chord substitution concepts

Harmonic substitution is simply about replacing one chordal sound with another, or as I need to think of it, as one color for another. Whether it is in the written harmony from sheet music or the harmony implied by the melody, the theoretical concepts behind chord substitution becomes "search" tools for the learner. The coolness here is that we can create different shades of color, allowing for a variety of ways to blend the melody and harmony of a song together. Through chord substitution we can create different pathways to the same emotional, tonal and artistic destinations. We can disguise our artistic directions by changing traditional harmonic motions to create new twists and shades of emotions in the music. When we hear the advanced jazz artists, chord substitution and recoloring the harmony is oftentimes an integral part of what they are doing. The ideas on this page focus on the theories of chord substitution, what one might also play if the written chord is say, a G dominant 7th chord.

Theory / practice. While the theoretical principles of chord substitution are something that we can examine and develop at our leisure, in performance situations, especially in jazz and to a certain extent in the blues, substituting one chord for another or recoloring a chord from it's written version is a spontaneous, real time event. Players of these styles make their substitution choices based on what is going on around them as the music unfolds during the performance. Not an easy task by any means, this interactiveness is a big part of what makes these styles so exciting to play and listen to. So, we shed the theory to develop our aural vocabulary of sounds and then see where the music takes us in performance, drawing upon this vocabulary to contribute our voices to the musical conversation being created. Cool with this? Sounds pretty loose and free huh? That's the idea. Can every knook and cranny of music to be performed be worked out and rehearsed? Absolutely. Is finding a comfortable "middle ground" between these two approaches one goal of this text? Exactly.

Stylistically, substituting harmonic elements is not something that folk players or the rockers tend to do, although changing the color of chords in these two styles is not uncommon. This is mainly a jazz and blues phenomena, two art forms that potentially include and encourage open ended sections for testimony by the players in the music, allowing and often encouraging players to experiment with the harmony of the song. In American pop music, arrangements are usually written out and played as written. And while there are sections for improvising, spontaneous chord substitution is not at all common.

So, where do the cool chord substitutions come from? Perhaps the most common source for ideas is from friends or players, either directly when hanging out together or from their recordings. I'll always remember when Kirk Lamberti the trombone man in the band hipped me to the tritone sub, probably the single most important bit of theory I ever learned, next to learning how to spell chords I guess, which I learned from a great alto player Larry Tutt that initially opened the door to the world of music theory. Finding chord substitutions from the literature provides a potentially endless source of coolness. In this case we simply extract the idea, then oftentimes run it through the 12 keys to expand it's applicability, and then place it in similar positions in other tunes and watch what happens. Another way into this topic is in knowing a bit of the theory, for not only will the theory help us to better understand what our ears and eyes tell us from our listening and the examining charts of compositions, but the theory in and of itself can also generate new substitution ideas by simply encouraging us to recombine existing elements into new configurations.

So why is substituting one chord for another potentially important for the creative musician? Well, substitutions provide for a variety of choices when we encounter common harmonic motion that we see all the time throughout the literature. For example, players who study and play the large volume of compositions collectively known as jazz standards are continually running into both the Two / Five / One and Three / Six / Two / Five cadential motions, and having a few ways to approach these chord progressions, can spice up the music nicely. I call this spicing up tonal convergence. Substituting chords also becomes a pretty personal thing, contributing largely to how each of us weave the harmony, thus contributing to one's artistic signature. It's interesting that when one new substitution idea enters into the existing body of knowledge within a player, that all of that knowledge already in place is potentially affected and that everything sort of shifts to accommodate the new coolness, potentially taking things to a new level. They can be that powerful, as was the case for me when the tritone sub came along. Talk about kaboom, it was like instant hip!

Chord type. The tonic, Two and Five are the three main chord types found in both the major and minor tonalities. Just about any chord we can come up with will fit into one of these three types. Of the three types, the tension creating dominant 7th or Five 7 chord, by it's very nature and function, enjoys the widest range of substitution and coloring variables. A listing of substitutions is created for the Two / Five / One chord progression in the tonal convergence chart. Go there to view the myriad of different dominant color possibilities. The following ideas in this page are more concerned with very basic theories of chord substitution and how they are related to the various styles of American music. Are you hip to the half step lead in concept? Used frequently in the following examples motion by half step often goes hand in hand with chord substitution.

