7

Foreword. With this question, my motive was to poke at the chord symbol naming system, to learn more of its properties. I've been intrigued by the idea of learning what the traditional "stack of thirds" and "seven notes per octave" model of harmony naturally lends itself to, and when we start to feel like being on uncharted territory if that model is all we know. The diminished scale has eight notes per octave... and then there are things like quartal chords, for which we might find approximately equivalent counterparts in the "stack of thirds" world, but a lot gets lost in translation. And the Hendrix chord has two different thirds at the same time! (But according to its commonly used modeling, the other one is modeled not as a third, but as an augmented second ... ) It's unfortunate that the question ended up being seen as "what's the right name for the Hendrix chord". My initial starting point was assuming that the common name for the chord was "correct" ... but I've since refined my opinion. Which was, I guess, what I hoped to achieve. Thanks everyone for spending time and writing answers. It's a very tiny group of people out there who care about things like this.


The so-called Jimi Hendrix chord is commonly called E7(♯9) or E7♯9, implying that it "is" a major chord, but with a sharpened ninth added. Not caring about the chord already having a commonly used name, and the voicing of notes in the Hendrix chord having the third lower than the ♯9, is there some harmonic aspect about it that would be misrepresented by thinking about is as a weird or surprising voicing of Em7(♭11)?

To me the Henrdix chord sounds like a minor chord just as much as a major chord, so implying that it's somehow innately more major feels questionable. Bluesy harmony is IMO a mixture between minor and major anyway. "♭11" is not a very easily understandable way to say "works kind of like a major third", but then again, "♯9" is a bad way to say "works like a minor third" as well.

I guess I'm really asking about voicings and chord naming. (EDIT: Bzzzt! No, that was just my first idea before getting a better understanding from the many answers) If we expand the idea of "E7(♯9)" outside the one particular Jimi Hendrix voicing of it, or think of it as "the set of all possible voicings for E7(♯9)" - wouldn't it be enharmonically equivalent to "the set of all possible voicings for Em7(♭11)". (EDIT after getting wiser: well yes maybe, but the set of sounding notes is not the only aspect to consider)

To explain my argument of the chord's not being self-evidently more major than minor, here are two example melodies:

E7#9 example melody 1

E7#9 example melody 2

YMMV, but to my ear, the one with the minor-key melody conforms to the backing chord slightly better than the major-key melody.

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  • 3
    One potential problem - technically (but rarely in practice) an 11th chord ought to also contain the 9th. The 7th is a given.
    – Tim
    Dec 4 '21 at 11:33
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    I'd add one other thing. I disagree that E7(♯9) is a major chord with an added minor 3rd. I'd characterize it as a dominant 7th chord with an added ♯9. I do think those two are distinct, and they are not equivalent substitutes for each other.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 15:39
  • 3
    I think this question is falling into a pitfall that certain chords describe voicings which is not the case and leads to more confusion than clarity. You can always either write out the chord or use other notation methodology like pitch-class sets, but then you wouldn't be calling it an E anything. There are definitely also different ways to write harmonic structures as polychords or quartal/quintal stacks (which don't have any appropriate chord symbols I know about) outside of the typical western structures that you wouldn't want to use normal chord symbols on.
    – Dom
    Dec 4 '21 at 21:12
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica, after seeing your edit, I'm understanding the question better. There's nothing prohibiting the existence of a chord which we might label Em7(add G#). In other words, it's false that "every instance of the chord E-G#-D-G should be written as E7#9." But there will be situations where E7#9 is correct and Em7(add G#) is incorrect. Those are more frequent in Western music (which chord symbols were based on) than situations where Em7(add G#) is correct and E7#9 is incorrect.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 21:54
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    @jdjazz The "watershed" or deciding point of view occurred to me just now: a chord symbol's spelling implies things not only about the sounding notes of the chord (which could be considered as enharmonically equivalent), but also about notes that the chord does not have. "E7#9" hints that there shouldn't be an F#, at least in the octave where the #9 is (right?), because F is double-sharp. And "Em7 add b11" would imply that there shouldn't be an A natural, because A is flat. And these implications come from the 7-note assumption in traditional Western thinking. Dec 4 '21 at 22:44
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tldr; Em7(add G♯) can exist, but it's not standard in Western music, on which chord symbols are largely based. So, the best option would be to write out the exact notes/voicing. Whether the chord is Em7(add G♯) or E7(♯9) will depend on the particular song.

For people new to notating music: this does not mean E7(♯9) and Emin(add G♯) are interchangeable. In Western genres, it's far more common that E7(♯9) is the correct choice. However, music is definitely not limited only to the chords that we can write out with concise symbols.


I think the question that can be interpreted 3 ways:

  1. Can we characterize this specific chord by Jimi Hendrix as ♭11 or ♭10?
  2. How do I notate a minor chord that contains a flat 11th?
  3. How do I notate a chord that contains both a major 3rd and minor 3rd?

I tend to think the answer to #1 is: no, we can't notate that specific chord from Hendrix as ♭11. In the context of Western music, ♭11 chords generally don't exist because the ♭11 note will always be heard as a M3. ♭10 also isn't the best choice, in my mind. We can't use notation that specifies different alterations based on which octave the scale degree shows up in. If the 10th is flatted, so is the 3rd, because there are only 7 notes in the scale. The use of 10 indicates things like the location of the note relative to the others--it doesn't indicate a unique scale tone from the 3rd.

The prevailing answer to #2 will be that Western music prohibits the ♭11 from being in a minor chord, for the reason mentioned above. The ♭11 will be heard as a M3, and minor chords are defined by the fact that they contain the ♭3 as opposed to the M3. A fair follow-up question might be: are you sure the note is a ♭11 and not simply an occasional M3 that appears as a blues tone? If it's a M3 blues note, then it would be inaccurate to call it a ♭11.

The 3rd question is the most interesting IMO. It's similar to asking: does harmony exist which contains both the minor 3rd and the major 3rd? If does, then we need a way to notate it. I think the occasional M3 blues note in a minor harmony would fall into this category. In this case, the best/necessary option is to write out the notes of the chord rather than rely on a chord symbol. (There are other examples besides the chord in question that would require this, such as a crunchy minor blues chord that contains the 4, ♯4, and 5.) So any chord symbol is going to fall short, because the notation isn't really equipped for scenarios falling outside of typical Western music. Given this fact, I think the best option would be Em7(add G♯). Em7(add M3) would also likely work. This is weird enough that someone reading the music would pause and realize it's supposed to capture a non-standard chord. And in general, "add" can work well for non-standard notes that aren't changing the prevailing harmony but are included for color.

I would caution against E7(♭10), because it looks like a mistaken attempt to write Emin7 by someone who didn't realize that E7 implies a major 3rd. "add" is specifically used in circumstances where an additional note (sometimes unconventional) is being added to the preceding chord. It's a demarcation between the conventional chord (which precedes the text "add") and the note being added (which follows "add"). With E7(♭10), it's unclear if the ♭10 is supposed to override the major 3rd implied by E7.


Purple Haze is an extremely complicated example because Hendrix blurs the line between major and minor tonality in an extremely compelling and effective way. The question "what should the chord be called in Purple Haze" can only be answered using the context of other elements in the song. That's true for any song, but in the case of Purple Haze, it will be a much more complex analysis because different parts of the song suggest different things. This hints at the fact that chord symbols have limitations in how broadly they apply. They really are only designed for a subset of music based on a set of assumed conventions. The farther a song/chord goes from the assumed conventions, the worse any chord symbol will be at describing what's going on. But of course, just because we can't add chord symbols to e.g. twelve-tone compositions doesn't mean they're useless. It does mean they're limited.

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  • Is Purple Haze "Western music" in that sense? To me it looks like trying to describe something in a foreign language i.e. the terms and conventions used in a culture, but the thing that's being described doesn't fully translate to the other culture whose language is being used. So we end up having to take sides - or at least imply something to that effect - regarding the chord's minor/major nature, just because of the choice of language used. Whichever we choose, "Em7(add G#)" or "E7(add G)", either G or G# looks like the "primary" third, and the other is inevitably less important. Dec 4 '21 at 18:38
  • I'd add a similar remark about the "there are only 7 notes in the scale" statement. If 9 is sharpened, and there cannot be different alterations in different octaves, then you couldn't add a natural 2 note either, in any octave? Yet an F# can be added there just fine. If you cannot fluently and naturally describe a piece of music using the language of culture X, doesn't that imply that the music itself is not from culture X? Music itself is not a problem, the language is. But your point about G or G# both being "thirds" is good. A ♭11 is like a flat 4, which the note clearly isn't, it's not A♭ Dec 4 '21 at 18:56
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica, I completely agree. I was wondering myself the extent to which Purple Haze itself can be called "Western," but I wasn't sure how much you wanted to focus the question on that song specifically. I agree 100% that the best way to decide between Em7(add G#) and E7#9 is by looking for e.g. F#'s in the song (which definitely show up in Purple Haze). But I do think Purple Haze is rare and very unique in its use of this chord. (That's part of the genius of the song.) I don't want to suggest E7#9 is always Em7(add G#) simply b/c that might be true in the best-known example.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 21:56
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica, I also think you're spot on that the conventions for writing chord symbols are based on a subset of music. The farther a song goes from those conventions, the less good the chord symbols will be at describing what's going on. (Any accepted answer should probably have a statement to that effect.) Purple Haze is such a compelling example of blurring the line between major and minor. Jimi goes back and forth so effectively, sometimes singing/playing the major 3rd and sometimes the minor 3rd. In the opening lick, he bends up from m3 to M3.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 21:56
  • I think the elastic thirds (and other intervals) in Purple Haze or blues in general are not complicated or complex. They're very simple to understand. If it's difficult to talk about them by using the terms of some particular theory, then the problem must be with the theory. No? Dec 5 '21 at 11:37
2
  • In jazz E7#9 functions as a dominant chord, so the chord symbol is justified
  • The harmony of traditional blues – and Purple Haze derives from traditional blues harmony – typically is interpreted as using dominant chords, with possibility of blue notes. So again in the chord symbol is justified.
  • Rules of music are not objective. They are subjective to given style. They are guidelines to make music that follows given style. It's not unexpected that if you introduce something foreign to a given style (like a minor chord with added major third), the rules may break. It doesn't necessary mean they are bad rules, but they may not be applicable in given area.
  • No one can forbid you to hear the chord as minor. Still I find the symbol b11 confusing, mostly because I don't see it used, so it doesn't follow any convention I'm used to. What jdjazz proposes seems easier to interpret to me.

Edit: to play devil's advocate, I browsed Vincent Persichetti's Twentieth Century Harmony and found the following spelling of an 11th chord based on C superlocrian scale, which is a close cousin of C7#9, p. 84:

C Super Locrian chord, Persichetti

The chord uses Eb and Fb, that is b3 and... b11! He doesn't comment on this. Indeed, if one builds C superlocrian as 7th mode of Db melodic minor, Eb and Fb are diatonic notes, however in common jazz practice they would be rather spelled D# and E.

Also interesting, on p. 240 he writes this paragraph:

The simultaneous sounding of altered and unaltered tones has a pungent flavor. When it is created by ornamentation, the effect is fleeting. In major-minor compound harmony this sound is firmly fixed.

Is it applicable here? Judge by yourself.

Who is right, who is wrong? No doubt 20th century classical music stretched the boundaries of harmony greatly. Persichetti is not an author to ignore. But even he says it's sometimes OK to break the rules for clarity of notation (see e.g. diminished octave in p. 79, Ex 3-27, in a n.b. uncommon example of 4th inversion of 9th chord).

Music, and art in general, is subjective. It doesn't exist in vacuum and it always refers to other works, conventions and practices. The same things might be perceived differently in various contexts. A theory that describes one area of art may fail to describe another. And it's OK.

6
  • I didn't ask if E7#9 is justified in practice. Even X1234 would be justified in practice, if everyone knew what it meant and it was the de-facto most common name. I asked if E7#9 has the same harmonic implications as the unusual Em7 (add b11) - I should have added, "from a theoretic standpoint". Dec 5 '21 at 11:20
  • 3
    @piiperiReinstateMonica, in fairness, your title does ask whether E7(#9) can be plausibly called Emin7(b11). user1079505 is giving good reasons why E7(#9) is justified, which Emin7(b11) lacks. The point about theory is addressed in the third bullet, which I'm not sure was quite as clearly pointed out in other answers.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 5 '21 at 15:20
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica E7♯9 is called this way because the chord is heard as major (or dominant seventh), thus F𝄪 is not heard as minor third. E7♭11 in turn would imply that A♭ is not heard as major third, and you seem to agree that in fact it is. What's left is – as jdjazz suggested – either Em7add3 or E7add♭3, a chord with both major and minor thirds. It's hard to say what exactly that would imply because the mainstream western theory wasn't made to describe such chords. Dec 7 '21 at 1:47
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica but see also an edit I just made. Dec 7 '21 at 4:23
  • Not sure if you get my point, but if you had been taught that it's called Gaga Gugu, you'd say that it's heard as Gaga Gugu. ;) I and Laurence hear the Hendrix chord as having a minor third as well so it's both minor and major at the same time. Anyway, the core point of the question was really, do the chord symbols have equivalent implications, and the answer is of course No. Dec 7 '21 at 18:01
0

I prefer E7(♭10) because that’s what it sounds like. The ‘pile of 3rds’ police insist on E7(♯9) though!

The basic triad is major, the ‘blue’ 3rd is invariably at the top of the chord, forming a diminished octave with the major 3rd below.

Your idea of Em7(add ♭11) - it would have to be ‘add’ because the 9th isn’t implied - is ingenious. It won’t do for the usual version of this chord because it denies the fact that the basic triad is major. But, sure, write a chord with the minor 3rd an augmented octave below the major one. In the unlikely event that you like the sound, call it Em7(add ♭11). When players have stopped laughing, I expect they’ll work out what you want :-)

The top note of E7(#9) is G. That's why the G in the minor key version of 'God rest ye' fits it.

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  • 2
    I disagree and think it's incorrect to use ♭11. To my knowledge, ♭11 chords don't exist, precisely because the note ♭11 will always be heard as a M3. If I'm wrong, I'd be really interested in sources describing this chord and/or instances where a ♭11 chord shows up on a lead sheet.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 13:45
  • 1
    So it seems like the idea here is that using ♭11 (an obvious mischaracterization) cues the reader to realize it's non-standard. (Am I understanding correctly?) I'm not sure I agree that this is the right way to go. If the G# is a major 3rd, then it should be notated that way. ♭11 fails to capture what the note is doing harmonically. I think "add" is the right way to go, but I think ♭11 would be more confusing than (add M10).
    – jdjazz
    Dec 4 '21 at 15:01
  • 1
    @piiperiReinstateMonica, it's an interesting way of looking at it. I would caution against thinking of it in terms of the specific notes, mostly because something that looks weird in one key (e.g., double sharps) will not be so weird in a different key. If the song were in C, then now we're deciding between (a) E and D#, (b) Eb and Fb, (c) E and Eb. None of those look very weird, and none involve double sharps. At first glance, it might seem absurd to say Jimi was playing a double sharp. On the other hand, given how common #9 chords are, I'd be very surprised if he weren't familiar with them
    – jdjazz
    Dec 5 '21 at 4:18
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica, and given his likely familiarity, he probably played double sharps quite frequently. I doubt he thought of the note as F##, but that doesn't change the note's theoretical nature. A jazz pianist might play a hundred E7#9 sharps in one song, but I bet almost none of them think of E7#9 as containing an F##. They think "E7#9 contains a G, which is the #9." If pressed, they could explain why it's actually an F##, but they'd probably agree that calling it F## is a level of pedantry that is not cognitively helpful in conceptualizing music efficiently. (Maybe I'm projecting)
    – jdjazz
    Dec 5 '21 at 4:27
  • 1
    "The top note of E7(#9) is G" ... according to the chord symbol naming system, it's F##, not G. Dec 5 '21 at 11:45
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why b11? 11 is the ocatve of the 4th. The octave of the 3rd is 10, so the minor 3rd is b10 if it's in a key with no sharps or natural10 in a key with sharps.

The note G in E major is natural 10 and a blue note. Blue notes can be notated as a chromatic approach to the 3rd is lowered originally by the singer, then by instruments, (flute, blue-harp, trombone). But the music notation will never exactly express or define the meaning of the function of the blue 3rd. Keyboard instruments can't actually play that blue note, that's why they often use both keys (minor and major 3rd together: for better readability we write in C: D# and #, but surely not Fx and G# in E.

You can play an minor tune underlying a major chord, (your 1st example) and also a blues chord with a minor 3rd in a tune im major. ( your 2nd example).

If the tone is resolving up it makes it seems more logical to notate a #9, if it's leading down to the 2nd (9th) or prime (octave) we'll notate a minor 3rd (b3 respectively b 10).

If the chord is stable, e.g. as final chord, both chord assignements will make sense:

#9 or b10.

b11 or major 3rd???

E,G,B,D,Ab doesn't make sense. Your example is a tune in E major with a minor chord underlying. e.g. a Blues, Rock or Boogey in C major with a Bass line C,Eb,D,G: You will never write b11 instead of the major 3rd.

-1

Indeed, there are matters of taste as well as "correct notation/nomenclature" here, but I have one point that seems not emphasized in the other very useful answers:

We can see in many "jazz/blues" settings, in piano, in right-hand, the shape of E-Bflat-Eflat for a C7-chord "embellished". The interchange of the E and the Eflat has a completely different sound...

(In Ed MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose" (for piano), I first saw G B F A in the mid-range of a piano, and I did not understand it at the time, for lack of background. Out of curiosity, I tried exchanging the two third-interval notes, and it was wildly different. :)

So, in practical terms, I'd think the chord is the major-chord, with 7, with flat 10th... indicating that that flatted 10th should be at the top of the voicing, etc.

-1

This already got downvoted, but I'll try to rephrase. Once more.

Music theory, including the chord symbol naming system, is a language for describing and reasoning about phenomena that occur in the practice of music. In a culture. When people do their musical things.

Q: Do "E7#9" and "Em7 add b11" as theoretical descriptions have the same or equivalent harmonic implications?

A: NO they do not.

The implications are different.

  • "E7#9" says: (1) there is an F##, (2) there shouldn't be an F# or any other F, (3) there is a G#, (4) there shouldn't be any other G. (5) Nothing is said about A.
  • "Em7 add b11" says: (1) there is a G natural, (2) so there shouldn't be G# or any other G, (3) there is an Ab, (4) so there shoulnd't be A natural or any other A. (5) Nothing is said about F.

There ends the core part of the question as stated in the question.


However, there's a separate issue. In Purple Haze (as well as other similar bluesy tunes), in the Hendrix chord, it sounds like there is both a major third and a minor third. But can we describe a chord like that with the chord symbol naming system? What notes do we have:

  • E7#9: E, G#, B, D, F##
  • Em7 add b11: E, G, B, D, Ab

Neither alternative has both G and G#!

Empirically, we can test how well the theoretical model describes practice. We play and add an F# note and an A natural note to the chord, or as "solo" or melody. Both seem to fit the harmony! So I must conclude that our theoretical model is not a very good fit for describing this kind of practice of music.

Empirical test you can go and try.

  • (1) Play an E minor chord.
  • (2) Over the E minor, sing a G note.
  • (3) Play an E based Hendrix chord.
  • (4) Sing the same pitch you sang previously.

--> Now ask yourself: Did I just sing a minor third or an augmented second relative to E over the Hendrix chord? Did the introduction of a G# note (in step 3 compared to step 1) in the backing chord remove the harmonic plausibility to sing an F# note? Try the F# on both chords! Does the G# in the backing chord make the F# feel somehow impossible, in your honest opinion?

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Richard
    Dec 7 '21 at 1:01

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