You’ve Been Taught the Wrong Chord Tones

"Pay attention at the back... chords are built in thirds..."

“Pay attention at the back. Tonic Minor… put it away, boy. Now, chords are built in thirds…”

Hold it right there – if you’ve learned jazz within the past twenty years or so, it’s likely you’ve been taught the wrong chord tones on tonic chords.

People tend to teach from the perspective of chord-scales. Which is fine. Pretty much the first thing we’re taught is to stack our chord tones in thirds.

That naturally leads people to conclude that the strong chord tones on all chord types are root, 3rd, 5th and 7th. This is fine up to a point – while it is certainly true for minor 7th and dominant 7th chords, it isn’t really the case with tonic major and minor chords.

Let’s review what each chord tone does for a living:

  • The root tells us where home base is.
  • The third indicates the quality of major or minor.
  • The fifth reinforces the root (or is altered to provide interest).
  • The seventh indicates that the chord is active, in progress towards another chord (dominant 7th) or inactive, at rest, (major 7th)

The fact is that on tonic major and minor chords, jazz musicians have overwhelmingly used the 6th, rather than the 7th, to indicate that tonic chords are at rest, resolved. This is true both of harmony and improvised melody lines.

The real  tonic chord tones are root, 3rd, 5th and 6th.

In fact, the 7th on a tonic chord has a certain abrasive quality. The reason for this becomes more clear when we consider the prospect of a tonic voicing with the root in the melody. Consider the first note of Green Dolphin Street, for instance, given here first as CΔ then C6:

Play these two basic voicings under the root and compare how they sound. The one with the major 7th in the voicing has a much less smooth feeling. The reason for this is that a dissonant minor 9th appears between the major 7th in the voicing and the melody tone above. Play just the top two notes of the first example (B and C) to hear this dissonance clearly.

Now it’s true to say that sometimes this mildly abrasive quality is actively preferred, certainly in the context of 1960s jazz onwards. Particularly with chords from melodic minor, the major 7th was increasingly used from this period onwards.

Nevertheless, if we’re talking about a “first choice” chord tone to make a tonic chord sound resolved, jazz musicians have always favoured the 6th over the 7th.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence.


For evidence of how jazz musicians have conceived chord tones in various periods of the music’s development, it’s highly instructive to look at what pianists have played underneath a melody or RH solo.

Willie "The Lion" Smith: a giant of stride piano

Willie “The Lion” Smith: a giant of stride piano

Ragtime, stride and swing piano voicings contained the 6th on a tonic chord, not the 7th. The typical shape is 1-3-5-6.

The bebop shell voicings used by Bud Powell and his contemporaries are possible with a 7th, but much more common is root with the 6th.

The rootless voicings popularised by Red Garland, Bill Evans and Wyn Kelly can use the 7th, but the most common shape is to play 3rd and 5th, add the 6th and complement it with the 9th.

Fourth voicings are inherently more ambiguous. Chord tones are built in thirds (apart from our new friend, the 6th), and the average hand can only span three fourths – so you’re only going to be able to include two chord tones. This ambiguity is not a bad thing – it’s actually an important part of the sound of 1960s jazz and beyond. The commonest fourth voicing for a tonic chord contains 3rd, 6th and 9th.

Again avoiding the 7th in favour of the 6th. Incidentally, for all that they are “modernistic”, these fourth voicings are really just thinned-out versions of the rootless voicings we just mentioned.

So, while pianists have certainly occasionally used tonic voicings with 7ths, the overwhelming evidence is that they have regarded the “finalising” chord tone on a tonic as the 6th not the 7th, throughout all periods of the music’s history.

Dexter Gordon: one of the earliest (and tallest) converts to bebop


The rationale behind passing-tone scales, of which the most widely applied have come to be known as the “bebop scales”, is to add consistent chromatic tones to the basic chord-scale so that chord tones coincide with strong downbeats. This makes for much stronger melodic construction.

Again, we find that the bebop scales used over tonic chords consider the chord tones to be root, 3rd, 5th and 6th (not 7th). Look at where the downbeats fall over C and Cm bebop scale:

Actually, it isn’t possible to add a chromatic tone to a tonic scale so as to emphasise the 7th. The root is a vital chord tone and a semitone doesn’t exist between root and 7th, so it’s impossible to emphasise both these tones in this kind of bebop-style scalar eighth-note line.


Let’s look at the block chord style developed by Milt Buckner, George Shearing and others for harmonising a melody with parallel moving voicings. The principle is to voice chord tones as tonic 6th chords and all other tones as dominant 7b9 chords. C major:

We’ve added a passing tone so as to smoothly alternate I and V chords. (Flat the 3rd and you have the tonic minor version).

This is called “four-way close” and is also the underpinning of many different styles of arranging for horns. What we’ve effectively done is harmonise the tonic bebop scale. Again, the chord tones are considered to be root, 3rd, 5th and 6th.


