Tag Archives: voicing

maximizing the use of the common “dominant shape” to voice chords from major and melodic minor

A multifaceted structure

The “dominant shape” is extremely versatile. In a tonal context, it can be used to voice all chords that are derived from melodic minor, and most chords that are derived from major (in a modal context, its use is broader yet). The degrees on which each of the chords below function are indicated in the captions below each example.

Transposable formulas (specific arrangements of chord tones and tensions, e.g. “3 13 b7 9”) are also given in the captions for each chord (in each caption, position B is listed first and position A second to be consistent with the music notation). By position A/B, it is meant “dominant shape (voicing used for the V chord) extracted from the major II-V-I progression in position A/B.”

The dominant shape is comprised of the following intervals (listed from the bottom to the top of the voicing): major third, major second, perfect fourth in position A / perfect fourth, minor second, major third in position B.

Tonal use cases

The mixolydian (dominant) chord is listed first, since it is, naturally, the one from which the thought of using the dominant shape to play other chords comes from. Then we have the altered chord, and it is interesting to note that there is a sub V (tritone substitution) relationship between the mixolydian and the altered dominant chords. Eb7 and A7alt, for example, indeed share the same guide tones (G and Db/C#), and their roots are indeed a tritone apart. As a result, one chord can be substituted for the other following the tritone substitution rule.

Works on degrees: V (major), IV (melodic minor).
Position B: 3 13 b7 9; Position A: b7 9 3 13.
Works on degrees: VII (melodic minor).
Position B: b7 #9 3 b13; Position A: 3 b13 b7 #9.

I have then chosen to list the locrian and minor 6/9 chords, since they are also widely used. In fact, a minor II-V-I can be played entirely using the dominant shapes presented here (e.g. Emi7(b5) = E A Bb D, A7alt = G C Db F, Dmi6/9 = F A B E).

Works on degrees: VII (major), VI (melodic minor).
Position B: 1 11 b5 b7; Position A: b5 b7 1 11.
Works on degrees: I (melodic minor), II (major).
Position B: 6 9 b3 5; Position A: b3 5 6 9.

Next up are the lydian and phrygian sounds, which also come in handy, albeit arguably more sporadically than the ones mentioned previously.

Works on degrees: IV (major), bIII (melodic minor).
Position B: #11 7 1 3; Position A: 1 3 #11 7.
Works on degrees: III (major), II (melodic minor).
Position B: 5 1 b9 11; Position A: b9 11 5 1.

Lastly, the mixolydian b13/aeolian sound is probably the least common of all (moreover, it is rather tricky to find an adequate chord symbol for it, so the space has been left blank).

Works on degrees: V (melodic minor), VI (major),
Position B: 9 5 b13 1; Position A: b13 1 9 5.

Practice tip

Internalize both shapes by taking them through the cycle of fifths (using different roots in the left hand for example; that way you’ll get the different sounds described above). It’s fine if you have to think about the formulas at first, but try and gradually shift towards using your ears and muscle memory exclusively. It is without question a challenging exercise… But trust yourself in the process: it will be way more fun!

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finding 5-note 2-hand voicings for half-diminished locrian chords

While focusing on a section of AfuriKo’s recent arrangement of “Kassai” during practice yesterday, I came across a mi7(b5) chord that calls for the locrian chord scale. Remembering Frank Mantooth’s approach in his Voicings for Jazz Keyboard inspired me to research possible 5-note 2-hand voicings for this chord.

So let’s quickly jot down a major scale and list all possible Quartal (Q), Generic Dominant (GD), and So What (SW) voicings that can be built under each scale degree (top note):

major harmony voicing types screen shot 1

The results are summarized in the table below:

voicing type top note
Quartal 1, 4, 5
Generic Dominant 2, 5
So What 3, 6, 7

The next step is to find suitable candidates to aurally represent our half-diminished locrian chord! It feels natural to go with those that:

  • sound best individually when trying them out against the root (C in the key of Db major) in the low register of the keyboard;
  • sound best in the context of a minor II-V-I.

You’ll notice that most of the eligible voicings include all three guide tones (namely b3, b5, and b7), which seems coherent since these notes characterize the mi7(b5) sound. One of the voicings, however, features b3 and b7 only (no b5), but still sounds strong as a mi7(b5) chord (to my ears…) so I went ahead and included it here, too.

1) The Generic Dominant voicing built underneath scale degree 2 has all four chord tones (C, Eb, Gb, Bb) and the 11th (F). Here it is notated below followed by its four inversions:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 4

Two of these inversions contain the interval of a b9. They sound dissonant and not quite appropriate for a mi7(b5) chord, so let’s go ahead and rule them out. We are left with the following three solid-sounding voicings for Cmi7(b5). From the top note down:

  • Eb Bb F C Gb
  • F C Gb Eb Bb
  • Bb F C Gb Eb

Incidentally (or not!), these notes make up the F insen pentatonic (F Gb Bb C Eb), which reveals itself as a very interesting scale to solo over Cmi7(b5).

2) The So What voicing built underneath scale degree 3 is slightly more adventurous, containing only two of the guide tones (Bb and Eb) and three tensions: the b9th (Db), the 11th (F), and the b13th (Ab). Its inversions don’t seem to function so well (again, these perceptions are of course subjective and there are no hard and fast rules…) as a mi7(b5) chord so let’s just keep the following chord, from the top note down:

  • F Db Ab Eb Bb

Now, it turns out this particular set of notes corresponds to the Db major/Bb minor pentatonic, which is thus also a valid choice to solo over Cmi7(b5).

3) The Generic Dominant voicing built under scale degree 5 contains all four chord tones (C, Eb, Gb, Bb), as well as the b13th (Ab). Here it goes with its inversion:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 6

Two of the those voicings (labeled Ab7 above) have a very distinct dominant color, but we can definitely use the other three as strong sounding half-diminished locrian chords. Spelling them from top to bottom, we have:

  • Ab Eb Bb Gb C
  • C Ab Eb Bb Gb
  • Gb C Ab Eb Bb

These notes (Ab Bb C Eb Gb) constitute the Ab dominant pentatonic scale.

4) The Quartal voicing built under scale degree 4 and the So What voicing built under scale degree 6 are in fact inversions of each other:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 5

Although the Db here creates the interval of a b9 with the underlying root (C), it is OK to go ahead and list all inversions for this chord as possible mi7(b5) voicings because b2 is a characteristic note of the locrian mode. From the top note down, we have the following five additional possibilities for Cmi7(b5):

  • Gb Db Ab Eb Bb
  • Ab Eb Bb Gb Db
  • Bb Gb Db Ab Eb
  • Db Ab Eb Bb Gb
  • Eb Bb Gb Db Ab

This last set of notes uncovers the Gb major/Eb minor pentatonic, yet another option to solo over Cmi7(b5).

To sum up, here are all twelve previously found half-diminished locrian voicings:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 8

And finally, let’s put them back in context! I have chosen minor II-V-Is with either V7(b9) or V7alt as the dominant chord:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 7


29 Oct. 2019

The in pentatonic scale (E F A B D) is also contained within the major scale and can also be used effectively to derive 5-note 2-hand voicings for half-diminished locrian chords (Bmi7(b5) in this case). The way to do it is to play the first scale degree (E), skip the second scale degree (F), play the third scale degree (A), skip the fourth scale degree (B), etc… until you’re playing all five notes simultaneously, divided between both hands. You will end up with the voicing E A D F B, and its inversions (F B E A D, A D F B E, B E A D F, and D F B E A). Some of these include the interval of a b9 within the voicing (between the notes E and F) but this doesn’t matter (in my opinion and experience) as the flatted second scale degree is a characteristic note of the locrian mode.

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