The following ideas on this page outline some of the more common harmonic substitutions, motions and recoloring of chords used in American music, as well as the theory that gets us there. Organized by chord type and the blues, the following topics emerge as bookmarks into this page or as links into other discussions within the text.

tonic chord substitutions examines basic possibilities for substitution and recoloring of tonic function major and minor chords.
Two chord substitutions examines basic possibilities for substitution and recoloring of the minor 7th chord type in the major tonality.
dominant chord substitutions examines basic possibilities for substitution and recoloring of the dominant 7th chord type based on the multiple resolving properties of the fully diminished 7th chord.
blues chord substitution looks at a myriad of different chord substitution possibilities with the 12 bar blues form.
non diatonic chord progressions examines common alterations to popular diatonic chord progressions.

Tonic chord substitutions. Replacing the tonic chord is not something that occurs all that often in most of the popular styles of American music. In both of the major or minor tonalities, the tonic provides the tonal stability and center so essential to the creation of the American song forms, that without it's presence, we loose the stability so essential in so much good art.

Major tonality. To start this process, we can lessen the sense of tonic and tonal gravity while retaining a feeling of it's presence and stability. We achieve this through using a tonic chord in first inversion, which often takes a similar position to a root position tonic in common chord progressions. Example 1.

      D min 7    G 7  C maj 7 / E

 C maj 9

harsubcon1.TIF (10950 bytes)

Sense how the first inversion has a softer tonic quality than the root position voicing? Is there a name for this cadential motion?

Another cool and fairly modern tonic sub is to delay the resolution by using a tonic type chord built on the flatted 2nd degree, then resolving downward by half step. A glorified half step lead in you say? I'm cool with that. Constant structure? Parallel motion? Yep. Example 1a.

   D min 7    G 7  Db maj 9

 C maj 7

harsubcon2.TIF (11330 bytes)

Can we substitute a minor tonic chord for the tonic major and move to the minor tonality? You bet, theorists call this a deceptive cadence. Example 1b.

   D min 7    G 7  A min 7

 A min 7

harsubcon3.TIF (10568 bytes)

Sound familiar? It's pretty common throughout the American styles. Also fairly common in terms of substituting for tonic chords is to use different color tones to provide for a variety of tonic colors. Thinking that the melody is covered by another instrument within the group, the basic idea here is that even though the written chord is say C major 7, it is not uncommon for players to use C major 6, C major 9, C major 7 6 / 9 etc., in place of the more generic major triad or major 7 color. Of course, choosing appropriate chords is what the artist does and various styles of music potentially demand certain chordal colors. Thus, can we correlate style and complexity perhaps?

None the less, in jazz music and to a lesser extent the blues, it's pretty open as to which tonic type color or dominant type color a player chooses. Again that in this line of thinking, were are not overly concerned with articulating the melody of the tune being performed in the part of the music we are contributing. So, we're just playing the harmony of the song / chord changes behind a soloist, i.e., comping chords with our own choice as to how the chords are voiced and put together or realized. Is this not one of the coolest aspects of creating improvised American music? I think so. It's about putting our musical art and identity on the line live in real time and responding in a musical way.

With this in mind, here are a few of the more popular tonic colors placed in resolving cadential motions. Example 1c.

D - 7 G 7 

C maj 7

D - 7 G 7 

C maj 6

D - 7 G 7 

C maj 9

D - 7  G 7 

C 6 / 9

harsubcon4.TIF (6974 bytes)

Cool? The major 7th is warm, the major 6th a bit brighter and used often in folk music due to it's pentatonic coloring. The major 9 sonority is warm and and tender, often a Latin or Bossa Nova color and cool in jazz ballads. The 6 / 9 is very bright, tight and stable, potentially very boppish. All are within the jazz styling. With the folk and rock being more triad based, there is not all that much variation. Here are a few more possible tonic colorings for the evolving artist. Example 1d.

