The Most Beautiful Jazz Chords And How You Use Them

Sometimes you get a little bit tired of playing chord progressions that all sound like this:

And you want to hear some other less predictable chords, and actually, there are a lot of options for that which are already built into the key and let you play something like this.

What I am using here is borrowing some chords from a category called minor subdominant chords,  which is a large group of chords that really can sound incredible in a chord progression!

The Chords That Didn’t Make Sense

When I was beginning to learn standards then I didn’t know how to analyze them, so in the isolated Danish mountains while I was practicing endlessly I was just trying to remember the chords, not understanding what was going on. My knowledge of harmony was limited to realizing what key something was in and maybe figuring out that something was a II V I of some sort.

But I still often ran into other progressions that sounded great, but where I didn’t really understand why, and a lot of the chords that I liked the most later turned out to be minor subdominant chords, they were often the part of the song that I was really drawn to but that I couldn’t figure out.

Tonal Harmony in (almost) 1 minute

The music that I am going to explore in this video is in a key, it is not random chords next to each other which is important to realize.

If you take the key of C major then the foundation is based on the C major scale

And the basic diatonic chords that you create in that key if you stack 3rds would give you these 7 chords:

The way I look at these chords they are split into 3 groups: Tonic chords, Dominant chords and Subdominant chords.

The groups are made so that the chords in the group can often replace each other in a progression, contain many of the same notes, and therefore also sound similar.

Usually, you call this the function of the chord, so in C major, Em7 has a tonic function, and G 7 has a dominant function.

Notice that the function of a chord is also about the chord progression, so it is not just about the notes in the chord. That is also why you can find examples of Am7 being a subdominant chord in C major as well as other places where it is tonic,

The Great Tonal Trick

When a song is in a major key then the great thing about that is that you have all the diatonic chords that I just showed you but you can also use the chords from the minor key with the same root, so in C major you can also use the chords from C minor.

Cut in: – I can, for some reason, never remember what is parallel and what is relatively minor, so I think about it like this, sorry…

This is not entirely coming from scales and is essentially more about voice-leading, but starting with a scale is a great way to get some things to work with, and then you can expand on that to get to some of the great sounds, but I will get to that later in the video.

For C natural minor:

You have these chords:

And in fact, most of these can work as a minor subdominant: Dø, Fm7, Abmaj7, and Bb7 will all be great minor subdominant chords. Let’s hear them in action also to get a better understanding of how they are used in the songs.

#1 Dø

The Dø chord is the easiest to put to use in a II V I, so that you in fact have an entire dark-sounding minor cadence that then beautifully resolves to a bright major sound, similar to Cole Porter’s I love you

#2 Fm7

The Fm7 chord is more often used as a way of getting from a subdominant chord to a tonic chord, so not as a part of a II V I. Often you will in fact see it as an Fm6 or FmMaj7, but I will get to that in a bit. Here it is moving coming from Dm7:

#3 Abmaj7

The bVImaj7 is a beautiful sound and is actually used in quite a few different ways. It can be used like the Fm7 chord:

But it can also be used in a cadence instead of a II chord, which is how it is used in Cole Porter’s Night and Day:

#4 Bb7

One of the minor subdominant chords that is a little less obvious is the bVII, also called the backdoor dominant. You often hear that used as a transition from subdominant back to the tonic:

But it is also sometimes appearing as an extra movement at the end of a section:

Now you have some basic examples so I can show you some more advanced chords before getting to the one that doesn’t fit at all,

A minor (subdominant) misunderstanding

But first, let’s just go over one of the questions that I get most often when I am analyzing something involving these chords which is something like

“why is Abmaj7 a minor subdominant? It is not even a minor chord?”

What you want to know here is that it is called minor not because it is a minor chord, but because it is coming from the minor key. The reason that it is subdominant is that it doesn’t contain a B, so the leading note in the key, and it WILL resolve to a tonic chord, so it isn’t dominant and it isn’t tonic and therefore it is subdominant.

As I already mentioned with the Am7 chord, then you can’t really boil function down to just what notes have to be in the chord.

What I am talking about in this video, is also sometimes referred to as modal interchange, but that concept is, as far as I know, a lot wider, where this is much more specific to the key and more of a description of the type of harmony you come across in Jazz standards.

The next thing to look at is how the chords often are given extensions so that they work better with the major key which gives you some really beautiful chords, and then that chord that doesn’t really fit into the system but sounds beautiful.

Make It Closer to The Key

Some of the other very common minor subdominant chords are a little different in terms of how they are colored, and those are in fact more common.

As I mentioned earlier then the minor subdominants are more a result of voice-leading than of chords from a scale, and in fact, it is mostly about one note that is moving, in C major that would be A moving down to Ab to G, which if you start with an F chord gives you:


The 6th note in the scale is one of the most important parts of the subdominant sound, and when you alter that you create minor subdominants.

The most common minor subdominant, and maybe the one that it all points back to in Jazz, is probably a IVm6 chord, so in C major that would be

The Fm6 is a nice sound in C major because it is closer to the key than the Fm7 that also has an Eb which is not in the C major scale.

The Fm6 also allows for having an E in the melody so there is more melodic freedom over it when it appears in a C major context. The most common scale used for this chord is F melodic minor.

You can also see, or rather hear, how Fm6 and Bb7 are interchangeable,

and that also explains why the backdoor dominant is a Lydian dominant, so it has a #11 as an extension.

There is one more subdominant chord to cover, also one that is fairly common, but first let’s look at going beyond the subdominant function.

Minor Dominant – What Is That Anyway?

This video is of course about the minor subdominant chords, but you want to be aware that you come across dominants that are borrowed from minor all the time as well.

The minor scale where the dominant function lives is harmonic minor, which is probably also why it is called that.

And here you have two chords with a dominant function: G7, which becomes a G7(b9,b13) and Bdim

Both of these are useful to have as chords you can use like this basic II V I with a G7(b9)

and this neat way of adding a dominant to get a different transition from a backdoor dominant to the tonic

A Beautiful chord that doesn’t fit

The chord that doesn’t really seem to fit and which is often seen as some sort of tritone substitute is the Neapolitan subdominant.

The way to understand it is really just to think of it as a IVm triad, so in C major that is an F minor triad, with an added 6th but in this case, it is a b6 since that is a stronger leading note to take us down to the root, C. And In Jazz, we turn that into a Dbmaj7 chord and have progressions like this:

The Most Beautiful Jazz Chords And How You Use Them

In this case, the chord isn’t found in C minor, but as you can see it is just a result of voice-leading. Keep in mind that chords is any way just a very crude way to understand voice-leading, something I have talked about before: making things into vertical chord symbols doesn’t always help you understand what is going on.


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