If you want to become an excellent improviser, you need to have a solid ear. You need to have ears trained to hear anything that comes your way and ready to react quickly to your musical environment.
I’ve talked a lot about ear training on our blog because I truly believe it is one of the most important things you can do for your jazz playing. While knowing music theory and having some tricks up your sleeve is great, nothing beats having a killer set of ears. The more time we spend developing our ears, the more successful our improvisation will be.
In today’s lesson, I want to talk about being able to identify 7th chord extensions and altered extensions by ear. In the past, I’ve talked about training your ear to hear chords in general, but in this lesson, I’m going to hone in on hearing those color notes on top of the chord which we call extensions.
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What are extensions and altered extensions?
Just in case you don’t know, let me show you:
This is a basic C major scale. Each scale degree is numbered 1-7, and as you can see in the first two bars, the basic chord tones of a 7th chord (Root-3rd-5th-7th) are identified. When we number into the second octave, we continue up in numbers.
What are the possible extensions in 7th chords?
The possible extensions for any quality of 7th chord are the 9th, 11th, and 13th. Depending on the quality of chord (Major 7, Dominant 7…etc) they can also be altered or not used at all.
Notice from the example I gave you above, the blue and red circles around notes. This is important to understand. In the first two bars, the 2nd, 4th, and 6th are circled in blue. In the third and fourth bars, the 9th, 11th, and 13th are circled in red. If you are paying attention, you will notice that these are the same notes.
The 2nd is the same note as the 9th.
The 4th is the same note as the 11th.
The 6th is the same note as the 13th.
Fairly simple concept right? That’s about all the theory I want to talk about on this for now because my primary focus of this lesson is about learning to hear them. If you want a little bit more information on the theory, check out this post.
Why is identifying these chords by ear important?
Being able to hear extensions and altered extensions will give you a leg up in many ways. As a soloist, you can outline these extensions and alterations in your improvisation to add more color. That’s the role extensions play in chords anyway; they add more color and texture.
You may even want to react to an extended chord the pianist or guitarist plays. Or perhaps you play a comping instrument and will want to know when to play these kinds of chords.
This also comes in handy when learning jazz standards. Is that dominant 7th chord altered? Is there a #9, b9, or b13 in that chord? Is the melody note the 11th on that minor 7 chord? Being able to hear these extensions and alterations and understand what they are, will make a huge difference.
How to train your ear to hear 7th chord extensions.
It comes down to a little bit of ear training. I think it’s important for me to point out that you may want some other fundamentals of ear training down first. For example, if you can’t identify intervals by ear, you may want to take care of that first. Knowing intervals is really important.
You may also want to get a handle on recognizing basic 7th chords as well. If you can’t identify a major 7 from a dominant 7, and a dominant 7 from a minor 7, hearing 7th chord extensions may be a level up for you.
I’m going to go over some simple steps for training your ears to hear these chords. I’ll use several examples.
Step #1: Recognize
This is the most basic step. You need to be able to hear an extension or alteration and identify it.
Let’s start with a Dominant 9 chord. Listen to the audio below and get it in your ear. There are many ways to voice this chord, but this is just one way.
Note: the 9th does not necessarily have to be the highest note in the chord.
Play this several times and get it into your ear. Can you identify the 9th in there? If not, don’t worry about that yet. We are getting to that. For now, let’s try another chord and we’ll come back to this one later.
Let’s do a Major 13 chord. Listen to the audio below and get it into your ear.
Again, if you can’t hear the 13th in this major 7 chord, don’t worry. Just try to get the sound of this chord in your ear so that if you heard it you could recognize it immediately.
Let’s try another. This is a Minor 11 chord.
Listen to it and ingrain. Let’s do one last chord. This is an altered extension, a Dominant 7(#11).
Okay, so that’s four chords. Of course there are many more for each chord quality, but these will serve as good examples.
Step #2: Sing the extension
A lot of ear training apps and courses stop at the recognition part. But in my mind, that is only 50% of actually being able to hear something. The other half is being able to produce the pitch in question yourself.
Singing (or whistling or humming) takes the ear training to the next level. It’s one thing to recognize a sound; it’s an entirely different thing to produce it yourself. Singing ensures that you truly can hear the musical information.
Take a listen to these tracks. I’m going to go through each chord we just learned and ask you to sing the extension.
The way these tracks work are pretty simple: you’ll hear the chord played on the piano, there will be some space so you can sing the extension and then the piano will play the extension note so you can check if you were right. Make sense? You’ll get it once you try it.
Let’s start with that Dominant 9 chord. Listen to it being played and sing the 9th.
So how did you do? Did you get it right? In case you are completely at a loss for how to identify the 9th, it all comes down to knowing your intervals.
Remember how I said the 2nd is the same as the 9th? Well, if you can hear the root (the bass note) of the chord and can sing the 2nd up from it (think the second note of the major scale) you essentially are singing the 9th. Technically, the 9th is just an octave higher than the 2nd. Once you can identify that note, I guarantee that 9th will start sticking out really loud the next time you listen to it.
Let’s try the next. Sing the 13th of a Major 13 chord.
How did you do? Again, the 13th is essentially the same note as the 6th. So if you know how to sing a major 6th interval up from the root, you can get it from scratch. See how important it is to know your intervals?
Let’s do the next. Sing the 11th of a Minor 11 chord.
Remember, the 11th is the same as a 4th. So if you can sing a perfect 4th interval up from the root note, you’ve got it. Ultimately, you want just to be able to hear that note in the chord and not need to figure it out. It takes practice!
Last one. Sing the #11 of a Dominant 7(#11) chord.
Hearing these extensions and altered extensions take practice and training. That’s why it’s called ear training. This is my process, and you can apply this to all of the possibilities.
To practice this for yourself, find a friend to play some different chords for you. Identify them and sing the pitches in question. The more you develop your ear the better off you will be in all of your musical endeavors.