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What Are Upper Structure Triads?
Welcome to this tutorial on upper structure triads. Upper structure triads are complex altered dominant chord voicings that are widely used in solo jazz piano performance.
Why “Upper Structure” Triad
You may be wondering why is this type of voicing is called an upper structure triad? Well that’s because there are 2 parts to the chord, the upper structure and the lower structure.
The Lower Structure
The lower structure is the vanilla dominant chord voicing, so for C7, we could play root, 3rd and b7, and if you have a wide stretch we can play those notes like this, we could play just the root and b7, we could play just the 3rd and 7th, and we can also invert that 3rd and 7th. Each of these creates a different LH texture.
The Upper Structure
So what about the upper structure? Well the upper structure is played in our right hand, and the cool thing about these voicings is that we only need to use major triads to construct the 4 most useful and versatile upper structure triads. We must be comfortable with the major triads in all 12 keys & also the inversions.
Why Split The Chord Into 2 Parts?
That’s a very good question! The answer is that it gives us simple formulas to memorise complex altered dominant chord voicings. For example if we want to play a C13#11 chord, we just think D major triad over C7 and with practice that process becomes very quick to visualise until it is an almost subconscious process.
The other key benefit is that by visualising the upper and lower structure as 2 separate entities, we can easily maneuverer and manipulate the shapes in each hand to create many different textures using the same chord colour.
The 4 Common Upper Structures
Download the upper structure cheat sheet which contains the 4 most useful upper structure formulas.
The first is US2 which is a major triad built from the 2 or 9. This gives us a 13#11 sound, as our right hand is outlining the scale degrees 9, #11, and 13.
Next we have US#4 or #11 which is a major triad built from the #11. This gives us a b9/#11, as our right hand triad outlines #11, b7, and b9.
Next we have US#5 which is a major triad built off the #5. This gives us a #5#9 sound, also known as alt. The triad contains the #5, root & #9 and it has a very tense sound.
Finally we have US6 or 13 which is a major triad built of the 6 or 13. This gives u a 13b9 sound. Our right hand contains the tones 13, b9, and 3.
So that’s the 4 most common upper structures. In our altered harmony course you can find practice drills and exercises to
Let’s now finish by applying these voicings to 3 jazz standards and use the upper structure cheat sheet as an aid to help us find suitable upper structure voicings for dominant chords in our favourite tunes.