Quartal Chords in Motion

June 16, 2014

My “chords in motion” journey began when I first heard McCoy Tyner playing on John Coltrane’s classic recording A Love Supreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious and open sound of McCoy’s voicings. After some investigation, I learned that his structures were called quartal voicings and were based on fourths. While quartal structures had been played previous to Tyner, he was the one who put them in motion, as a response to the longer harmonic rhythms found in many of Coltrane’s compositions.

Extended harmonic rhythms necessitated a method of playing one chord for a longer duration, but while still creating interest and movement. Quartals provided the perfect solution. Following their introduction, other structures began to appear in jazz piano comping as longer harmonic rhythms gained wider use. Structures built on the diminished scale were integrated with quartals. Many of the diminished structures contained triads, as did some quartal structures (like the famous “So What” voicings Bill Evans played with Miles Davis). More recently, paired triads found their way into moving chordal structures. Here are some examples to get you better acquainted with these intriguing voicings. 

1. Quartal Basics


Ex. 1a illustrates the classic “So What” voicing played by Bill Evans on the Miles Davis recording Kind of Blue. Notice the first-inversion major triads in the right hand, and the fourths in the left hand. Ex. 1b shows how dropping the top note from the right hand down two octaves results in a purely quartal voicing, with three notes in the left hand and two in the right—a frequently used configuration.

2. Pentatonics and Fifths


Pentatonics and quartal voicings are cousins. When combined as in Ex. 2a, the notes in a major pentatonic scale yield a quartal voicing. Ex. 2b shows how perfect fourths inverted become perfect fifths, thus a quartal voicing can be transformed into a quintal voicing. Both voicings contain the notes of the G major pentatonic scale. In Ex. 2c, five-note voicings are expanded into six-note voicings, which can then be inverted to open and close positions.

3. Moving Quartals


Ex. 3 illustrates how you can practice five-note quartal voicings by walking up a mode diatonically from the root. The voicings here are derived from the D Dorian mode (major scale harmony), and can be used for Dmin7 as well as E7sus4b9, Fmaj7#4, G7sus4, Aminb6, Bmin7b5, and Cmaj7sus4.

4. Varied Intervals


Ex. 4 demonstrates how the interval between the top two notes of quartal voicings can be varied to create a melodic pedal point.

5. Mixed Voicings


In Ex. 5, the first two voicings are triads over quartals and the second two are sets of fourths separated by a major third. When used to harmonize melody notes, these voicings can move up or down in any interval. One way to think of it is that they have constant structures but variable functions.

6. Diminished Structures


Here’s a mouthful: the octatonic symmetric diminished scale. This scale alternates whole-steps and half-steps. When a chord tone in a diminished seventh chord is raised a whole step to a scale tone as in Ex. 6, a major triad with a flat ninth results (F/F#). This voicing can be moved up or down in minor thirds. It can also be distributed between two hands for a bigger sound. Since these voicings are derived from the diminished scale, they can be applied to the following diminished chords: F#, A, C, and Eb, and the following dominant seventh flat nine chords: F, Ab, B, and D.

7. Major and Minor from Diminished 


There are four scale-tone major triads and four scale-tone minor triads contained in the diminished scale. Ex. 7 illustrates how any of them can be used to create voicings which can be moved up or down in minor thirds and applied to any of the chords on the same diminished axis. The quartal-based 7b9 left hand structure can also be moved up or down in minor thirds, either together with or independently of the right hand. 

8. Mirrored Diminished Voicings


Ex. 8 demonstrates that by mirroring the quartal based left hand diminished/dominant 7b9 structure in the right hand, we can create another diminished scale based voicing which can move up or down in minor thirds. Adding more scale tones results in varying textures.

9. Scale Tone Triad Voicings


The major and minor scale tone triad pairs found in major scale harmony can be used as voicings, as seen in Ex. 9. These triads can move in contrary motion up and down diatonically shifting between inversions. The resulting voicings can be applied to all related chords from the same parent major scale. 

10. Triads and Octaves


Ex. 10 illustrates moving structures featuring triads in the left hand with octaves containing fourths and thirds. Extrapolate this to apply to all chords built on the same parent major scale.

11. D is for Dorian


Ex. 11 illustrates how you can navigate a ii-V-i progression in minor using quartals by using the Dorian mode a minor third above the root of the ii min7b5 chord (Cmin7 over Amin7b5), the Dorian mode a half step above the V7alt chord (Ebmin7 over D7alt), resolving to the Dorian mode built on the root of the i chord.

12. Putting Chords in Motion


The chorus of F minor blues in Ex. 12 illustrates how all these devices can be integrated into a comping context. The coda is a descending progression of quintal voicings alternating between minor 11th and major 7#4 chords.


Swing Both Ways

Quartal voicings are versatile and also harmonically ambiguous, since they don’t outline harmony using typical guide tones like thirds or sevenths,” says pianist, composer and longtime contributor Andy LaVerne, who has performed with Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. His latest projects include the book Chords In Motion, the CD I Have A Dream, and a series of instructional videos online at mymusicmasterclass.com. Andy is Professor of Jazz Piano at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, and on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. Find out more at andylaverne.com.

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