Polychords made easy? (Maybe not)

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If you study advanced harmony, you are likely to stumble across the term “polychord” sooner or later.  A polychord is just the result of playing one chord on top of another.

Here is a simple polychord.
Note that we have a D major chord stacked on top of a CMaj7.  You could call it a polychord, but I would not.  I would call it an extended CMaj7 chord or something like that because that is what it really is.  It is a CMaj7 with a 9th, #11th and 13th.

As you get into more complex harmony, labeling something as a polychord is not really very helpful.  I would rather you see every note in relation to the root.  In other words, you need to get to the place where a quick glance at the chord above tells you that it is CMaj7 with a 9th, #11th and 13th.

That being said, thinking in terms of polychords is a great cheat for helping you build complex chords quickly.  For example, if I told you build a EbMaj7 with 9, #11 and 13, a very easy way to do it is to play an EbMaj7 and then play a triad starting a whole note up from Eb.  If you play F Major on top of EbMaj7, you have your chord.  You might change around the order of the notes of course and may leave a note or two out of course but that will not change what the chord is.

We call this kind of thinking polychord voicing.  Here are a few of the more common polychord voicings and what they end up being in terms of an extended chord.

Start with Add Result
Dominant Major triad up a whole step Dominant with 9, #11, and 13
Dominant Major triad up a tritone Dominant with b9 and #11.
Dominant Major triad up a minor 6th Altered dominant (#9 and b13)
Dominant Diminished 7th up a half step Dominant with b9
Minor 7th Minor triad up a whole step Minor 7th with 9, 11, and 13
Major 7th Major triad up a whole step Major 7th with 9, #11, and 13

When you add these chords, remember that you don’t have to play them as a block chord.  Let’s say that you want to play C7(b9).  You could play C7 in the left hand and a Dbdim7 as an arpeggio in the right hand like this:

So this is the moral of the story.  Polychords are a great cheat to easily play extended chords but they are a bad way of labeling chords.  If you use them, always know what you are playing in relation to the root so you can understand the function of the chord.

Greg Howlett

5 thoughts on “Polychords made easy? (Maybe not)

  1. Frank says:

    Greg, that brings up an interesting question I have been meaning to ask you. I have your course on reharmonization and in there you spend a lot of time on functional harmony. But one question I had was whether the “function” of chords changed when you added these extended notes. For example, does a dominant with a flat 9th ever function different from a dominant with a natural 9th?

  2. Greg says:

    Frank, yes I do not talk about that particular topic in the course because it is not something I worry about. There are definitely voice leading considerations but the function of the chord does not change based on the extended notes like say, the difference between a major and minor 7th does.

    I will say that there are some things I may not be thinking about and if there are any pianists out there who want to set me straight, go for it.

  3. Jimmy Crutcher says:

    Umm, am I the only one who is completely in the dark here? Greg, you have gone from posting free arrangements and tips to speaking a different language! Even your non-music posts here lately are pretty intense. How about dialing it in a bit?

  4. Daniel Blomdahl says:

    This is interesting. We’ve just finished discussing this in Sophomore theory here at college and we’re writing an original composition using 20th century techniques. I did throw in about 2 polychords into my 100 measure composition.

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