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Let’s Play #6 – Adding Colour To Your Chords Using 9ths and 11ths

Add more color and sophistication to your chords, start using what are commonly called color tones
by Jerry Kovarsky


When you want to add more colour and sophistication to your chords, start using what are commonly called colour tones. These are notes added beyond the 7th, which sound great for soul, neo-soul, downtempo, chill and many other genres where a bit more sophistication works nicely.

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Beyond the 7th?

What does that even mean? In our previous column on chords we learned that we commonly stack notes in intervals of a third (either three or four half-steps) to build harmony. So if we look at a C note and keep stacking notes in thirds using only the white keys we get the following:

By choosing notes a third higher each time we are skipping the even note numbers, so each next note is called by an odd number name. We call these notes extensions, or color tones after they go beyond the 7th.

Here are the chords as we build them up from the triad through a few of the extensions:

C triad

Why did I use an F-sharp note (called the #11) instead of the F natural white note on the keyboard? There is a pretty harsh clash between the 3rd of the chord (the E) and the 11th (the F) so we don’t add a natural 11th to a major or Dominant 7th chord.

Listen to how bad it sounds:

Colour Tones On Other Chord Qualities

If we modify the scale tones to match other 7th chord qualities we’ve learned previously we get similar results. Lower the 3rd and the 7th to create the minor7th chord extensions.

These are the common chord extensions we use on a minor triad:

Cm triad
When we only lower the 7th we create the extensions for a C Dominant 7th chord (not including all the jazz colour tones, which we’ll cover in a future installment):

The common chord extensions we get include the use of the #11 again:

C triad
’ll dispense with the scale tone examples and move right into the chord extensions for the last couple of chord qualities. The suspended chord is just like the Dominant7th with the 3rd move up a half-step to the 4th scale tone:

The diminished chord is interesting, since it is built from stacked minor 3rds (three half steps), so you might think that there are no extensions beyond the 7th. But there is a common practice of adding a 9th:

C diminished triad
C diminished 7th
C diminished 9th

Some Cool Voicings

Using these extensions in your chords produces a wonderfully rich sound, and if we stick with the straight 9ths and the 11th you can get some great chord voicings that sound a little jazzy, but work across all the genres I mentioned at the top of this column. Here are a few of my favorite voicings for each chord quality.





C9th (dominant):

Notice the second voicing doesn’t have any additional colour tones; I just like how the notes are spread out. The third example changes the 9th from the D note to a D-sharp (which is the same as an E-flat), called a sharp 9th. This is a classic chord voicing often referred to as “The Hendrix Chord”, since it is the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s famous hit “Purple Haze”, and has been used in countless other tunes. Notice how the 5th is left out of the voicing.


C7 augmented (a slight variation of the dominant, which raises the 5th of the chord a half-step):

The first voicing is like the spread dominant 7th I showed earlier, with the 5th just raised the half step. The next two voicings show ways to vary the “Hendrix Chord” sound.

Caugmented7(#9) – inversion


These types of voicings are often spelled like a chord over a different bass note, as you can see.

Gm7/C or C9sus4
Bbmaj7/C or C13sus4


The first two examples show a cool way to add more colour to the diminished chord, by taking the top note of your usual voicing and moving it up a whole step. So for the first chord, the usual A moves up to the B, and in the second the C (which is already covered in the left hand) moves up to D. The third measure takes those types of voicings and rearranges the notes between the two hands. Notice how the right hand plays a triad, which moves up three half steps each time, and the left hand is playing the notes of the basic chord. It’s a very common modern jazz voicing, used by artists such as Chick Corea.

Cdimished major7th
Cdiminished 9th
Poly-chord voicings: B/C

This is plenty of new vocabulary for you to work with — be sure to learn all these voicings in all 12 keys. Use the downloadable chart provided here:

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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