Using Tensions for Lush Chord Voicings (Video)

+ This lesson is presented courtesy of Kiefer’s in-depth course on Soundfly, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats. Sign up to bridge the worlds of theory, improvisation, and jazzy hip-hop, and improve your piano chops.

As you probably already know by now, Kiefer likes using big, lush chords with lots of extensions in them. This is definitely a key part of his sound.

Kiefer has trained himself so that when he looks at a specific chord, he’s actually considering all the possible notes he could include in that chord, based on the scale it comes from. For instance, if you were to tell Kiefer to play a C major chord, he might include any of the seven notes of the C major scale in his voicing.

There is a trade-off to including a lot of extension notes in your voicing: It may sound lush and thick, but all that added complexity can also obscure the quality of the chord.

As Kiefer notes, each of these extensions is simply adding more information to the chord. This information may help imply different keys or scales, or add different colors to the sound. Each note also relates to the chord itself. For instance:

  • The root acts like an anchor. (Though there are times when it can be left out of a voicing.)
  • The third and seventh tell us the chord’s “quality” — whether it’s major or minor. You’ll typically want to include these.
  • In a major or minor chord, the fifth doesn’t add much new info, so it’s often okay to leave it out. On the other hand, in the case of a diminished or augmented chord, it provides a critical piece of information and should definitely be included.
  • The ninth can contribute additional color to a chord without muddying the sound very much. Ninths are pretty versatile and forgiving, which is why Kiefer uses them fairly often.
  • On a major chord, an eleventh will sound incredibly tense. It’s only a half-step away from the major third, so it can obscure a chord’s quality. In traditional music theory, this might be called an “avoid note,” though you can certainly experiment with it. On the other hand, the eleventh can be a wonderful addition to a minor chord, and is another thing Kiefer uses often.
  • Thirteenths probably sound best when added to dominant seventh chords, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying out elsewhere as well.

As you’ll notice, some tensions sound better on certain qualities of chord than others. Experimentation is a great way to learn which ones work for you and your sound.

There are other tensions as well — things like flat nines, sharp nines, sharp elevens, and flat thirteens. Feel free to play around with these and see how they affect the color of your sound.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “A Pop Songwriter’s Introduction to Jazz Chords.

Modification and What Tensions Can Tell Us

When Kiefer starts including tensions in his voicings, he creates sounds that are more “specific.” Sometimes, the slightest modifications have a major change on what a chord can tell us.

Let’s take a look at how he voices E minor in the video:

When he modifies the tensions he’s using in his voicing, the chord starts to imply different keys.

For instance, based on the notes it included, that original E minor voicing he played could have come from C major, D major, G major, A minor, B minor, or E minor. But when he adds a nine, he’s including a note that doesn’t exist in some of those keys.

Since that F# can’t come from C major or A minor, this voicing more strongly suggests one of the other four keys.

Then, when he adds a thirteenth to the voicing, we get an even more specific sound.

That C# (the thirteen) tells us that this chord can no longer come from G major or E minor, since that note doesn’t exist in those two keys. Now we know that, most likely, the chord’s coming from either D major or B minor.

On the other hand, if he had included a flat thirteen instead of a natural thirteen, we’d get this:

Now we have a chord that most strongly implies the keys of G major and E minor, because while it includes that F#, it uses a C natural instead of a C#, ruling out the keys of D major and B minor as the source of the notes in this voicing.

Play Kiefer’s E minor voicings starting on a different root note.

First, play through each of the examples included in this lesson in E minor. Spend a minute really noting the difference in sound when you include those higher tensions.

Then, choose your favorite shape and try it with a different root. If you need help transposing any of the notes, you can feel free to post your question in either the #share-your-goals or #kiefer channels in Slack if you’re already a Soundfly subscriber.

BONUS: If you want to take this exercise to the next level, go around the entire circle of fifths playing this voicing in every key along the way — Emin, Bmin, G♭min, D♭min, etc.

Don’t stop here!

Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, improvising, and so much more in Soundfly’s course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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