A book I'm reading suggests that there are two reasons that the 9#11 chord is more common than the 11th chord, and I don't understand either.

First, the natural 11th interferes with our ability to hear the root of the chord, because it's the same note as the subdominant, which is a lower note. Also, it clashes with the major 3rd.

  • I (having a very untrained ear) don't notice a difference in ability to hear the root between C9 and C11. The 11th is more than an octave above the root. Why would hearing the subdominant there make it harder? Is commonly agreed that it is?
  • Why is it problematic that the 11th clashes with the 3rd, but not that the #11th clashes with the 5th? Is this because the third is more characterising of a chord than the fifth?

(Of course whatever sounds right is right and there are no rules, but I believe there is value in understanding what's written in theory books either way.)

  • Comment rather than answer. An 11th chord to me usually sounds more like a sus (Yes, the 3rd is there already!), and the #11 sounds like a 'b12', as in it's the 5th (12th) that's been changed, flattened, rather than the 11th sharpened. – Tim Aug 19 '18 at 10:49
  • @Tim Thank you. It's very helpful for me to hear how others perceive chords, as it often differs from my perception. Maybe because I didn't grow up around music. – Anna Aug 19 '18 at 10:53

The clash with the 3rd is the more important factor. The 3rd and 7th are responsible for describing the quality of the chord and are therefore very important notes, but the 5th (if it's a perfect 5th) doesn't really add anything. So the 5th is often omitted from a voicing, whether because it's clashing or because we don't have enough fingers. Try it yourself: Play C E G B♭ and compare how it feels when you remove the E vs. when you remove the G.

Regarding the first reason stated: I think this effect is present, but it's very slight. It's going to be hard to experience in isolation, because when you set out to play a C11 chord you are priming yourself to interpret C as the root. If you were to encounter this chord in context, and probably without the clean stacked-thirds voicing, you might find it to be more ambiguous.

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