The “gapped scale” sound was explored at length in the 1960s by musicians such as Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Woody Shaw. If you’re tempted to think of the 6th on a tonic as a rather vintage sound, belonging more to swing and bop than modern styles, guess again. Pentatonic scales also overwhelmingly favour the 6th and omit the 7th.

Pentatonic scales are very flexible – there are many different types of pentatonic and they can be applied over lots of different chord types.

Having said that, the basic starting point is the major pentatonic scale: 1-2-3-5-6. This pentatonic scale is a melodic resource that has been used throughout history in cultures the world over. It contains the 6th and no 7th.

Granted, there are plenty of other pentatonic possibilities over a tonic chord which do contain the major 7th. For instance, over a C major chord we can also play G major pentatonic, D major pentatonic, F# half-diminished pentatonic (these last two convert the chord to CΔ+4). It is interesting to note, however, that the overwhelming majority of these other possibilities contain the 6th as well…

Once you’ve taken this principle on board, you’ll notice it everywhere. You’ll also find the improvised lines you play over tonic chords will immediately start to sound stronger. While it is possible to emphasise the major 7th in an improvised line, the 6th often sounds more idiomatic.

So don’t believe everything you hear from teachers (including me).

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping
15 comments on “You’ve Been Taught the Wrong Chord Tones
  1. i found that so hard to make a different on my chord pitching….i never know if that a right pitch or not…thats my weakeness

  2. Jason says:

    Salamat. Khabar baik?

    I’m not quite sure what you’re asking here, but I’ll make a guess and hope this helps.

    The strong tones on any chord in any style of music are 1, 3 and 5. Bach or Beyoncé – same principle. These get used at the strong points in the rhythm, the downbeats. When we play melodies we use the other scale tones as well, but we treat them as passing material – we find interesting ways of moving through them to get between the structurally important 1s, 3s and 5s to make things more interesting.

    It might be useful to think of 1,3 and 5 as the skeleton and everything else as the flesh.

  3. Adam Cole says:

    I’m very glad to see you post this. So much about what’s “inside” and “outside” in a jazz line can be explained much more easily if you understand the “four-way close” chords. While it takes some digging (pardon the pun), the four diminished chords in between the four sixth-chords can each be transformed, by moving a single note in them, into a variety of dominant seventh chords. These chords then lead to other tonalities…voila, you can instantly explain moving from the key of C to the key of E-flat.

    Enclosures are also much easier to understand using these chords as a guide. A lot of solos over a major chord contain notes from the diminished chord that leads into it. Notes that fall outside of the diminished chords are often a result of altering the chords by a single note (as mentioned above).

    It’s difficult stuff to get at, but it’s the stuff that separates the big kids from the little kids.

  4. Jason says:

    Cheers Adam. I might do something in future about harmonic pivoting on diminished chords. Awareness of this – scratch that, MASTERY of this principle is how Bill Evans could do things like modulating effortlessly and beautifully by major thirds on Here’s That Rainy Day (a stunning performance on the album Alone).

    Interesting also that detailed understanding of what is, on the surface, one of the most rinky-dink sounds in music (diminished chord) can completely unlock and free your playing on one of the most modern, avant garde sounds in jazz (Coltrane changes).

    Big topic, but I’ll put it on the list!

    • daniel says:

      This is an excellent post. Recently I have been doing a lot of research into traditional african music and ITA relation to jazz (harmony inparticular). The homophonic parallelism, use of clusters, fouths and other things you mentioned I have read in other documenta. However, your principles of the sixth is truely revolutuonary as this helps connect yet One more Link between african harmony and jazz.

      Being that the sixth is in the anhemtonic pentatonic scale it is completely consonant with the root, 3rd, 5th and 9th. Which explains 90% of chords and chord voicings in both jazz and african harmony.

      • Jason says:

        Thanks for chipping in there Daniel. Another good way of looking at things.

        For the benefit of other readers, I’ll flesh things out a bit. An anhemitonic scale is one that contains no semitones and is regarded as the most consonant of scale types. The most fundamental and natural of these is the major pentatonic, since it’s composed of as many perfect 5ths as possible without running into problems – eg for C major pentatonic, C G D A E. You can’t go any further by perfect 5ths without introducing a semitone, and not just any semitone – the leading tone of the key (in this case B), which is also known as the major 7th.

        Now dissonance isn’t a bad thing (imagine food without salt), but if you want to be purely within the harmony implied by the root note (via the natural overtones it generates) the 6th fits the bill, the 7th doesn’t.

  5. adam stroud says:

    Jason, I would love to see a lesson on that. The Dominant Diminished scale is what you and Adam Cole are alluding to, right? So for instance in the four way close voicings, you’re going along playing these usual rinky dink diminished sounds, the last one of which is spelled D, F, Ab, B but if we change the F to a G, all of a sudden we have a rootless Bb13b9 voicing that allows us to seamlessly modulate into Eb as Adam said. Am I getting warmer here?

