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When to use extended chords in songwriting

when to use extended chords in songwriting

There are situations when extended chords can be used when we write a song. In this article, I will go through some of these situations, and show you how you can decide whether you should use an extended chord or not.

But first, I would like to make it clear what are extended chords.

A triad contains a root note, a third, and a fifth. For example, C – E – G

A seventh chord contains one more note: a seventh chord tone. For example, Cmaj7 = C – E – G – B

An extended chord is everything “beyond” the seventh chords.

C9 = C – E – G – Bb – D

C#11 = C – E – G – Bb – D – F# (I use #11 for example because the perfect 11 doesn’t sound good with a major chord!)

C13(#11) = C – E – G – Bb – D – F# – A

Here is a secret: Extended chords are nothing more than seventh chords with some added coloring notes.

No matter what chord we are talking about, the most important chord tones beyond a triad are: the root, the third, and the seventh. Everything else is just coloring. Just think about it, even in jazz music, where they play crazy extended chords, they only indicate these three notes with the chords symbols!

For example, if you see a Cm7 chord symbol, the “C” represents the root note. The “m” represents the third (minor chord), and the “7” represents the seventh (minor seventh).

Even though the chord symbol is only Cm7, the jazz pianist can play any of these chords:

Cm11 (C – Eb – G – Bb – D)

Cm69 (C – Eb – G – A – D)

Cmmaj9 (C – Eb – G – B – D)

Here is the simplest answer to how you can decide whether you should use an extended chord in songwriting or not: Does it sound good? Use your ears! If it sounds good TOGETHER with the melody, then use it!

However, there are some situations when they can be used in songwriting, so let’s see what are these situations.

If you write jazz songs

Obviously extended chords are mostly used in jazz music, so there is no question you can use extended chords if you write jazz songs. In fact, in jazz, it’s considered a sin NOT to use extended chords! Seriously.

However, it’s mostly up to the pianist or the guitar player what kinds of extended chords they want to play. If you are not playing those instruments, you can just write simple chord symbols of seventh chords.

At the same time, if you arrange horns or even a big band, you should definitely use extended chords when you harmonize the horns!

For “smooth” chord progressions

Some genres use “smooth” chord progressions. For example, think about Jamiroquai, Incognito, Sade, Mezzoforte.

Some of these styles are: funk, r&b, and “smooth jazz” (obviously). But the song “Happy” by Pharrel Williams is also using smooth chords.

What are smooth chords?

These songs mostly use minor seventh and major seventh chords. (for example, Cm7 or Cmaj7). These chords have a very smooth sound, hence the name “smooth”.

However, you can’t extend any seventh chord, especially in popular genres. Let’s look at the song “Happy” for example.

Here is the chord progression:

Dbmaj7 – Cm7 – Cm7 – F7

For the first chord, I can easily use a Dbmaj9 chord (Db – F – Ab – C – Eb), and it sounds good with the original melody. In fact, there is almost no difference between the sound of a maj7 or a maj9 chord.

But if I want to try a #11 or a 13 chord on the Dbmaj7, they don’t sound good with the melody!

Let’s see the next chord: Cm7. Now play the chord Cm9 and sing the melody. Does it sound good together? No, I don’t think so.

So as I said, always follow your ears!

Let’s take a look at another song, “Thank U Next” by Ariana Grande. This is an R&B song with very jazzy chords:

Gbmaj7 – F7 – Bbm7 – Db7

This chord progression is a little bit jazzier than the previous one. So let’s try out some extended chords in this song. I encourage you to play the chords and sing the melody with them so you can hear how they sound together.

Gbmaj7

For the first chord, let’s try the chord Gbmaj9 (Gb – Bb – Db – F – Ab). Does it sound good with the melody? We already know that there is not much difference between a maj7 and a maj9 chord, so yes, it sounds good.

What about a Gbmaj#11? (Gb – Bb – Db – F – Ab – C) Does it sound good with the melody? It’s not bad, but different. It sounds jazzier with the #11 chord tone.

