The Confusion Around Minor Chords FINALLY Explained

Remember the first time you played a modal tune like Impressions and how fun it was to wail over a minor chord? Maybe you’ve had this experience, or maybe it’s in your near future, but one thing is for sure: it’s fun just to let loose on a minor chord vamp and solo for hours! It’s so freeing, like you can play anything…

In fact, John Coltrane must have felt this way too, because he used Impressions as a vehicle of exploration, time and time again throughout his career.

Now, keep Impressions in mind, but now I want you to fast-forward in your memory to improvising over a tune like Rhythm Changes or All The Things You Are

And specifically, think about the minor chords sprinkled throughout these tunes. Still feel like those minor chords are “freeing,” like you can “play anything” over them and “explore?”

Chances are, the minor chords in these tunes are more like a straight-jacket than an infinite universe to explore, and that they feel and sound totally different to you than the minor chords in Impressions.

But isn’t a minor chord just a minor chord? Why is it that sometimes I sound great over a minor chord, and other times I barely know what or how to play over them?

No, a minor chord is not just a minor chord. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple…

Minor chords take on different roles depending upon context. Becoming aware of this context is the first step toward gaining freedom with them.

Context is everything: How minor chords function

Minor chords are not as simple as most people think because so much of how to play over them comes down to context.

In jazz tunes, context is everything and there’s no one way or correct way to think. You have to try different approaches and use your ear.

What you hear is the truth and it will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Theory can help you understand why

A minor chord is not just a minor chord, but it’s confusing because in any tune, they have the same chord symbol and will all be called a “minor chord. “ So, how do we determine what kind of minor chord we’re dealing with, and what will sound good over it?

The answer: function.

How a chord functions within a chord progression is the context. If you understand how the chord is functioning within the context of the chord progression, you’ll have a much better idea of how to play over it, or at least understand why certain things tend to sound better than others.

In a major key, there are 3 different ways a minor chord functions:

Looking at all the chords in a major key, there are:

  • 3 minor chords (ii, iii, vi)
  • 2 major chords (I, IV)
  • 1 dominant chord (V7)
  • 1 half diminished chord (Vii min7b5)

This, although subtle, is super helpful information.

The inverse of this, which awesome teacher and player Barry Harris asks in the clip below, would be: How many keys is a minor chord in? For instance, if you have a minor chord, say D minor, how many different keys is it in? Do you know?

Because we know it can function as a ii, iii, or vi chord, we know that a D minor chord can be:

  • ii in the key of C major
  • iii in the key of Bb major
  • vi in the key of F major

So the answer is: D minor 7 is in three different keys.

Thinking about this information helps give you a concept about how to think about these 3 different minor chord functions in a simple and systematic way.

The most common way we’re used to encountering minor chords is as a ii chord, for example, in a ii V I progression. The minor chord functions as a “two” within that key:

ii V progressions are literally everywhere in jazz standards, but, as you now know, a minor chord is not always a ii chord…

In Rhythm Changes and All The Things You Are, at certain places within these tunes, the minor chords are functioning as ii, iii, and vi chords.

In the 3rd and 4th bars of Rhythm Changes, people often play a iii VI ii V:

If you listen closely to this recording of Bird playing Kim, you can hear the root movement:

This is a minor chord functioning as a iii chord.

Now, if we take a look at All The Things You Are, in the first measure we have a minor chord functioning as a Vi minor chord and in the second measure a minor chord functioning as a ii minor chord. The first 4 measures are a vi ii V I progression:

We also mentioned one other situation: how a minor chord could be the tonic chord, as in Impressions. A minor chord functions as the tonic chord when it is the key of the tune.

And another clear example of this is the tune Autumn Leaves:

Listen to Miles and Cannonball playing Autumn Leaves and you’ll quickly realize that a minor chord as a tonic is a little different to solo over…

So, take a minute to digest all that…

And when you’ve got your head around minor chord function, let’s take a look at what this means in terms of the actual chord structure beyond the classic 1-3-5-7 chord-tone diagrams we’ve seen up to this point…

Look up! – Differences in upper structures

When talking about how chords function most of the time we’re shown examples from general music theory, which much of the time shows chords as 7th chords a the previous examples did, 1-3-5-7.