D-7 G 7 

C maj 9/13

D-7   G 7

C maj 9#11

D-7   G 7

C maj #15

D-7 G 7 

C major

harsubcon5.TIF (7232 bytes)

The tonic 13th chord simply moves the 6th up an octave while it is often supported by the major 9th and major 7th. Adding the Lydian #11 into this mix creates a D major triad in the upper part of the chord and a sense of a polytonal coloring. Adding the #15 is a rare bird indeed, as we have extended our chord way into it's upper structure and by doing so, begin to lose our sense of our initial tonic center pitch, C natural as being the central pitch of the music. Using simply the major triad in bar 16 returns us to our original point. Perhaps needless to say, any chord can be voiced in any way, it's all about what we are hearing and can handle to create the art in our hearts. So, all of these colors will function as a tonic chord? In theory yes, in reality yes too, but to use the more complex colors ( 9, #11, 13, #15 ) and still make musical sense is the trick n'est pas? Sharp 15, where does that come from? Stratospheric colortones perhaps?

Minor tonic colors. So our tune is in a minor key, and we need some fresh tonic colors. Can we "extend" the minor tonic triad as with the major triad? Absolutely, we can do the same basic adjustments with the minor tonic colors. Example 1e.

D 7 G b97 

C minor

D 7 G 7b9

C - 6

D - 7 G 7b9 

C - 7

D - 7 G 7b9

C min / maj7

harsubcon6.TIF (7084 bytes)

Continuing into the upper part of the minor tonic arpeggio we can create additional minor tonic colors. Example 1f.

D 7 G 7b9 

C - 9

D 7 G 7

C - 6/9

D 7   G7

C - 11

D 7 G 7b9

 C - 13

harsubcon7.TIF (7254 bytes)

So how do we sort this out? To determine which tonic colors to use and where? Well, we can always default to the golden rule of playing changes, which is to "get underneath the soloist" in regards to one's presence within the mix and allow them to lead the way. If they hint a bit of whole tone in their line, then maybe try to add a bit of whole tone color into your chord. If you hear some blue notes, maybe gently shift to a dominant chord color. The idea is to follow along with the story of the soloist, looking for ways to enhance what they are doing musically.

When their rhythm starts to drive, perhaps match their rhythms. Perhaps create a call and response interplay. If they drop to a whisper, drop lower or out of the mix completely, i.e., to "lay out", and strive to stay out of the way and still provide support. Perhaps suggest a new idea, a bit of the melody if needed. All of these ideas are a potentially very complex series of thoughts while performing. Of course, after a while of doing this, we develop instincts based on trial and error and gradually find our own comfort zone with favorite chords and voicings to use in backing a soloist. And if your playing a single, simply choose which colors express the heart in your art, thinking that as the years go by, your sound, concept, and aural and technical abilities will evolve.

When we are concerned with the melody in our chords, our substitution choices are governed by the pitches of the melody and depending on your instrument, can provide some interesting challenges for the creative artist. This is especially true for guitar players, finding the right chord color while being able to come up with an interesting voicing to articulate the melody. Piano players do tend to have a freer hand in this, what with the physical proximity of the pitches as provided by the placement of the piano keys ( pitches ). So, be the artist, pick your chords, weave your magic, search for coolness and attentively support the soloist, so when your turn comes to solo ... Click the following link to harmonize a popular melody with various tonic colors.

Two chord substitutions. The most common substitution for the Two chord is to use the chord built on the fourth degree of the major tonality, or visa versa as the case might be. Jazz immortal Bill Evans loved this color. Example 2.

 D - 9   G 7    C maj 7 F maj7 G 7

  C maj 9

harsubcon8.TIF (6222 bytes)

These two chords are very close in color, and no wonder, compare their pitches. Example 2a.

D minor 7 D F A C
F major 7 F A C E

From the above chart we can see the pitches of the F major triad within the D minor 7 chord. Looks almost like first inversion again eh? So if the chords are so similar, why substitute? Although the One / Four / Five motion and variations is mostly a folk, rock and blues progression and the Two / Five / One more common in jazz music, subbing out the Four for Two, especially with a bass player on the gig, simply softens the sound a bit, provides variety and alters the tonal gravity of the motion.