In this situation, I would omit the fifth because it doesn’t sound good with the #11, so the chord is: Gb – Bb – F – Ab – C

How about Gbmaj13(#11)? (Gb – Bb – F – Ab – C – Eb) The melody note is an Eb, so there is no question that this chord is usable. But again, there is not much difference from the previous chord.

F7

Let’s see the next chord which is F7. Since this song is in the key of Db major or Bb minor, the chord tone “9” doesn’t sound good, but we can use a “b9” or “#9”.

I prefer the sound of F7(#9) in this situation (F – A – C – Eb – G#) The altered #5 also sounds better for my ears. (F – A – C# – Eb – G#) Play this chord with the melody to hear how it sounds!

How about 11 and 13 chords? You can try those chords with the melody, I don’t think they sound very good.

Bbm7

The next chord is Bbm7. We can use a Bbm9 (Bb – Db – F – Ab – C) Sounds good with the melody. How about Bbm11? It’s totally OK for me.

What about a 13 chord? Well, in this case, I encourage you to play the chord, and decide yourself if you like it or not! It’s important to sing the melody with the chord.

Db7

Let’s take a look at the last chord. Can we use a Db9 chord here? (Dd – F – Ab – B – Eb) Yes, it definitely sounds good!

What about the #11 and the 13? Since the Db#11 doesn’t sound good in this situation (Db – F – Ab – B – Eb – G), we cannot talk about the Db13.

(Because if there is no 11, then there is no 13 chord either.) The chord tone 13 (Bb) would sound good, but if there is no 11, then it’s not a 13 but a 6.

So the only chord that sounds good here is Db9/6 = Db – F – B – Eb – Bb

So here is how I play the final result on the piano, the “reharmonized” chord progression with extended chords:

when to use extended chords in songwriting

If you write a song in Lydian mode

I explained in a previous post that there is no such thing as Lydian chord progression. However, there are CHORDS that evoke the Lydian mode.

If you use a major #11 chord on the tonic I. chord (for example, the chord Cmaj#11 in the key of C major), it will give you the sound of the Lydian mode.

However, you don’t necessarily need to use an extended chord for this purpose! You can use an “add” chord for creating the Lydian mode. For example, Cadd#11.

What’s the difference?

An “add” chord is NOT an extended chord, even though it contains the #11. An “add” chord is only a triad with an added note.

This is an extended chord: Cmaj#11 = C – E – G – B – D – F#

This is NOT an extended chord: Cadd#11 = C – E – G – F# (You can omit the fifth, and play only C – E – F#)

You can hear this in the song When We Dance by Sting. The song is in the key of E major, and he plays a chord Eadd#11. Listen to the song here:

If you write a Christmas song

Think about the most popular Christmas songs of all time, for example, “Let It Snow” (Dean Martin), White Christmas (Frank Sinatra). They are all from an era when popular music was highly influenced by jazz. And take a look at the chords of “All I Want For Christmas” (Mariah Carey). This song is also full of jazzy chords.

But we don’t need to go that far in time. Check out the song “Santa Tell Me” by Ariana Grande from 2014. This song is also full of jazzy seventh chords.

So if you write a Christmas song, you definitely need seventh chords… which means you CAN use extended chords too!

Conclusion

You can use extended chords in songwriting when the chord progression contains seventh chords. These situations are:

– When you write a jazz song.

– When you write a smooth chord progression (r&b, funk, smooth jazz).

– When you want to write a song in Lydian mode.

– When you write a Christmas song.

However, you always need to follow your ears and listen if the extended chord sounds good with the melody.

But the question is, do you NEED to use extended chords? Extended chords will make your song sound jazzier. If this is your goal, then absolutely, go for it!

Musicians tend to believe that extended chords are the “holy grail” of music. No, they’re not. And I made the same mistake as a young musician. I started learning classical music at the age of 8, and I started to use extended chords at the age of 16. At that time, I believed that extended chords are the “magic key” to create great music.

I realized that there is nothing special in jazzy extended chords, in fact, they can be really boring after a while, and there are other (probably even more important) aspects of a great song. So extended chords don’t necessarily make music better. It’s just a tool, and kind of a style.

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.