However, in jazz we’re concerned with the entire chord structure all the way up to the 13th.

I like to think of two groups of chord-tones for a chord as:

  • The lower structure chord-tones: 1-3-5-7
  • The upper structure chord-tones: 9-11-13

Now I’d like to share with you an interesting and revealing trick about minor chords that helped me think about them in a much simpler fashion, and I’m sure you’ll realize very quickly that you can use this trick not just with minor chords but with other chord qualities and harmonic situations as well. Here it is…

The differences between ALL of these minor chords is only between their upper structure chord-tones. That’s it.

For example, let’s take a look at E minor functioning as a ii, iii, or vi chord:

Now before you dismiss this as obvious or dumb, because it is very obvious, just think about it for a second. You may or may not have noticed that the differences only occur in the upper structures, but the real implication is that now you only have 3 notes to worry about that differ between these minor chords.

And you know that these differences have to do with the 9th, 11th, or 13th. That’s it.

The lower structure, 1-3-5-7, is all the same, but the upper structure, 9-11-13, is where there are slight differences. These differences account for the way our ears hear melodic consonance and dissonance.

These upper structure chord-tones may clash with the chord in a harmonic setting (a chord voicing) but what we’re referring to here is the context of a melodic line. In other words, as you solo with these specific upper structure chord tones in a melodic line, they’ll either sound more consonant or dissonant depending upon how the chord is functioning.

Keep all this info about the upper structure chord-tone in the back of your mind as we explore the specific functions of each minor chords.

Mr. Popular: The ii minor chord

The Dorian mode, the second degree of the major scale, in jazz is the standard way people tend to think about the “right” notes of a minor chord:

In general, these notes tend to sound the most consonnant and colorful when played over a minor chord, which is why we like to think of them as our baseline scale.

Here’s another big point of confusion though: sometimes chords are not necessarily functioning a specific way within a key center. For instance, going back to Impressions, the second chord in the progression, Eb minor, (the only other chord in the tune) is a half-step up from the first chord.

This chord doesn’t really function any specific way – it’s not a ii, iii, or vi within a major key, and it’s not the i, iv, or v in a minor key (the way minor chords function in a minor key).

So what is it?

Well, that’s jazz. And actually music….

Because theory follows practice.

A tune does not have to follow a particular progression or set of rules. There are no definite “must-do” rules or requirements, only what sounds “good” to the composer and/or listener. The theory can often explain or describe why what sounds “good” works, but it does not dictate what is possible.

So what do you play over minor chords that don’t function a particular way?

In general, Dorian fits these situations, which may strike you as strange, because in typical Jazz Theory, Dorian is ”assigned” to ii chords – chords that function as a “two minor chord.”

But, yes, what I am telling you is that this group of notes is also consonant for places other than a minor chord functioning as a ii minor chord.

Personally, that’s why I don’t even think of “Dorian.” To me, these notes are what a minor chord is. Think about it…

When someone refers to the “9th, 11th, or 13th of minor chord”, they mean the notes found in Dorian. We don’t call them “b9” or “b11,” or “b13.” So, these notes are the baseline chord in my mind and why this chord structure for minor is so important.

You should know the modes, chord function, and understand music (jazz) theory on a deep level, but, as you gain more and more knowledge through studying your heroes, you should not let theory rule what you do or strictly define how you think about playing over chords.

Much of what you will find in practice may not fit neatly into the theory you know. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or has to fit into the theory. It means that many things are not adequately explained by the theory you know and you need to adjust your mental concept to make room for the things you’re discovering, rather than adjusting your playing concept to fit the theory.

It’s a complicated relationship between theory and practice. They feed each other, but what sounds “good” always wins.

