Richer Piano Chord Voicings with Quartals

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Using Quartals To Make Richer Chord Voicings

I love the sound of those big, fat jazz chords. Don’t you? Those tensions and ‘extra’ notes really make the song go from dull to dazzling. Creating these rich chord voicings becomes much easier when we use quartals.

A quartal is two stacked intervals. It is two perfect fourths stacked on top of one another. The interval from C to F is a perfect fourth. If we add another perfect fourth above F, we’d get Bb. C-F-Bb played together becomes a quartal.

example 1

Before adding quartals to our chords, let’s break down the basic C Major 7th chord.

The plain ‘ol “block” chord for C Maj 7 is C-E-G-B.

example 2 - c major 7th block chord

C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth and B is the seventh.

You’ll notice that I referred to the chord as a block chord. It is called a block chord because it sounds “blocky” but also because it is built by stacking thirds on top of one another. This is called a tertial chord voicing because it is made up of only thirds.

Creating chords using only stacked thirds is a fine way of making chords, but after a while they sound bland to the ears. Triads are another example of a tertial chord voicing.

We can add a lot of spice to our chords by replacing or re-arranging the notes of our chords. This process is called creating new voicings. Voicings are how chords are constructed. For example a C Major triad is C, E and G. If we play C-E-G, E-G-C or G-C-E, we have played the triad in three different voicings. An inversion is one way of quickly creating a new voicing for a chord and that is exactly what I just did to the C Major triad. C-E-G is root position. E-G-C is first inversion and G-C-E is second inversion.

Now, let’s “spice up” our C Major 7th chord by adding some quartals.

The first step is to remove unnecessary notes from the block chord to create a “shell”. In the left hand, play C, E and B. I removed the G, which is the fifth, because it does not define the quality of the chord. We need the E and B to know that the quality of this chord is a Major seventh. We keep the C, the root, so that our ears know which chord it is. Otherwise, without a root, the chord might sound like an E chord or many others.

example 3 - chord shell

In the right-hand, add a quartal starting on the 9th.The Quartal & Pentatonic Improvisation DVD comes with a handy chart that makes it easy to pick out the quartals.

chord chart

In the example below, you can see I’ve built a quartal starting on the 9th. Now, I like to think of building from the bottom up, so the bottom note is the 9th, the middle note is the 5th and the top note is the root. Play this with your right-hand.

example 4 - quartal built on the 9th

Now we can put the two hands together to get a very rich chord.

example 5 - rich quartal voicing

You might hear that the chord sounds a little “tense”. This is because the root (C) in the right-hand is conflicting with the major seventh (B) in the left-hand. An easy way to avoid this tension is to replace the seventh in the left-hand with the 6th, A. Example below:

example 6 - replace the seventh with sixth

Other options for forming rich Major seventh chords include building quartals starting on the 3rd and 6th. Here are two examples:

Built on the 3rd:
example 7 - built on the 3rd

Built on the 6th:
example 8 - built on the 6th

More to explore...

Jazzedge Teachers

Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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  1. You now have my attention, my question is,
    how do you learn to remember all this?

  2. Wonderful tutorials but for how long can one use in order to learn all these beautiful chords?

  3. i am ptrtty old and very hard of hearing but i find these lectures are extremely helpfulto me because you talk so fast in the videos i cant always understand. also im finding that after having exposed myself to some of this theory in the videos these small written lectures clarify a lot for me. thanks keep them coming

  4. This opens up a path to explore new richer sounds in my harmonies.
    Good lesson to understand the theory.
    Thanks Willie