Some favorites, and fourth-based harmonies

Another tune, a cover of sorts, and some chord ideas.


I was out at the Gramophone Thursday night and heard a few hours of live solo blues piano (courtesy of Ethan Leinwand), and on the way back there was a slow 12-bar blues looping endlessly in my head. Once I got home, I played that on the piano for about half an hour, and at some point I had the idea to change all the dominant seventh chords to major seventh chords and play some of the tasteful chord voicings that Duke Ellington used in his “Dreaming” demonstration (more about that later in this post). Eventually this came out.

I’ve been messing around with a tune that I made up, and combining it with My Favorite Things. The playing gets a little bit sloppy at some points, but I like this recording on the whole.

I listened to Duke Ellington play his music in the “Dreaming” clip, and I tried to figure out roughly what he was doing. To my surprise, he was using his right hand to play three-note chords where the adjacent notes were separated by perfect fourths—for example, he was playing a chord with the notes [G C F]. The left hand was playing just one bass note, probably doubling it through the octave for more impact.

This fourth-separated chord is an open version of the sus chord, containing the same notes but just in a more expanded form (Csus4 would be [C F G]; Fsus2 would be [F G C]; this would be [G C F]). Since it’s a sus chord, it’s abundantly clear that it can’t substitute for a complete thirds-separated chord. But when you add a bass note down low, you end up with all sorts of great chord voicings:

  • Playing an E in the bass, which is what Duke Ellington begins with, makes the chord into [E G C F], which is an [E♭6-9] omitting the 5.
  • Playing an A♭ in the bass makes the chord into [A♭ G C F], which is an [A♭M7-6], again omitting the 5. (Who cares about the 5, anyway?)
  • Playing an E in the bass makes the chord into [E G C F], which is a [C11/E], a pretty simple C major triad with a 4 at the top.
  • Playing a D in the bass makes the chord into [D G C F], which is a [Dm7sus4] omitting the 5.
  • Playing an A in the bass makes the chord into [A G C F], which is an [Fsus2/A]

So you can already see that there’s a ton of different and complex chords you can get just from adding one bass note to a fourth-separated three-note chord.

The really cool part is that it turns out I’ve already discussed this phenomenon in a previous post, in which I mentioned [IV6-9], [Isus2/III], and [VIIM7-6], all of which are in the list above. The slight difference was that I was using sus2 chords, not fourth-separated chords, and so some of the chords sounded a little bit different. For example, I think [Isus2/III] sounds better when the right hand chord is a sus2 rather than when it’s a fourth-separated chord, maybe because the fourth-separated chord version spans almost two octaves whereas the sus2 chord version spans a little more than one octave.

I had the idea to start at an octave and descend in perfect fourths, and it turns out that the first five pitches that you get from this, [1 5 2 6 3], form the pentatonic scale; if you descend one more perfect fourth you get the major seventh. (The next one is the tritone, which is ugly, so I stopped there.) Combining all of those gives you this collection of tones: [1 2 3 5 6 7]. This is just a major scale without the fourth scale degree.

These tones seem to be the ones that are the most agreeable to a given major key—and since they’re all separated by fourths, I can play any fourth-separated chord that includes three of these notes—thus, [6 2 5], [3 6 2], or [7 3 6]—along with the bass note of 1, and end up with a nice chord! I can also just play all of them in a row and it still sounds nice. Here’s a demo of that.

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