The forgotten minor chords: The iii and Vi minor chords

Getting minor under your fingers and in your mind, learning the notes from Dorian in all keys, and doing away with the shortcut so you just know the notes for every minor chord is an absolute must.

But, as we implant information in our mind one way, we’re unconsciously creating rules for other situations that we will encounter.

You see, people tend to grasp the concept of “Dorian as THE scale/chord-tones for minor” pretty well. In fact, almost too well, to the point that it is the ONLY way people think about a minor chord.

As we talked about before, minor chords function in different ways depending on the chord progression and not being aware of this leads you to treat every minor chord the same…

The best example of this is in the 31st measure of All The Things You Are that Barry Harris talks about in the video we watched before.

People often forget that this minor chord is functioning as a iii minor chord in the key of Ab, not a ii minor chord. But, because they’re so used to playing what they know to be minor, this never even occurs to them.

If you closely examine that measure, your ear will immediately hear it and you’ll think “Wow, I missed that all along because I allowed my brain to overpower my ear!”

Believe me. I’m right there with you! I have moments all the time like this.

It’s surprising, but an awesome thing to realize. It’s time to trust your ear and reevaluate some of our hidden assumptions.

Personal bouts with the iii minor chord

For a long time when I was younger, I would play Rhythm Changes, and when I got to the 3rd measure where the chart told me to play “D minor 7” I played the notes that I knew to be D minor 7 – The notes from D Dorian, or as I put it before, the notes that I consider to be a minor chord.

And even though it sounded wrong, I continued to play over this measure like that, over and over! My ear gave me the feedback I needed. I knew it didn’t sound right, but between staring at the chart and using my brain, with all it’s glorious theoretical knowledge, I convinced myself it had to be right.

This is just one of the reasons we stress learning tunes from the recording and transcribing your heroes. I had transcribed, but I hadn’t broken things down by each measure, and really studied exactly what my heroes were doing in this particular measure. Finally, after years of mistakes, I realized my favorite players were playing phrases like this:

Here’s a few lines of Parker playing “Kim” which is Rhythm Changes:

And a little slower:

Now listen to it a little slower, paying extra attention to the iii minor chord:

Over the D minor chord, he isn’t playing an “E” natural, but an “Eb.” Now, using my trusty jazz theory, if I had been more aware of the concept of chord function, I would have realized that jazz theory says the iii minor chord takes the Phrygian mode, not Dorian:

And there’s the b9 and b6 (with respect to Dorian). So, as you can see, theory is by no means bad, however it would have been most beneficial if I had studied some of my heroes and lines like the Parker ones above, and then used theory to explain and support what I had learned.

Okay, so now we’ve got our Phrygian for minor chords functioning as a iii chord, but this adds yet another common point of confusion…

You may be asking yourself….I’ve heard of Phrygian before. Isn’t “Phrygian” a specific sound or chord?

And you’d be right…

I remember the first time I realized I should be using this mode over the iii minor chord. I was so confused because I had heard my friends talk about the “Phrygian sound.”

But, when people are talking about a “Phrygian” chord, most of the time they’re referring to a Sus4 b9 chord.

Listen to the Kind of Blue classic, Flamenco Sketches. Hear that chord sound at 1:10?

That’s a Sus4 b9 chord. Not exactly the same chord as the iii minor chord in Rhythm Changes, right?

And you wonder why the chord-scale system is so confusing?

Just because the Phrygian mode can be used for a iii minor chord, does not mean that it can’t be used for something else, or that the chord it’s used for is strictly a minor chord.

This is super confusing. I know. I get it. And that’s why you should not blindly be applying scales. You have to be extra aware to exactly what’s happening: the specific chords AND how they function.

A simple way to do this is to always study chords from the root ALL the way up to the 13th.

And in this exercise, you’re defining every chord-tone, for example, if the chord-structure has a minor 3rd, you call it “b3” or a dominant 7th, you label it as “b7”.

The important thing is to isolate each chord-tone and say, “Do I know what the 3rd of this chord is? Do I know the 5th? Do I know my options for the 9th?” And you do this all the way up to the 13th.

Of course many chords, like altered dominants, have options – you should always do this exercise to examine your options and to actually understand the chord structure, chord-tone by chord-tone.

Doing this exercise with both a D minor 7 chord functioning as a iii in the key of Bb major, and a D7 Sus4b9 chord (the “phrygian” dominant chord) will give you a revealing look into why the same Phrygian scale “works” for both.

two chords take same scale2

The Dom susb9 chord has no third because its “suspended” as the 4th, hence it can use a major and/or a minor 3rd. It then has a natural 5th, dominant 7th, b9th, 11th (the sus 4), and b13th (although natural 13th can work too). Without going into these chords too much because that’s a whole other lesson, you can quickly see why jazz theory says that the Phrygian scale fits this chord as well as the iii minor.

The whole idea of “applying scales” is a slippery slope – one that can help you if you understand context, language and chord structures, or one that can hurt you if you don’t.

Aim to constantly focus on the actual chord structures and the chord-tones within them – you’ll then make much better use of any scale, in fact you’ll begin to see both the chord structure and scale as two ways of seeing the same information. This greatly strengthens your mental perspective and overall theoretical concept.

Clashes with the vi minor chord

And yet again, for the life of me, All The Things You Are was my nemesis until I started transcribing my heroes. The story is basically the same as you just heard with the iii minor and Rhythm Changes, so let’s jump right to the punch line…

A vi minor chord will sound a bit out of place with the presence of the natural 6th because of the overall key center you’re operating in, hence a b6 sounds more consonant with the overall key center than a natural 6th:

Wait these notes don’t sound consonant?

But wait a minute…

Even if you understand that theory says to use the Phrygian mode for the iii minor chord and the Aeolian mode for the vi minor chord, and you understand why, chances are you’re still having trouble…

I know I did. And even after finally understanding the differences between a “normal” minor chord and a minor chord functioning as a iii or vi chord, you still may be having difficulty actually playing over them. Improvising is not as easy as mixing up a scale.

And, like most things in jazz, it goes back to language.

Just the mere “knowing” of a scale will not solve your improvisational problems, especially when it comes to these details having to do with how chords function. Knowing what scale “works,” or what chord-tones of the chord structure sound more consonant for a given situation is just the basic mental information you need at your disposal.

For example, even if you play the “right” chord-tones for a iii or vi chord, certain chord-tones are still dissonant if you just hold them out for days with no melodic direction.

Here are the dissonances to watch out for and learn how your heroes “deal” with them, much like the “4th” on a major chord:

  • iii minor chord – The b9 and b6 (D minor in Bb major: the notes “Eb” and “Bb”)
  • vi minor chord – The b6 (G minor in Bb major: the note “Eb”)

Without having an understanding from jazz language and and aural point of view, it’s quite difficult to use knowledge of scales and chords effectively.

Pick apart specific phrases you hear your favorite players playing over:

  • The 3rd measure of Rhythm Changes (iii)
  • The 1st measure of All The Things You Are (vi)
  • The 31st measure All The Things You Are (iii)

Remember: To excel at jazz improvisation, you have to pull apart the minute details and study them. Your goal is a conceptual and useable knowledge of all the information and ideas you’re discovering.

Be on the lookout for more instances of the iii and the vi. They’re all over the place. And now that you know that they’re unique, spend some extra time learning to approach them.

Get me home: The minor chord as the tonic

Let’s go back for a second…remember that freedom we talked about at the beginning of this article when you solo over Impressions? Tonic minor chords, especially in a modal setting like Impressions, have an inherent amount of flexibility to them.

Dorian is the baseline scale over these chords as we talked about before, but certain chord-tones like the natural 13th and even the Major 7th, really come to life when held out over the harmony of a tonic minor chord.

