Upper structure voicings are built by playing a triad in the right hand over a tritone in the left hand. They are most commonly used to voice dominant seventh chords with altered extensions with the left hand tritone defining the 3rd and 7th, and the right hand triad providing a convenience system for voicing various combinations of altered extensions.
The following example is an upper structure voicing for the chord G7b9 along with some variations based on inversions of the tritone and the triad respectively.
Upper structures are identified by the interval between the root of the bottom chord and the root of the right hand triad. In the above example, since the interval between the root of the bottom chord (G) and the root of the right hand triad (E) is a 6th, this particular voicing is referred to as an upper structure VI.
There are many possible upper structure combinations, but the two most commonly applicable upper structures are:
- USVI – Played on 7b9 chords from diminished harmony
- USbVI – Played on 7alt (altered) chords from melodic minor harmony
The following shows an example of each of these two upper structures with a G7 base chord. These two are the most common dominant 7th chord alterations:
Let’s try putting these voicings to work. First of all, the flat 9 is the most common alteration to the V chord in major II-V-I’s (It sounds smooth because of an implied tritone substitution). In addition, because 7b9 chords are associated with the half-whole diminished scale, the voicing for the V7b9 chord can be transposed up or down a minor 3rd (in diminished harmony, there are no avoid notes and everything that is a minor third apart are interchangeable). Thus we can voice a major II-V-I in C as follows:
Or if we start with a different inversion and transpose the V7b9 voicing in the other direction:
To get familiarized with the USVI one could try to voice II-V-I’s with it going through all 12 keys:
Because there are no avoid notes in diminished harmony, not only is everything interchangeable in intervals of minor third, any chord derived from a diminished scale is interchangeable with any other chord from the same scale. This means that voicings for 7b9 chords can also be applied to diminished chords derived from the same diminished scale. In the following example, the C#dim chord is voiced with a USVI for C7b9, and the D#dim chord is voiced with a USVI for D7b9:
Next, the USbVI can be directly applied to the Valt chord in minor II-V-I’s. In addition, recall that all three chords in minor II-V-I’s are modes from melodic minor harmony, and that everything is interchangeable for all modes from the same melodic minor scale (there are no avoid notes in melodic minor harmony), we can apply the USbVI to the other two chords as well.
The following example shows how a minor II-V-I in C minor can be voiced with upper structures:
Or if we start from a different inversion:
These voicings are actually very similar to the basic four note rootless voicings except for one added note. To get familiarized with the USbVI one could try to voice minor II-V-I’s with it going through all 12 keys:
Other possible upper structures include (lower case Roman numerals denote a minor triad):
- USII – Played on 7#11 (Lydian dominant) chords from melodic minor harmony
- USbIII – Played on 7#9 chords from diminished harmony
- USbV – Played on 7b9#11 chords from diminished or melodic minor harmony
- USi – Played on 7#9 chords from diminished harmony
- USbii – Played on 7b9b13 chords from altered scale harmony
- USbiii – Played on 7#9#11 chords from diminished or melodic minor harmony
- US#iv – Played on 7b9#11 chords from diminished harmony
Upper structures are typically derived from melodic minor, diminished or altered scale harmony. Although there are no avoid notes in these types of harmony, the composer of a tune may specify a particular chord over the others in order to highlight a certain note in the melody.
Let’s examine some applications of these additional upper structures in the context of tunes:
USII played on the 7#11 (Lydian dominant) chord at bar 14 of Beautiful Love:
USbIII played on the 7#9 chord at bar 2 of Blue In Green:
USbV played on the 7b9#11 chord at bar 13 of Laura:
USi played on the 7#9 chord at bar 11 of Inútil Paisagem:
USbii played on the 7b9b13 chord at bar 34 of Chega De Saudade:
USbiii played on the 7#9#11 chord at bar 12 of Gloria’s Step:
US#iv played on the 7b9#11 chord at bar 3 of Monk’s Mood: