Upper-Structure Voicing 101

…shortcuts for playing fancy chords that have more notes than you can handle because you don’t really play the piano.

I like to think I can “fake it” OK on the piano. I know basic major and minor chords, and also I learned “Desperado” when I was 17 years old, so I can always sit down at a party, play “Desperado”, and walk away with people assuming I have a million more ready to go. I recommend this strategy for everyone. I mean, don’t actually pick Desperado, because then the game is up for me, but pick one slow song with a few fancy chords in it, and most non-musicians in a room will assume you’re as good as the person who plays Chopin right after you.

With that said, I’m always looking for ways to squeeze more functionality out of my mediocre piano ability. In particular, I usually have to take the “drop all the chord extensions” strategy, e.g. by playing m7’s and m9’s and m11’s and mwhatever’s as just min. This is what they call a “tell”, and it quickly shatters the illusion that I know what’s going on. I do write a blog about nerdy chord theory stuff, so I know what an F11 is, but my piano-playing-brain simply can’t process anything that defies the following two axioms of piano playing…

Dan’s two axioms of piano playing:

  1. The left hand plays the root of every chord.
  2. The right hand only has to play three notes at a time, and only in the shape of a chord I know.

These assumptions cause a rift in the fabric of the universe when I see the aforementioned F11, or even its much simpler four-note cousin F7. But there’s hope! Using the time-tested strategy of memorizing stuff that’s too much to actually process in real time, one can pick up a few chord voicings that follow those two axioms (axia?) and still represent the chord you’re trying to play.

So, summarizing:

The tables in this post are a shortcut to help mediocre piano players (like me) who can only deal with 3 notes at a time in the right hand – and only the root in the left hand – play extended chords.

The basic approach is “upper structure voicing”: playing a complete chord in the right hand that becomes part of a different chord when you put the two hands together. Upper structure voicing in general could in theory make use of a zillion notes in each hand, so we’re interested in a specific subset of upper structure voicing, so more specifically:

This post is about upper-structure-voiced chords that don’t require playing anything other than the root in the left hand, and only require three notes in the right hand.

So without further fanfare, let’s figure out some shortcuts for the most important set of chords with more than three notes in them: sevenths.


Voicing 7th chords with only three notes in the right hand

To build a…Play a…Starting on the…E.g.
maj7minormajor thirdCmaj7 = Em (E,G,B) over a C
7diminishedmajor thirdC7 = Edim (E,G,Bb) over a C
min7majorminor thirdAmin7 = C (C, E, G) over an A
m7b5minorminor thirdAm7b5 = Cm (C, Eb, G) over an A
dim7diminishedminor thirdAdim7 = Cdim (C, Eb, Gb) over an A

So, for example, if I want to play a Cmaj7, I could play an Em chord in the right hand with a C in the left hand, i.e. as “Em/C”:

Sounds major-seven-y, right?

Let’s put that together into an example… if I’m playing “Dream On” in Em, I might write it as:

[Em]Every [Bm7]time that I [Cmaj7]look in the [F#m7b5]mirror
[Em]All these [Bm7]lines on [Cmaj7]my face getting [F#m7b5]clearer

So the progression is:

[Em][Bm7][Cmaj7][F#m7b5]

But if a Bm7b5 is asking a lot of my right hand, I could play the same progression as:

[Em][D/B][Em/C][Am/F#] 

This trick becomes even more important for me when the chords move quickly, and there’s no possible way I could get four fingers down with every chord, a la:

Some[F]wher[Dm7]e [Gm7] be[C7]yond the
[F]Sea [Dm7] some[Gm7]where [C7]waiting for 
[F]Me [A7] [Dm7] my [C7]lover 
[F]Stands on [Dm7]golden [Bb]sands [D7] [Gm7] 
And [C7]watches the [F]ships [Dm7]that go 
[G]Sailing[C]

…but I can keep up if I play it as:

[F][F/D][Bb/G][Edim/C]
[F][F/D][Bb/G][Edim/C]
[F][C#dim/A][F/D][Edim/C]
[F][F/D][Bb][F#dim/D][Bb/G][Edim/C]
[F][F/D][G][C]

Even when I can play the four-note chords with my right hand, that’s a long way from being able to play them while I’m singing, and even further from being able to play them with any amount of embellishment. I.e., taking a finger out of each chord frees up a bit of your brain to do other things.

Here’s an example where I can just barely (and, I won’t lie, with multiple takes) play the full right-hand chords:

I can [Cm7]see it in your e[F]yes
I can s[Bbmaj7]ee it in your sm[Ebmaj7]ile
You are [Abmaj7]all I ever wa[Daug]nted[D]
And my [Gm]arms are [F/A]open [Bb]wide [F/A]

But I can play the same chords as:

[Eb/C][F]
[Dm/Bb][Gm/Eb]
[Cm/Ab][Daug][D]
[Gm][F/A][Bb][F/A]

…and have fingers left over to actually make it interesting:

You might argue the upper-structure version is actually more confusing to read: “Cmin7” is more concise and more familiar than “Eb/C”. That’s true, but I guarantee the latter is easier to play, and you’d never really write it out this way. The idea is that with some practice, you make the jump in your head. Again, I won’t lie, I’m not there yet, but I can feel the min7 at the end of the rainbow.