You don’t need to think of these as separate scales (more on this later), simply have your baseline scale in mind, and add in or highlight specific colorful chord-tones like the major 7th or natural 6th one-by-one into your soloing concept as you study how your favorite players make use of them.

Even though the natural 6th (13th) is in our baseline scale, within the context of a minor vamp or any minor chord that lasts a little while, it’s usually held out and focused on much more in this context than in a bebop tune.

Check out how Trane uses the natural 6th (:38):

Or how Seamus Blake uses the Major 7th (and the natural 6th):

First at 7:00 into his solo…

Next at 7:43 into his solo…

When playing over a tonic minor chord, you can experiment with both of these chord-tones with great results. And, especially in modal situations, you can use all sorts of interesting devices, so don’t get locked into thinking only one way.

Minor scales what!?! – Minor scales don’t mean minor chords

When you’re learning jazz improvisation, not only are you exposed to many different modes for minor chords, you’re also told to learn several different minor scales, including the melodic minor and harmonic minor.

Where do these minor SCALES fit in with minor CHORDS?

As we saw before with Phrygian and Dorian, one of the most confusing things about the Chord-Scale System, is that a mode or scale does not always define just one chord sound.

While these minor scales have many purposes, especially over dominant chords, they can unnecessarily complicate how to think about and play over minor chords.

I remember learning these minor scales and thinking as I was getting ready to play over a tune that contained several minor chords, “Awesome! I’ll play the harmonic minor over this minor chord, and over the next minor chord I’ll play the melodic minor…”

This way of thinking does not work at all.

The concept of “scale choice” is largely misunderstood. “Scale choice” is not based upon everything that you theoretically can apply to a chord.

The infamous scale syllabus will tell you that “these are your choices for a minor chord,” but without an incredible amount of knowledge and language, you cannot use this information effectively.

Yes – You actually should learn scales inside and out, but understand that a “pick-and-choose” attitude or thinking that they are “how you improvise” will leave you wondering why everything is so hard and why nothing sounds right…

Every chord is a specific sound. If you choose to draw from a scale that does not accurately express the sound, and don’t know how to compensate for this, things won’t sound right.

Instead of thinking you have a dozen scales to choose from every time you play over a minor chord, know:

  • The minor chord function
  • The minor chord structure all the way up to the 13th,
  • The mode that corresponds to that chord function
  • How that affects the upper structure chord-tones (9-11-13).

You’re not relying on any one piece of information, but instead using several pieces of information to form a mental foundation for each chord.

That’s pretty much all the theory you need for minor chords to get a solid foundation in thinking about them. But, theory, scales, and chords give you very little instruction for how to use the notes as you solo.

To actually learn how to solo over these chords you need to move beyond this information. Use the lines we’ve looked at today to inspire you to find your own minor language from your musical heroes.

Start simple, and work up from there, making sure to use your ear during the entire process.

Minor chords are not easy to understand

Today we talked about scales and music theory more than normal because this is an especially confusing topic – one that makes the most sense by approaching it from both directions.

And there’s a lot to retain from today’s lesson…

Remember, a minor chord is NOT just a minor chord and that they function different ways. Depending upon the way the minor chord functions, various upper structure chord-tones (9 or b9, 11, 13 or b13) will sound more or less consonant or dissonant. Be aware of this in all the tunes you play and watch out for spots that you may have interpreted the minor chord function incorrectly.

Here’s a checklist for you to quickly get a grip on minor chords…

Your Minor Chord To-Do List
  • Understand how different minor chords function and what impact this has on the consonance/dissonance of the 9-11-13
  • Have a solid understating of the differences between all of these minor chords
  • Know how to use iii and vi as a substitute for the I major chord
  • Learn how to use the inherent melodic flexibility over tonic minor chords
  • Move BEYOND the theory. Use your ear and transcribe. Figure out how your heroes deal with each minor chord. Then conceptualize the information in your own terms

Check off everything on this list and you’ll forget that minor chords ever gave you a problem. Good luck!