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Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 1: Altered V

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This post is part of a series called Getting to Know Altered Chords.
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 2: Altered II

We always get a lot of comments when we ask about music theory tuts. Obviously a lot of you are interested! Here's a new series of harmony theory tuts from Ryan Leach, that not only shows you how to create more interesting chords, but also explains how and why.

In this series we will learn about altered chords and how we can use them to add harmonic interest to our music. Part 1 of the series will begin with the altered V chord.



What is an Altered Chord?

An altered chord is a diatonic triad or seventh chord that has had one or more pitches lowered or raised by a half step. By lowering or raising (altering) the chord tone you change the character and color of the chord. Depending on what pitches you change, you can even change its function.

Why Use Them?

One of the main reasons to use altered chords is for color and interest. If you have been writing music for some time eventually you will come to a point where the diatonic chords of a given key start to sound very vanilla and bland. Using altered chords is a way to spice up your harmony while still staying within the realm of a functional diatonic progression.

Another reason to use an altered chord could be for dramatic effect, such as an increase in tension or surprise. If a piece is in the key of C and the listener is expecting to hear F, but instead they hear the altered Fm, they could be caught off guard and (hopefully pleasantly) surprised by this alteration.

The Altered Chord Series

In order to have enough space to take an in-depth look at altered chords, this tutorial will be broken down into a seven part series. There will be one tutorial for each of the seven chords of the diatonic major key.

Altered V and V7

The altered V chord is the diatonic V or V7 chord with one or more pitches lowered or raised by a half step.

The V chord usually resolves to I or a substitute of I (such as vi or iii). This is true for an altered V as well. In the key of C this means that an altered G chord will usually resolve to a C or to Am or Em. I say usually, but of course this is not always the case.

Just to get it in your ears, here is a simple I V7 I progression, using a version of V7 that has not been altered:

V is one of the most common chords to alter because generally the V chord, the dominant, is a point of high tension. Altering the chord can make it more colorful or it can even heighten this tension more and make the resolution to I increasingly welcome.

Common Alterations of V:

  • V+7
  • V7b5
  • Vm
  • Vm7b5
  • #Vº7

V with an Altered 9th

  • V7b9
  • V7#9

Altering Each Chord Tone

As mentioned, a chord is "altered" by lowering or raising one or more chord tone by a half step. Since there are four pitches in a 7th chord (1 3 5 7), that gives us four choices for tones to alter.

We'll go through systematically and examine the results of altering each tone of the chord.


Altering the Fifth

V+

Taking V (of V7) and raising the fifth of the chord to create V+ is an often used way to alter the V chord. The augmented V will probably be a familiar sounding chord to you.

You may have heard it as the opening of The Beatles' "Oh Darling":

The augmented fifth of the chord, in the case of E+ a raised B natural up to C natural (or technically B sharp), adds a mysterious and tense color to the dominant chord.

V+7 is also a common occurrence in many jazz standards, such as in "All the Things You Are". Here the C+7 takes us out of the B section and to the repeat of the A section:

V7b5

Taking the opposite approach, you can lower the fifth to create a V7b5 chord.

V7b5 is a less commonly used chord than V+7. It has a softer and less aggressive sound. Notice that the b5 of V is the same as b9 of the key, so this tone has a very strong tendency to resolve down to the root of the key (Db down to C in the example above).


Altering the Third

Vm

The most natural way to change the third of the V chord would be to change it from a major third to a minor third, thus giving us the chord Vm.

The Vm chord has a soft but somewhat unexpected sound. Our ears are so used to the major V that the minor third can sound surprisingly fresh for just a single half step adjustment.

The Coldplay song "Clocks" uses Vm as the second chord of the song's main motif:

Pay attention to how the Db of the Bbm chord feels just a tad out of place.

Vm7b5

Vm7b5 is an unusual sounding chord, but you can still get an interesting sound by using it in place of the regular V7. It has a certain sorrowful quality to it:

Usually it sounds more like the II as part of a II-V-I progression in minor than it does a V chord of the key:

V7sus4

If we raise the third instead of lowering it we end up with a sus4 chord. The sus4 has a very open and bright sound:

Usually it will resolve down to V7:


Altering the Seventh

Vmaj7

Vmaj7, borrowed from the parallel Lydian mode, can be a very bright and positive feeling chord.

The main thing you have to be careful of is that Vmaj7 doesn't end up sounding like Imaj7. In particular The progression I Vmaj7 I can sound more like IV Imaj7 IV.


Altering the Root

If we lower the root of the chord we get a bV chord. This is better dealt with as #IV so we will look at it in the tutorial on altered IV chords.

#Vº7

The #Vº7 chord leads most naturally into VIm:

The #V has a very strong tendency to keep pushing upwards into the sixth tone of the scale.


Altering the 9th

If you go beyond the four chord tones of a seventh chord and begin to add tensions, the first tension you'll hit upon is the ninth.

The natural ninth sounds very warm:

Just like the other chord tones, the ninth can be altered and be raised or lowered by a half step. The resulting b9 and #9 can add an extra degree of dissonance and tension to the dominant chord, giving it a sharper edge.

V7b9

The interval of a b9 is considered extremely dissonant and should only be used for a point of very high tension and then resolved. Often resolves to a minor chord.

The b9 of the V chord is the b6 of the key, which means it has a very strong tendency to want to resolve down into the 5 of the key (eg. F natural down to E in the key of A).

V7#9

The #9 is famously known as the "Jimi Hendrix" chord because he made such great use of it:

To my ear the #9 has less of a "pull" to resolve into any particular tone (either the natural 9 or major 3). Instead it is more of a color than a tension that yearns to be resolved.


Conclusion

I hope this introduction to altered chords has been useful for you and that you can begin to put them to use.

The main points to remember:

  • Altered chords can add a lot of color interest to an otherwise typical diatonic progression
  • You should think of the alterations as spices and use them on one or two occasional chords as opposed to an entire progression.
  • Altered chords are easy to create, you just lower or raise a chord tone by a half step.
  • The altered tones will often have a tendency to resolve in a certain direction and will sound best when they do.

Please leave your comments and questions below and we will discuss them in the upcoming parts of the altered chord series.

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