One more example, loaded with maj7’s, which are especially useful to convert to upper-structure, for reasons I’ll get to in a second. First, the full-chords-in-the-right-hand version:

[Dmaj7]Tired of lying in the sunshine, [Amaj7]staying home to watch the rain
[Dmaj7]You are young and life is long and [Amaj7]there is time to kill today
[Dmaj7]And then one day you find [C#m7]ten years have got behind you
[Bm7]No one told you when to run, [E]you missed the starting gun

That’s a lot of maj7’s. Or is it? Now the upper-structure version:

[F#m/D][C#m/A][F#m/D][C#m/A]
[F#m/D][E/C#][D/B][E]

Using upper-structure voicings comes with a special bonus when there are lots of maj7’s to be played: when you voice a maj7 with all four notes, you almost never want to put the maj7 right next to the root (because, e.g., playing a C and a B together sounds like garbage). This means you basically have to play them without inverting, which (a) makes you move your hands around a ton because you don’t have any choices and (b) makes your chords sound boring because you’re not using any inversions. So the upper-structure version of “Time” is easier and sounds better.

Incidentally, as you may have noticed, no amount of clever chord voicing can make you a great singer.


What about chords that aren’t 7ths?

This works great for seventh chords, but not all four-note chords can be simplified this way. For example, there’s not really a meaningful way to describe a C6 chord (C,E,G,A) in less than four right-hand notes. Of course you can just play A,E,G in your right hand, but A,E,G, doesn’t shake out very nicely as a chord you can remember in a table, and the point of this is post to make tables that help you remember stuff.

But if you’re willing to leave some notes out, you can stick to the three-note-chord-in-the-right-hand rule, and still voice some chords that should have more than four notes. For example:

Voicing five- and six-note chords with only four notes in the right hand

To build a…Play a…Starting on the…E.g.
11 (sort of)majorb7C11 = Bb (Bb, D, F) over a C
9 (sort of)minor5C9 = Gm (G, Bb, D) over a C
maj9 (sort of)major5Cmaj9 = G (G, B, D) over a C

The first example there is a C11, which would need six notes to be played in its full 11-i-fied glory, which is way past our rule of 1 note in the left hand and three in the right. So if you play it as Bb/C, you’re leaving out the third and fifth of the chord (E and G), but playing the 7, 9, and 11 does a good job getting the gist of the 11 chord. This might just be my favorite voicing in this whole post.

In the second example (C9), again you’d need four notes in the right hand to make it really work, but we’ll leave that to people who really know how to play piano. If you play it as Gm/C, you’re leaving out the third, but the listener basically knows what the third is, and it’s the 7 and 9 you really want to sneak in there to make it sound 9-ish. So let’s look at an example that uses upper-structure-voiced 9ths and 11ths:

The [Am]long and winding road [G11]
That [C]leads [C7]to your door[F] [Fmaj9]
[F]Will ne[Em7]ver disap[Am]pear
[Dm7]I've seen that r[G7]oad before[C11]
[F]It [Em7]always lead[Am7]s me here
[Dm7]Lead me t[G7]o your d[C]oor

…played as:

The [Am]long and winding road [F/G]
That [C]leads [Edim/C]to your door[F] [C/F]
[F]Will ne[G/E]ver disap[Am]pear
[F/D]I've seen that r[Bdim/G]oad before[Bb/C]
[F]It [G/E]always lead[C/A]s me here
[F/D]Lead me t[Bdim/G]o your d[C]oor

At this point there are a zillion possible examples of how you can leave notes out and get “reasonable” voicings in the right hand; in the table above, I’ve picked the ones most likely to come up in pop/rock.


What if I’m already good enough to play all those notes in my right hand?

If you’re a better piano player than me and can handle four notes in the right hand, you can extend this approach to build five-note chords by voicing 7ths in the right hand (you start to get lots of ways to frame these, so there are multiple choices in some cases).

Playing five-note chords with four notes in the right hand

To build a…Play a…Starting on the…E.g.
9m7b5major thirdC9 = Em7b5 (E,G,Bb,D) over a C
9m6fifthC9 = Gm6 (G,Bb,D,E) over a C
m9maj7minor thirdCm9 = Ebmaj7 (Eb, G, Bb, D) over a C
7b9dim7major thirdC7b9 = Edim7 (E,G,Bb,Db) over a C
7#9dimmaj7*major thirdC7#9 = Edimmaj7 (E, G, Bb, D#) over a C
9m6fifthC9 = Gm6 (G,Bb,D,E) over a C

*Yea, I know, the dimmaj7 is barely a real chord and we’ve clearly left the territory of “convenient shortcut” if you have to remember a dimmmaj7. But this is the “bonus” part of the post anyway.


In conclusion…

If your right hand trembles in fear when you see so much as a m7, hopefully I’ve started you down the road toward a bit more inner peace. True, if we need these shortcuts, we’re not likely to play keys in a working jazz band any time soon, but if a few more people can fake their way through extended chords in pop songs, I like to think I’ve made the world a more harmonically rich place.

For more exercises, I highly recommend the book “Stuff! Good Piano Players Should Know”, and not just because it has a bizarrely-placed exclamation point in the title (though that helps).

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