How to Use Chord Extensions in Songwriting
So following up on my last post about what chord extensions are (read it here if you need a refresher What are Chord Extensions?). I wanted to expand more on how to use them practically in songwriting.
In general, chord extensions can be used to spice up chord progressions, create textures and moods, and build more interesting arrangements.
Let’s deep dive and see how using extensions works in practice depending on the goal for your song.
Texture and Mood
So, you know how modes are basically the moods of music? (If you need to brush up on modes check out this article How to Write Songs Using Modes).
Well chords with extensions often have very defined moods as well because of the way that chords are built. You take a triad and then can add 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths. But those extensions may also be important notes from a mode.
As an example we can take a look at Cmaj7#11 (or Cmaj#11, however you want to call it). This chord has the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th and #11th, so not only is it an extended chord, but the #11th is an important, defining note of the C Lydian mode (it’s the #4 but an octave up), so it gives it the mood of that mode.
The Lydian mode tends to have a heavenly, epic, ethereal sound to it.
So if you take into account the important notes in a mode (i.e. the notes that make them different from the major scale and other modes), then you can create interesting textures and moods with your extensions.
Another great way to use extensions is to help you play a melody while you play the rhythm chords at the same time.
You’ll see this with jazz and classical guitar players, especially if they are playing a solo gig because this helps sound more interesting and more full without other musicians to support.
Try to keep the melody note as the highest note in the chord, at least most of the time. This is because the highest note will usually grab the listeners’ attention the most, so they will hear the melody more clearly if you use it to lead the melody.
Bigger Sounding Chords (More notes take up more space)
When chords have more notes they can also sound bigger in size as well because there is more harmonic content.
For example if you just play a powerchord or a triad on a guitar, there is still room for other instruments to play more notes. The guitar would serve as a solid foundation, and then other instruments could play more notes on top for added color and texture.
However, if you play a triad with chord extensions all on the guitar, then the chord may sound larger, more defined, and takes up more harmonic space, which may or may not make it harder for other instruments to add even more notes without sounding messy or conflicting with the guitar.
Of course there are exceptions and workarounds and it may just be a purposeful stylistic choice. So it becomes a matter of songwriting and arrangement choices. Just something to consider as you write so you can keep things from getting messy.
To Spice Up Chord Progressions
Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful uses of chord extensions is to spice up your chord progressions.
Instead of using very basic major and minor chords, you can throw in 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths on your chords and it will give them a different vibe and mood. They will also sound a bit more sophisticated.
You can use this to sound jazzy, but the real value is that they will expand your color palette when writing songs. Don’t just get stuck on the jazzy sound, you can use them for much more. They can help you express complex emotions like mysterious, sensual, nostalgic, and more.
Spread Chord Extensions Across Different Instruments
A great arrangement technique to add extensions to your basic chord progressions is to spread chords across several instruments. This is great because you will get the mood of the full chord, but with tons of clarity and depth because they can be spread across each instrument.
For a simple example, having the root note on the bass guitar, the triad on a guitar, and a keyboard with the chord extensions in the background, may give you a much richer, clearer, and fuller sound than just hearing the full chord with extensions on guitar.
It may seem obvious to some people but if you’re just starting to write songs this will help you see additional arrangement options and think more holistically.
I know when I started out, I pretty much only thought about the guitar, some melodies and some drums.Then I’d let my bandmates figure out their parts. This is a valid approach but it can really help your musicians if you have a general guide they can follow in terms of arrangement, especially with fancy chords. The guitar doesn’t have to do everything.
When Not to Use Chord Extensions
I think it’s important to know some possible issues you might run into when using extensions. There’s always going to be exceptions and workarounds but consider:
- If you plan to have a solo section where the solo cycles through different modes and scales, consider if it would serve the song best to have simple triad chords and let the soloing instrument have the space to play different minor or major scales and modes. You could definitely do complex chords and solo over them (look at Jazz), but it’s just something to think about depending on your genre. A pop rock song might not need fancy moody chords but would sound pretty awesome to have a solo with different modes and scales over simple powerchords.
- If you use tons of high-gain distortion on guitars you may want to be careful about how many notes your chords have so they don’t just sound like a fuzzy, indiscernible mess (unless it’s what you want). Use your best judgment. Either simplify the chords or dial back the distortion for clarity.
- If other instruments are already playing complex chords, consider doing something simple on your guitar. Contrast is important, and for arrangement purposes it can really help to have a balance of simplicity and complexity. Maybe all your musicians want to play that crazy Cmaj7#11add13 at the same time but it could sound better spread across everyone. Remember the audience is hearing the whole band play, not just your instrument.
- If the arrangement is already too full or busy you might not want to add more to it. Like if you have two melodies doing counterpoint, with busy drums and a bass walking up and down the scale, maybe just do something simple and don’t add a crazy chord on top of it.
- Avoid playing minor 2nd intervals when playing melodies or soloing over extended chords. Basically you want to avoid playing two notes a minor 2nd interval away from each other because they will sound very dissonant and jarring. Jazz players call these “avoid notes”.
Wrapping it up
As you can see there are a lot of ways to use chord extensions in songwriting. They are a valuable tool and one you will likely be using more and more as you become more advanced in your writing.
It’s also important to see how your specific genre uses them. This can range from heavily to sparingly, and sometimes they will be very obvious or very subtle.
Hope this post has given you some insight into how you can apply them to your own songs.
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