Chord Tensions: Adding Colorful Notes to Chords | Hub Guitar

Chord Tensions: Adding Colorful Notes to Chords

What is a Tension?

A tension is an extra note in a chord that is not a basic part of the chord. Think of it like a decoration; it adds character but not substance. There are two ways to determine what tensions will work on a chord. The first is to add any diatonic note from the key into the chord, so long as it sounds acceptable to you. Your ear trumps all other theories of music. The second is to use a scale for the harmonic duration of the chord; this scale will be called a chord-scale.

The following should be considered while exploring tensions:

  1. Tensions will not be described with the numerals 1, 3, 5, 7; these are chord tones.

  2. Tensions will be described with the numerals 9, 11 and 13. This implies that the tension is more than an octave higher than the chord’s root.

  3. In some situations, the tones “11” and “13” are not tensions. They are not tensions when they are replacing another chord tone. In a sus4 chord (1 4 5), tone 4 replaces 3, and is a chord tone—not a tension.

  4. Tensions will not be described with the numerals 2, 4 and 6; if this descriptor is used, it will specifically refer to a note that is replacing a chord tone. “2” and “4” in sus2 and sus4 both replace the 3. In a major 6th chord, 6 replaces the 7.

  5. Tensions borrowed from the key of the song will sound more natural.

  6. Tensions present many interesting possibilities; learn them and try to find uses for all of them before rejecting any sounds.

  7. Tensions will usually be a major second above another chord tone.

Let’s start our exploration by considering the tensions that will appear within a major key’s diatonic harmony. This refers back to another lesson on diatonic seventh chords.

Remember that diatonic chordUsually used to mean a chord that can be created from pitches drawn from the current key of the music. More generally, it can also mean a chord created from pitches of any major scale.s are built from the notes in a major scale.

Chords in the Major Scale

These notes are stacked in thirdThis can mean any kind of third, including major or minor. It often refers to whichever third would be normal when constrained by limits of the current key.s to create diatonic chords. Each of these four-note chords has a 1, 3, 5 and 7. That’s why these notes can’t be tensions. They’re part of the chord already.

We continue this process of stacking thirds even higher, until we’ve tried all of the notes in the major scale. However, we’re going to have to sort out some of these possibilities. Because our chords are getting very dense, we’re going to run into situations where two notes don’t sit well together. This is a result of using a note that would be a half step (or an octave and a half step) above another chord tone. The “F” doesn’t work on Cmaj7 because it would be a half step above E. Moving it up an octave, two octaves, or three octaves doesn’t change that. It doesn’t fit. These two notes vibrate so closely together that they’ll create a harsh dissonanceRefers to the quality of two or more notes which do not have strong harmonization. This is because the notes vibrate at frequencies which have some conflict, and this conflict is audible to the human ear.. The notes that are not usually considered to be tensions are blacked out.

Chords with Tensions

Diatonic tensions.

List of Tensions

Chord Function Tensions Example Audio
Imaj7 9, 13 Cmaj9
II-7 9, 11, 13* D-9
III-7 11 E-11
IVmaj7 9, #11, 13 Fmaj7(♯11)
V7 9, 13 G13
VI-7 9, 11 A-9
VII-7♭5 11, b13 B-7♭5(♭13)

Key Tasks

  1. Memorize the tensions available for each diatonic chord.
  2. Memorize the 7 guidelines for understanding tensions from above.

*Even though 13 is technically available on the II-7 chord, it is not often used because of the tritoneAn unstable interval of six semitones. It can refer to the root and the raised fourth of a key; it can also refer to the interval occurring between the 7th and 4th pitches of a major scale. that would be produced between the third and thirteenth of the chord. For instance, the third of D-7 is F and the thirteenth is B; this is the same tritone that defines the sound of the V7 chord of the key, and can have an undesirable effect on the harmony.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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