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b9s and +9s

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by oliebrice, Jan 15, 2006.

  1. oliebrice


    Apr 7, 2003
    Hastings, UK
    I'm a bit confused over the meaning of 7+9 as a chord symbol. Mark Levine says in 'the jazz theory book' that both are different ways of spelling the same chord, which he sees as built from diminshed harmony. However, I've sometimes seen lead sheets with both 7b9 and 7+9 in the same tune. I wondered if it was a shorthand for 7alt, but then found them both in the same tune.

    So when you read 7+9, what does it mean to you? Just a normal 7th arpegio with a sharp 9 on top? I don't think this is a repeat of the arpeggios vs scales debate (I veer towards seeing them as the same thing, a pool of notes), as if you see +9s as being built from altered or diminished harmony then that obviosuly affects the whole arpeggio.

    I will bring this up with a teacher, but won't have a lesson for a few weeks so input appreciated
  2. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Ah, you've stumbled onto one of my biggest gripes about jazz education - the whole "if you see this chord, ya gotta play from this scale" thing. I think that nothing could be further from the truth. At best, learning chord/scale relationships offers you one option to approach a section of a tune, and often a useful one...but the minute you start to think that you have to play scale X when you see chord Y, IMO you aren't playing jazz anymore.

    My take on the subject is that when you see any specific altered dominant chord symbol, you need to consider the context it occurs in. Is there a reason why the chord was notated #9 instead of b9 (melody, etc.), or do the two seem to be used arbitrarily and/or interchangably? On the most immediate level, I like to think of these chords as simply "altered", which means that if the symbol is to be taken at all literally (we'll stipulate this for a minute to make a point, then discard it at a later time when a deeper understanding is being pursued), then the "pool of notes" being called for includes the root, b9, #9, major 3rd, and b7. Notice that so far, this "pool of notes" supports both "Diminished (H-W)" and "Diminished Whole-tone" usage. To get the "Diminished" sound, simply add #4, 5, and 6 to the notes listed above; to get the "Diminished Whole-tone" sound, add #4 and #5 instead. Or, you can opt for a more resolution-based approach.

    The bottom line is that the most common function of altered dominant harmony is a resolution to a minor chord. When this is the case, the question your ear needs to ask itself is, "when V7alt (i.e. - b9 or #9) goes to a minor i, do I want to choose a note collection that creates more tension between the V and i, or do I want to create less tension and make the flow smoother by forward motion"?

    By way of example: When you have a minor V-i and choose the diminished sound, you are creating tension that gets resolved when the tonic chord arrives. The reason for this is that two of the three notes that you add to the original collection ( adding #4, 5, and 6 to R, b9, #9, Ma3, b7) are in direct conflict with the resolution chord - the #4 and 6 of the V7alt become the #1 and Ma3rd of the minor tonic, respectively. These notes - especially the Ma3rd over a minor chord - cry out for resolution.

    In the same situation, when you choose the diminished whole-tone sound, only the #4 is adding conflict with the tonic resolution chord, since the #5 becomes the minor third of the tonic chord. This approach usually sounds more "inside" because less resolution is needed.

    What bothers me about both of these approaches of resolution to minor is that the #4, which most jazz theory books state is an implied necessity of altered dominant scales, is always in conflict with the root of the resolution chord, and to my ear cries out for a resolution that it rarely gets from intellectual players. My best advice would be to study what the melodies of the tunes you're playing do over these situations, and begin by imitating that. Over the years, I've discovered that I am at a loss to find standard melodies that imply either of the altered scales you mentioned (bop heads are another story) directly, and for this reason, I think of them as far less important than trying to play a convincing melody over minor dominant/tonic resolutions. Hope this doesn't muddy the waters too much further. :)
  3. oliebrice


    Apr 7, 2003
    Hastings, UK
    Thanks for the very informative answer. for the record I completely agree with "the whole "if you see this chord, ya gotta play from this scale" thing. I think that nothing could be further from the truth. At best, learning chord/scale relationships offers you one option to approach a section of a tune, and often a useful one...but the minute you start to think that you have to play scale X when you see chord Y, IMO you aren't playing jazz anymore."

    It did seem to me though that the book (pocket changes) seemed to use the chord descriptions purposefully, so I was trying to understand the difference implied.

    So, to make sure I've understood, when you read a new tune, and a V of a minor I has a given alt or b9 or +9, do you essentially ignore that? Just see a minor ii V I?

    Thats tended to be the apporach I've taken, partly inspired by thinking in a 'blanket scale' sort of way influenced partly by stuff you've posted on here Chris, but not specifying in my head a specific minor 'blanket scale', more a broad tonality, if that makes sense. But seeing both chords specified in the same peice made me curious as to whether there was a good reason!

    I'll use your idea of analysing some standard melodies, thanks.
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Funny you should mention "Pocket Changes" - that book is compiled and published by Mike Tracy - my boss and the head of our program here at UofL. While the book does have some flaws (as any compiled set of changes must), there are two things I really like about it:

    1) The changes are kept simple, which allows a much easier pathway to personal interpretation as less analysis and translation are needed - I've known Mike for 20 years, and in most cases I don't think there's a big distinction between the two types of chords you mention in this book. Sometimes he'd be more likely to call a sound that is traditionally played as diminished as "7b9" (like Caravan, etc.), and sometimes if the melody has a b9 in it he would also write it that way ("I Love You", etc), but for the most part you can interpret them as interchangeable.

    2) The layout of the changes always mirrors the feel of the phrasing of the tune (4 bars on a line, etc).

  5. soholounge


    Aug 11, 2004
    great info Chris,
    but i'm still not understanding why someone would inentionally write b9 AND +9 in the SAME tune??

    i would guess it was because the melody dictated it?

    or they wanted the +9 to imply the dim. whole tone scale?

    or am i missing something here?
  6. Are the chords with +9 and b9 both the same chord (as in both E7 +9 and E b9)? If this is the case there could be a key change or a mode change. One other possibility is that the +9 is a 7th chord with both a major and a minor third (major-minor chord) spelled 1, 3, 5, b7, (1), b3 (often in classical music you'll see 1, 3, 8(or 1), b10 (or b3)).
    It could be asking for a dimished scale; in this case the chord would have to be a fully dimished chord w/ a double flat 7. Theory wise though, this would not be a proper way of spelling it as the dimished scale defies the conventional numbering system (having eight instead of seven notes), but I'm not exactly sure how jazz sees this (I study classical theory, though I mostly play jazz).
    The other possibility is that the composer just heard a chord tone which is not easily explainable by theory, just to create a certain chord color, though this probably wouldn't be the case in an example in a theory book.
    Just as a side note, I just want to make sure you understand the the whole tone scale and the dimished scale are comeletely different scales. I figure you might know this but I'm not sure from they way you talk about "dim. whole tone scale." The whole tone scale is made up of all whole steps (has six notes), while the dimished scale is halfstep-wholestep-half-whole etc. and has eight notes (also called the octatonic scale).
  7. soholounge


    Aug 11, 2004
    more good stuff to think about...

    & sorry about my laziness:
    by "dim.whole tone " i meant 1 b9 +9 M3 #4 #5 b7
    (super locrian)

    for some reason, when i see +9, without thinking i gravitate towards the super locrian.
    when i see b9, i gravitate towards diminished.
    of course, in real situations i try to take Chris's advice and let the music and need for resolution/conflict decide.
  8. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Well, in the case of Pocket Changes, Mike always calls minor ii-V's "iiØ - V7#9" as a form of shorthand. My guess would be that in some tunes there's a place where the melody has the b9, so he makes the concession in that instance but then later uses his default form of notation when the melody doesn't spell it out.

    The only real "rule" about minor ii-V's that I've been taught all along and found to be actually true is the one about the b9 sound implying the presence of a #9 and vice versa....my ears tell me this also. Everything else seems less cut and dried.
  9. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    The difference between +9 and b9 confused me when I first came accross it in Aebersold charts too. I thought it meant #9 in the same way as G7+ meant an augmented 5th. So, I tried out both b and #9s when I saw it in the charts... I found that b9 was clearer, probably stronger, to me, so I played it.

    In my limited experience, and from poor memory, I think the only place I've found altered 9s as a melody note is in Blue In Green.. if I remember rightly?? But I do see them written in changes much more frequently of course.

    'alt' is a funny one too. I always figure that 'everyone else' will use that as an excuse to play out so I stick to something solid underneath and keep it simple

    I always wonder, what does the composer want when he writes 'alt', does he mean "play the lot", "take your pick", "take it out"... Wny not specify the harmony,,, or is this actually a specific option??
  10. soholounge


    Aug 11, 2004
  11. TroyK

    TroyK Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2003
    Seattle, WA
    Funny, that you should write this. I ordered that book last week and received it over the weekend. I had seen it before, but had a Christmas gift certifictate and decided to own it. I was taking my first look at it this morning and saw his statement that 7#9 and 7b9 were different ways of writing the same chord and thought to myself "that's not right".

    Now, I'm in no way as qualified as Mark Lavine to judge and there have been some good responses on this thread by informed people, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

    BUT, when I'm composing and I write +9, I mean sharp 9 and when I write b9, I mean flat 9. It's true that they are derrived from the same scale, which is probably what he meant, but they're not the same chord in my book. The type of tension each creates is different to my ear. Now, if I'm reading the Real Book, I might not assume that they are deliberate, but I find as chords (not scales) they have different affects on the music.

    He also said Major 7 and Major 6 were different ways of writing the same chord and while I think I know what he means, I don't think of them as the same chord. I have a Joe Pass guitar chord book that doesn't really distinguish between different types of major and minor chords, so there is something to it, apparently

    I buy these books to learn, so I'm trying to understand his lesson, but I had the same initial reaction as you and I'll resist the urge to argue with the book that I'm trying to learn from.

  12. I don't see those as exclusive, since the b9 is the minor key's sixth degree and the #9 is its seventh. To me the #3 in the V of a minor key has always felt like the alteration.

    I have always been fond of the symmetry of the diminished 7th chord formed by the 3 5 b7 b9 of the V7b9 chord, though. Pattern City!

    I never have gotten a satisfactory explanation of the logic behind "alt". Lotsa explanations...just no satisfactory ones.
  13. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    As to the original question, I think they are often considered as interchangeable. If I can get the attachments to load, I'll try to add some changes comparisons I did for a theory class showing the same tune with the changes from different sources shown right on top of each other. Here goes nothing...

    Hmm, no go - anyone know where the attachment manager got to with the new upgrade? :confused:
  14. I agree with the sentiment, but you know that a given triad can come from a number of different scales. Michael Moore and I were working on 'Let's Get Lost' in Bb. Second chord is an A7. Michael suggested D harmonic minor, not the first thing that would come to mind.
    And speaking of +9's: I don't hear them as an alteration of the ninth; I hear them as an alteration of the 3rd. Composers in the 16th century (e.g. William Byrd) frequently overlapped major and minor tonalities. Sometimes I think it's called a +9 out of convenience.
    I'm a firm believer that strong grounding in theory is necessary to become a complete musician, but as I age I find myself paying no attention to the structural analysis and more attention to pitches that 'sound good' to me.
    What the hell do I know? I used to be a bass player. Now I'm an Alexander teacher.
  15. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    Why is the 7+9 called dim when it has the triad of augmented (ie C7+9 = CEG#(F)). The b5 is actually a #4, no? R b2 #2 3 #4 #5 b7 . Why not call/think of it as R b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 if your gonna consider it a dim chord or dim harmony?

    In the case of b9 - #9 would you use #9 in ascending lines and b9 descending (like melodic min treatment of 6 & 7)?

    The resolution of the dominant's #5 is to 3rd of new major (up a forth - C7+9 to F = G# to A) whereas #5 stays as common tone to become 3rd in minor and dim (G# to Ab). I realize there is a lot of tension in the 7+9 chord, but the other half of the story is how this tension resolves into the flow of the next chord.

    OK - I'll return to my chair in the back of the class, shut up and listen.

    Yeah, those early blues shouters did the exact same thing. Kind of uncanny. Maybe that wasn't cotton but powdered wigs out in them thar fields.
  16. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Actually, that scale plus a C natural as a passing tone is usually the first kind of thing that I hear in a situation like that. There's a workable theoretical reason for it, but mostly it just sounds good.

    That's an interesting take on it, and sometimes I hear it that way - for instance, when the "+9" resolves down to the b9 and then passes down to or through the tonic, I hear it that way. When it resolves up to the third, I hear it as a #9, kind of like a blue note.


    BTW, it looks like the attachments editor is up again, so I'll try to attach the changes comparison I was talking about just to back up the point about b9 and +9 being roughly interchangeable. The attachment shows the changes for "I Should Care" as drawn from six different fake book sources (key is on top). In bar 6, you see the A7 notated six different ways: Once as a 7+9, once as a 7b9, once as a 7sus, once as a 7sus resolving to 7+9, once as a 7+, and once as a plain old A7. Later, in bar 13, the E7 is notated a bunch of different ways as well. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that five of these are "wrong", I think it's better to see comparisons of this type to support the notion that dominant alteration is largely a matter of "season to taste", and that a good chef knows what spices to put in any given dish at any given moment.

    Attached Files:

  17. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Man, that is one great practice tool! If anyone needs me I'll be in the shed :)
  18. This is my first post after joining this forum so please bear with me. I too once had questions quite similar to the others expressed here by others concerning the altered dominant. After a few years of study it became apparent that this may be one occasion when nomenclature is somewhat more confusing than helpful (initially). Keep in mind that theory usually follows established practice, except perhaps in twelve tone or other "newer" forms.

    Duke Ellington wrote arrangements utilizing b9, #9 and b13, but it was others that fully developed this voicing in the large ensemble venue, most notably Thad Jones, Sy Oliver, and Bill Finnegan to name a few. These artists happened to be in my area of study but I am sure there were many others who were exploring these tonalities before and after.

    I subsequently came to an understanding that for my own purposes an altered dominant could include one or any of these three tones but it is also exclusive of the natural 9 and for the most part the natural 13 (or major 6). The relationship to the V7-i in minor has already been pointed out but that should not be taken as a rule for limiting the use of this colorful dissonance. Furthermore, relating the altered dominant to the half-step diminished scale is a useful interpretation for improvisers but is not the only justification for inclusion in a particular progression. One hopes that the sound did in fact come first to the composer's mind's ear and it was not a strict exercise in composing by theory text flow charts.

    I hope this didn't sound too snooty and that it made some sense. This stuff is hard to talk about but simple to show on a piano! There are no "right" answers but lots of good solutions!

    Ranger Tim
  19. Jason Hollar

    Jason Hollar Supporting Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    Pittsburgh area
    I'm glad this topic came up again -- and that so many are willing to share insights and advice.

    I'm very interested in mastering this altered dominant sound -- as it one of my favorite spices in the jazz gumbo.

    I've had several great musicians tell me over the years things like: "The secret is the diminished sound -- or the harmonic minor -- or the real deal is the melodic min/super locrian/alt dominant". Every player has a slightly different take on harmony & improvising which is both enlightening -- and confusing.


    The Chuck Sher Real Books have a chord symbol page that "spells" out each type of chord.

    7b9 = R, 3, 5, b7, b9
    7#9 = R, 3, 5, b7, #9.

    Sher goes on to "spell out" all of the specific alterations based on the composition, melody, etc. This has been helpful in my guitar studies in trying to nail specific voicings and find those cool tritone subs... Aha! C7#9#5 = Gb13#11 !

    The Aebersold methods expand on this and to restate what others here have said...that the b9 and #9 symbols are actually "short hand" for adding several more tones to the chord/scale/pool. I can dig it...

    7b9 = b9, #9, #4
    7#9 = b9, #9, #4, #5

    So in laying all this out...I guess my real question is...

    What scales do you use to improvise over these chords?! :bag:

    I guess I'm at the point where a 7b9 chord sounds more diminished overall and a 7#9 sounds more altered -- as in dim/whole tone.

    I mean, I understand that ears are the judge and taste is everything...but technically, am I even on the right page of the cook book???
  20. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Personally, I don't think of chords and scales in that way in the heat of the moment - I just try to hear a melody and play it. My issue is that I always (try to) hear the chord in the context of the key center in which it occurs, which i then (try to) hear in the context of the key center of the entire progression.

    In the practice room, it's a good idea to practice "programming new/different types of hearing" for these types of tonal situations, but I almost never think it's a good idea to prescribe notes or scales for altered dominant chords. For one thing - as in the "I Should Care" example I posted earlier - the notation is often somewhat arbitrary, and for another, in the case of standards the melodies of the many (most?) of the tunes came well before the "hip" jazz reharms full of altered dominant chords, so that the altered chords are mostly interesting ways to set the melody into an interesting setting. Change the melody, and a different harmonic context might be more flattering.

    Theoretically, you're right on the mark. For both of those scales, though, the real "handle with care" note in a resolving minor iiØ-V7alt-i progression is the #4 of the V chord, since it is in effect the #1 of the resolving tonality. I often find that note to be kind of obnoxious when it gets tossed in in a "I practiced this alt pattern, and am throwing it in now" kind of way...it can sound great when it's resolved or "heard" by the performer, though.

    Beyond that, the #5 or b13 sounds more organic when resolving to minor, since the #5 of the V chord is the b3 of the i chord it resolves to; when diminished is involved, the natural 13 of the V chord is the major 3rd of the minor i chord, which requires a lot more care in resolution to my ears.