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Music Theory

Adding Flavor to Chords – Sixth Chords – Basix

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Today we are going to cover how to add some flavor to your chords and compositions using sixths in both major and minor. Just like the 7ths chord tutorial, we will approach this chord concept from the ground up and look it from all possible angles. If you have heard of these types of chords but never knew exactly how they were constructed then this tutorial is for you. We will cover everything from basic structure to different voicings of the chords and try to apply them in a creative context. The sixth chords are waiting, you ready?


What is a 6th Chord?

In order to effectively use a 6th chord we first need to understand what exactly a 6th chord is. A 6th chord can mean a few different things depending on context. In common modern day terms it is simply a basic chord (3 notes) with the 6th degree of the root added in (4 notes). Do not confuse the 6th degree of the chord with the 6th degree of the scale. Here is an example...

The 6th scale degree of the C Major scale is A. The fourth note in a C Major scale is a F which traditionally would be played as a F Major chord in the key of C. However the 6th of an F major chord is a D not the A. This is because the D is 6 notes above the F. If you are still having issues visualizing this concept here is a written out example...

Remember, always go to the 6th of the chord you are playing no matter what key you are in. If it says C Maj6 then your 6th is A, if it says Bb Maj6 then your 6th is G. End of story.


6th Construction and Usage

Unlike with 7ths, we generally have less room to work with when using 6th chords. With 7ths we could have Major Major, Major Minor, Minor Major, and Minor Minor but with 6ths this is not the case. With 6th chords we need to take into account context in order to determine what 6th chord to use. Lets start with the major 6th chord and when and how to use it.

6th Construction and Usage: Major 6th

When dealing with your basic Maj6 chord you will have the notes of a major with the 6th degree of the chord added on top. More than likely you will use a root position (no inversion) voicing of a major chord with a major 6th on top to represent this chord. The reason for this is that if we are not careful with out inversions we can actually be implying another chord altogether! Let me explain...

As we learned the 7th chords tutorial, we can have different inversions (voicings) of our chords and the more notes we add the more inversions we get. With 6th chords we will have 4 possible voicing, root, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, and 3rd inversion.

Assume that we have a Cmaj6 chord, this would give use the notes C,E,G,A in root position. If we were to voice this chord in 1st inversion we would then have E,G,A,C which still will sound like a Cmaj6. However, if we proceed to the 2nd inversion our chord will then be G,A,C,E which is actually a 3rd inversion Amin7! Furthermore the 3rd inversion of our Cmaj6 is A,C,E,G which is a Amin7 in root position!

What does this mean for us? Well that means you need to be careful how you voice these maj6 chords. The last two inversions imply a different chord altogether and have a different feel to them. Most commonly you will find the maj6 chord used on an I chord or a IV chord of whatever key you are in (as long as it is major). You could theoretically use a maj6 on the VI as well but it would just be an inversion of the I chord!

Below are the voicings written out so you can get an idea of how these maj6 chords sound; keep in mind that this is not the proper way to notate inversions but this format does work better for explanations sake...

6th Construction and Usage: Minor 6th

Now that we have a better understanding of Major 6th chords we can move onto how to use minor 6th chords. To construct a min6 simply take your minor chord and add a #6 on top. This 6th degree has to be raised one half step for it to be a min6 chord. Another way to think of this 6th would be to add a major 6th on top of the root of the chord. So for example, a Cmin6 would be C,Eb,G,A even though in the key of C minor you would have an Ab. Just like with the 7th chords you need to build the chord based on what chord it is, not what key it is in. So in the case of min6 chords always always always make the 6th a major 6th.

What is nice about the inversions of the min6 is that it never really implies another chord. The closest you will get is that the 2nd and 3rd inversions may imply a diminished chord depending on how closed or open your voicings are, however it is nowhere near as obvious as with the maj6 chords. Here is an example of min6 chords and the inversions to get an idea of how they are built and what they sound like...

Finally we have one more chord type to mention for min6 chords and that is the minb6 (minor flat 6). This chord is exactly the same as the min6 except that you do not raise the 6th or in other words you use a minor 6th instead. For example, a Cmin6 would read C,Eb,G,A while a Cminb6 would read C,Eb,G,Ab. As with the maj6 chords you have to be aware of the 2nd and 3rd inversions as they can imply another chord as well. Here are the different inversions of the minb6 for your reference. Note that there are no natural signs in this case because we used a minor 6th interval and not a major 6th...


Using the 6th Chords

Now that we know how to build these chords we need to actually do something with them. This is where your creativity comes in and where you can finally apply your newfound knowledge however. I won't just leave you without a place to start from. Lets first look at the different chords and how they sound from a musical standpoint. These of course are only my observations but it should give you a good place to start...

  • Maj6: Uplifting, Relaxing, Calm

  • Min6: Tense, Semi-jarring, Confused, Unsure

  • Minb6: Semi-tense, Questioning, Sighing

Before you start writing however really keep your inversions in mind. Since these 6th chords can theoretically be an inversion of a 7th chord you need to keep in mind how they are functioning. If you just want to add some color to your I IV V progressions then more than likely they will be functioning as 6th chords, however if you are trying to modulate to a different key then you very well may be using an inversion of a 7th chord that is exactly the same as a root position 6th chord. I recommend starting with a basic progression and then adding the color notes after and then reassessing what your chords are actually called. To get your creative juices flowing a little more here is a short example I came up with. I kept all the voicings closed so it would be easier to see which chords I was using.


Final Thoughts

That about covers 6th chords my friends. Remember to watch your voicings and inversions and to keep in mind how they will be functioning in relation to the other chords around them. I hope you have learned something and that you will have a richer palette of chords to choose from. Thanks for reading!

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