This chord can be substituted for most dominant 7th chords and is simply adding the 9th as an extension. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C9

Dominant 7(b9) Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-b7-b9

Notes for C7(b9): C-E-G-Bb-Db

This is another extension of a dominant 7th chord which is often used to voice lead to a I chord.  Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C7(b9)

Dominant 7(#9) Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-5th-b7-#9

Notes for C7(#9): C-E-G-Bb-Eb(D#)

This is another dominant 7 extension that can add tension leading to the I chord, but it can also be used in a blues situation on the I7 chord. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C7(#9)

Dominant 7(#5) Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-#5-b7

Notes for C7(#5): C-E-G#-Bb

This is also used to provide tension as a V chord going to a I chord, but there are times where you can see this used modaly such as in JuJu. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C7(#5)

Dominant 7(b5) Chord

Formula: Root-3rd-b5-b7

Notes for C7(b5): C-E-Gb-Bb

This chord can also be a dominant 7(#11) chord if you us the b5(#11) as an extension. You will see this chord specifically asked for in certain jazz standards. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

C7(b5)

Minor 7th Chord

Formula: Root-b3-5th-b7

Notes for Cm7: C-Eb-G-Bb

These chords can be used in many situations such as a minor i chord, or a minor vi, iv, iii or ii chord. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cm7

Minor 9 Chord

Formula: Root-b3-5th-b7-9

Notes for Cm9: C-Eb-G-Bb-D

This is a common extension to the minor 7 chord best used on a minor i, iv, or ii chord.  Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cm9

Minor 6 Chord

Formula: Root

Notes for Cm6: C-Eb-G-A

This chord is often substituted for a i chord minor 7 or originally written that way.  Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cm6

Minor 7(b5) Chord

Formula: Root-b3-b5-b7

Notes for a Cm7(b5): C-Eb-Gb-Bb

This chord is almost always used as a ii chord in a minor ii-V-i. From time to time it is also used as a passing chord. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cm7(b5)

Diminished 7th Chord

Formula: Root-b3-b5-bb7

Notes for a Cdim7: C-Eb-Gb-A

Diminished 7 chords have an entire study of theory around them, so they can be substituted and used in many different ways. Some common uses are passing chords or substitutions for a dominant 7(b9) chord. Here’s what the notes look like on the piano:

Cdim7

There are some more chords lurking in the shadows, but these are certainly the most common and will give you a great start to understanding jazz harmony!

-Brent Vaartstra

To learn more about this author visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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