A Rose by Any Other Name…

"Oh darling, they're lovely... ouch - I thought they were flat, but they're actually sharp..."

“Oh darling, they’re lovely… Ouch! I thought they were flat, but they’re actually sharp…”

…would smell as sweet. (That’s yer actual Shakespeare, folks.)
But sometimes the rose isn’t what it seems. So when is a rose not a rose? When is a fifth a fourth (or eleventh) and a third not a third?

Having possibly thoroughly confused you already, I’ll get to the point. This post is a response to someone who asked me to comment on a YouTube video of someone explaining how to play Upper Structure II. For my take on Upper Structures see here, but for now all you need to know is that the girl on the video was saying you can play an A major triad over a G7 and it sounds “really jazzy and cool”. She’s right, it does… in the right places…

The video went on to describe the C#/Db in the upper triad as a “flat 5”. And that’s where I have a serious case of the frowny hmmms. Here’s why.

Okay, so a flat 5 and a sharp 4/11 sound the same, at least in equal temperament. The problem is one of perception and the way it can limit you.

I think people who call eg a C#/Db on a G7 chord a “flat 5” are blues influenced and not very up on their harmonic theory. Or at least perhaps more chordal than scalar in their thinking. Now there’s nothing wrong with “blueing” a note – 3rd, 5th, 7th. Nor is there anything wrong with playing a blues scale just about anywhere. But that is what you’re doing – you’re not really playing the underlying harmony, you’re bluesing over it.

Here’s the full scale for a G7#11 (Lydian Dominant):
G A B C# D E F
That’s 1-2-3-#4-5-6-b7. Or thinking up the thirds – 1-3-5-b7-9-#11-13

If you’re inclined to think of the C#/Db as a “flat 5” you’d get this:
1-2-3-b5-5-6-b7. Or 1-3-5-b7-9-b5-13.


See the problem? If you’re of the “flat 5” persuasion, you’re thinking of a scale with no 4th at all and both a perfect and altered 5th. Which is dodgy anyway, but the practical upshot is that you might be inclined therefore to monkey around with the perfect 4th in the scale (which has no business there) and maybe not bother with the perfect 5th at all (which does).

I’ve also come across people describing the following C7#9 chord as containing a “flat 10th”:
C E G Bb Eb/D#

Now, this sound does depend on the Eb/D# being in the octave above the E. And I can see where the “flat 10” thinking might come from – the note certainly looks like a b3rd and it’s up the octave. Plus there’s the comparison with the tenth stretch piano voicing – which is about as much as a non-genetically-modified hand can manage.

But … nope. Even trying to get around it by adding the octave number, you’re saying this chord has both a major and minor 3rd. The Eb in this context is actually a D# – a #9th, not a flat 3rd, because the scale unambiguously already contains a major 3rd (and you can’t have both). The full scales that usually go with this voicing are either of:

C Db D# E F# A G Bb
C Db D# E F# A#/Gb Bb

So, in isolation both #11ths and #9ths on dominant chords do indeed sound the same as b5ths and b3rds – and they do make the chord sound bluesy. But thinking of them in those terms is liable to lead you to including a non-chord tone and underusing a perfectly good one.

Of course, whatever works for you is fine, but be careful not to confuse yourself. And don’t let others do it to you online. Not even me!

He loved us madly, you know.

He loved us madly, you know.


Incidentally, the eager YouTube educator mentioned above was enthusiastic about sticking 7#11 chords in over II-V-Is, because they “sound cool and jazzy”. While this could be done, this chord type (aka Lydian dominant) is technically either the result of a tritone substitution or used as a modal interchange chord, where it hardly really functions as a dominant at all.

Looking at the tritone sub first – Dm7 G7#11 C is odd, Dm7 Db7#11 C is cool. Remember that G7alt = Db7#11 and Db7alt = G7#11.

The basis of modal interchange is borrowing chords from other scales or modes built on the root of the key, but if I told you that D7#11 in the key of C is borrowing the third mode of A melodic minor, I doubt you’d care or learn much useful. So don’t worry about the theory (unless you really want to).

There are a handful of interchange chords that are used very frequently in certain situations and you can just collect the ones you like as you go along. Like pets. Now pets have behaviours and need to be kept in the right environment. Our cute little furry friend here, the 7#11 interchange chord, is happy when it’s used over a II7 which then becomes IIm7, like this:

|| C | % | D7#11 | % |
| Dm7 | G7 | C | % ||

That’s Take the A Train and Girl from Ipanema (usually in F, but the structure is the same). Duke’s tune leaves you in no doubt as to the alteration – it uses the G# in both the intro and the melody.

So, depending on context, 7#11 tends to either resolve down a semitone or to the IIm7 chord on the same root. To be honest, using this chord type on the V in a vanilla II-V-I is a bit like throwing a tennis ball for your goldfish. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it, but little Bubbles is just not going to play fetch…

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping
2 comments on “A Rose by Any Other Name…
  1. Paul Sorensen says:

    This tri-tone sub business is a bit of a rant subject for me! In the first place it is not “cool” anymore unless you live under a bridge in Madagasgar! It was over used throughout the Swing era and not used much at all today. Sus chords have taken its place. If you want to sound authentic as belonging to the 1940s – go ahead – use the tri-tone sub alternative in place of your standard dominant root. Maybe you want to sound like Kenton in the 50s –
    go ahead use the Db7 instead of G7 in a V to I progression like G7 to C. One of the reasons I don’t use that, is it negates the color of the harmony at the time when having alterations in your upper structures of the five chord. If you have a G7 chord with a flat 9th and plus 5 – this structure becomes just a Db 9th chord with Db as the root. Half step chromatic harmonies are passe’. Creepy!

    • Jason says:

      Feel free to rant away. Hey, it’s what I do.
      Chromatic dibbly-doobles aren’t my favourite thing either, but they are part of the vocabulary and people have to find their own way. Personally, I’ll also usually treat a dominant as sus or just zoom off into a different key to substitute a different kind of tension. If you have the time, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the post about Whoops Arithmetic.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Books for Sale
...appetising young books for sale...

29 June – Trio with Ed Jones
27 July – Trio with Roberto Manzin
at Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec

%d bloggers like this: