What is upper structure? How are upper structure triads constructed? How are they used?


The answer to this is as long as you want it to be. I'll give you a short one.

Upper structures are normally major or minor triads made up of extended chord tones and their alterations. E.g. your basic chord tones are 1, 3 and 5 - upper structures are usually made up of any of the other extensions: 7, 9, 11, 13, and alterations to them.

Generally, upper structures are used to superimpose a certain tonal quality over a root note while still using a triad format.

Consider having a C shell voicing (root and seven), and playing a D major triad over the top of it, this is an upper structure and creates a Lydian (13#11) sound.

The reason upper structures are used is to simplify an otherwise complicated voicing in your head. On the piano, you play a root note in your left hand and a major or minor triad in your right hand and you could potentially highlight some extreme chord alterations without having to think about the fact that that's what you're playing... Another example would be bIIm triad over I root note, provides you with the b9 and b13/#5. Db minor over C is much easier to think about on the fly. Here's a more comprehensive list of examples.

Here are other references on this:

  • I don't completely agree with everything this one says, but I think it's a basic reference for beginners so is suggesting to avoid certain things.
  • Wikipedia (thumbs up)

Edit: for clarification, I have tried to make it very clear that I am not saying that an upper structure and a slash chord are the same thing, although in performance they are very similar and often can be the same.

On piano, left hand voicings would always include the root and seventh note of the scale to form a shell voicing unless the pianist is playing in an ensemble with other instruments that cover those notes e.g. bass on root note. In this case, the pianist might only play the US triad in the right hand.

  • 1
    "Consider having a C root note, and playing a D major triad over the top of it" As I understand it (admittedly not very well), it wouldn't be just a D chord over a root note of C, but a D chord over an entire C chord (or C7, CM7...). Essentially forming a polychord. – Caleb Hines Jun 5 '14 at 4:55
  • The implication of this scenario is that you wouldn't simply use the root note, it would be a left hand shell voicing of the root note and the 7, which would create the base harmony. It is not necessary for upper structures to voice the 3 of the original chord. If you're talking about voicing a D chord over a C chord, that is exactly what an upper structure is - you may just be using a different (polychord) name for it. – Robbie Averill Jun 5 '14 at 4:58
  • @scrowler - is that example another way of saying 'D/C as in Dmaj with C bass? Albeit possibly an unexpected chord in a certain key. – Tim Jun 5 '14 at 7:51
  • This is the video I watched that made me think of them as one chord on top of another (different) chord; not just a different bass note. He mentions that in ensemble playing, the piano LH would omit the root and 5th (of the bottom chord) and just play its 3rd and 7th, while the right hand, of course, plays the other (upper structure) chord. youtube.com/watch?v=GFJ4GYozl_0 – Caleb Hines Jun 5 '14 at 13:14
  • I would clarify this by saying that D/C would be a Slash Chord, which can be used to imply a Cmaj7 9/#11/13 without playing the 3/5/7. An upper structure triad, as others have suggested, would be a triadic form of the extensions/alterations, which is usually used above the R/3/5/7. Jazz players often omit 5 and in there is a bass player the root. To clarify a point in the answer, 7 is not considered an extension but a part of the core of the chord. The 3 should only be omitted if replaced with an extension a whole tone above the 3 and results in a different texture, more like the slash chord. – Basstickler Jun 5 '14 at 14:09

Upper structures are tritones over a minor/major triad or the other way round. Forming these chords needs thorough understanding on triads and tritones. A C major7(b5) is an example.C-E-G-B-Gb. there two chords in these...a minor triad nd a tritone/dominant. E-G-B=E minor triad.Also Gb-C=Gb tritone,C tritone and Ab dominant. In remembrance to the fact that a chords quality is on the 3&7.So in Ab application,Gb-C on your left and E-G-B.....

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