  6. Jason says:

    You are on the right track, yup.

    The point Adam and I are riffing on is that the diminished (half-step whole-step) scale used over a dominant 7b9 chord is a symmetrical structure – it repeats every minor 3rd.

    So G7b9 is essentially the same thing as Bb7b9, Db7b9 and E7b9. We can decide to regard them in this light and resolve them as Vs to their own Is – C, Eb, Gb and A – whenever we like.

    (There’s more to this and there are other ways of handling diminished chords as pivots, so that you can convincingly modulate just about anywhere you want. But that really is for another day!)

    Welcome on board.

  7. Doug says:

    Hi Jason
    You probably already know that it is not only “jazz musicians (that) have always favoured the 6th over the 7th” (for the tonic chord). This is something that goes back centuries. If one studies counterpoint (the precursor to harmony), one finds that in counterpoint the most used consonant intervals (vertically) are the 3rd and the 6th (to a lesser extent the 5th, octave and unison). The interval of a 7th was viewed as a dissonant – not to be used on the beat (except for 7-6 suspensions).

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for commenting Doug.
      I’d love there to be more awareness of counterpoint in jazz – after all, at its heart jazz is all about two-part counterpoint between solo and bass.
      But sadly it seems that even many jazz arrangers are wanting in the wig and quill department. Jazz has certainly been treated more academically over the past 50 years or so, but some elements of musical tradition seem to be excluded – perhaps on the grounds that they’re seen as too academic, too rigorous or just not relevant.
      A shame, since study of counterpoint and chorales can pay dividends for inner-voice movement when comping and it’s even possible to improvise in a fugato spirit, if not necessarily fully fugally.
      In any event, jazz as it is actually played seems to have come to the traditional/classical/theoretical conclusion re 6th and 7th. So it’s strange to me why it’s still largely taught as “stacks of thirds”.
      Best, J

    • Doug says:

      In writing that the 7th was “not to be used on the beat” in counterpoint, I should have written: “not to be used on the strong beats” (with the exception of 7-6 suspensions). For example, vertical intervals of a 7th were used when one of the tones was a passing tone on a weak beat.

  8. Matthieu says:

    Really interested article! Given the 9-11 (more like #11)-13 are considered extensions on Major7th Chords, forming the the Major Scale, what would be the case with Major6th Chords? What is the role of the 7th in a Major6th Chord? Can we say it’s a color tone or is it to be omitted completely?

    • Jason says:

      Hi Matt. All I can tell you is the way I tend to feel things (which is just one way of many and of course, it’s all about context).
      On major tonic chords, 1 3 5 6 are solid and tame. 2/9 is a bit more juicy. 7 is a bit more colourful, and #4/#11 is the really punchy one. You can think of it as assembling pentatonics in order. Say we’re playing over a C tonic chord. 1 3 5 6 and 2/9 give us C pentatonic (pure). Adding 7 gives us the option to pick out G pentatonic (looser). Then adding #4/#11 gives us the option to play D pentatonic (Lydian).
      On minor tonic chords, it’s much the same order except the natural 4/11 is almost as friendly as the 2/9, and the major 7 is the punchy one. Playing a minor 7 is actually a substitution of Dorian for tonic, but it sounds nice and is done often. This often gives a rather more bluesy tint to the proceedings, in which case the 4/11 is especially at home.
      Hope you see what I mean here. Thanks for dropping by anyway.

  9. Tim says:

    So to simplify, your saying in a 2-5-1 progression like Dm7, G7, Cmaj7, the Cmaj7 should be Cmaj6. Is this correct or am I way off?

    • Jason says:

      Hi Tim. What I’m saying is it can be both, but the go-to choice is a 6th. On many charts you’ll actually see C6, C69 or even just C. And even when it isn’t written as a 6th chord it’s often played as one.
      A lot of people reflexively write Cm7 for a minor I. Now sometimes they do specifically want a Dorian sound there, but more often than not it should be a tonic minor sound, so gets played more as Cm6, Cm69 or just Cm.
      In all those cases there’s no specific reference to the 7th in the chord notation, but in my experience when it’s played, it’s more often a major 7th (on both major and minor tonics) – rather than a dominant 7th (as in the Dorian sound). Hope that clarifies things.
      PS The standard chord notation system is shorthand – it implies a lot. Of course, jazz musicians like to fill things in to give them more meat to work with – and sometimes their choices are rather creative. These could be additions, alterations or outright substitutions. So you might hear a #4th used on a chord that’s notated just C6. Or more unusually, a #5th. If the person writing the chart specifically wants those signs, they’d write something like C+4/CLyd or C+5/CLydAug.
      On some charts, people like to be really specific and you’ll see chord symbols written with 2, 3 or even 4 specific alterations. These are usually to go with quite specific tones in the melody or arrangement and often get treated very flexibly during the solos.
      Thanks for dropping by. And feel free to ask further.

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