Historically, using the Four chord predates the Two chord in popular American song, the Two chord's popularity more in vogue during the 30's and 40's and forward to accommodate the quickening tempos and more adventurous modulations of the swing and bebop jazz literature. Providing a sleeker motion to the dominant, the Two chord is used in a more directed cadential motion towards a tonic while oftentimes the Four chord maintains it's position of providing a secondary stable resting point for the melody with it's tonic structure and qualities within diatonic harmony, thus a popular destination in modulating. How many important tunes start tonically and move to Four? About a gillion maybe ...?

Oftentimes, providing variety with the Two chord is accomplished very much in the same manner as with the tonic chords discussed above, that it is mainly with using the different color tone combinations that creates variety of color. Here are some of the more popular Two chord colors. Example 2b.

 D - 7   G 7   C maj 7 D - 9   G 7  

 C maj 9

harsubcon9.TIF (6270 bytes)

And simply continuing upward in the arpeggio. Example 2c.

  D - 11  G 7   C maj 7 D - 13 G 9

C maj 9

hsc37.TIF (6504 bytes)

Note the common tone in a few of the ideas, oftentimes a nice way to glue things together.

Dominant chord substitutions. From a theoretical perspective, there are basically three essential dominant chord substitutions used in common chord progressions within the major tonality. These can be theoretically extracted from the multiple resolving properties of the fully diminished 7th chord. These three dominant chord substitutions are found on the b2, major 3rd and b7 pitches of the tonic key, and along with V 7, create the four common dominant motions to the tonic key. The dominant chord built on the 5th degree ( V 7 ) of the tonic scale is diatonic, so the one we tend to substitute for. So in a sense, are we simply using dominant type chords from different scale degree locations within the key center to create the substitutions? Exactly. Dominant chord substitutions are rare in the folk styles, we sometimes hear the b7 sub in the blues and rock styles, although it is usually the written change. Is it in the jazz styles that these substitutions find their place? Pretty much.

Extracting the dominant chord substitutions. Thinking in the key of C major, the B diminished chord is the non-diatonic "Seven diminished 7th chord," potentially so essential to the jazz artist. The idea here is that by individually lowering any one of the four pitches within the diminished 7th chord, we create a vanilla dominant 7th chord. By doing this for each of the four pitches, we create the four most common positions of the dominant chord substitutions within both the major and minor tonalities. Here is a chart outlining the lowering of pitches. Example 3.

B diminished 7th B D F Ab

respelled into...

Bb 7 Bb D F Ab
Bb D F Ab
Db 7 B Db F Ab
Db F Ab Cb
E 7 B D Fb (E) Ab
E G# B D
G 7 B D F G

So, by lowering any one pitch of the fully diminished 7th chord, a vanilla dominant 7th chord is created? Exactly. The last entry in the chart above is G 7, the diatonic dominant chord in the key of C major. Let's place it into the common diatonic Two / Five One cadential motion. Example 3a.

   D minor 7   G 7 C major 7


harsubcon11.TIF (10794 bytes)

Common enough eh? By moving the root of the G7 chord up a minor third we arrive at ...

Bb 7. So from the chart, we can substitute the non-diatonic chords of Bb 7, Db 7 or E 7 for the G 7 chord? Yeah, that's the basic idea here, that the roots of the four 7th chords are a minor third apart, as created from the minor 3rd symmetry of the diminished chord. Example 3b.

  D minor 7   Bb 9   C major 7


harsubcon12.TIF (10976 bytes)

Sound familiar? A bit bluesy, commonly known as the flat 7 among players, approaching the tonic from a whole step below is also a common sub motion in the Latin / Bossa grooves. It's parent scale Eb major is also the relative major of C natural minor, so it's motion as used in the above idea is said to be a bit deceptive. Also deceptive is to extract the half diminished 7th chord from the upper part of the Bb 9 and moving towards the tonic major 7 stability. Example 3c.

  D min 7 b5


  C major 7


harsubcon13.TIF (11356 bytes)

Hey, isn't half diminished a Two chord type ...? We often just extract the C to Bb motion creating vamps, which are used as intros, outros, perhaps the harmony for soloing within the body of a tune. Here is the sound of these concepts in creating a funky sort of blues vamp. Example 3d.

     C 9    C 9    Bb 9

   Bb 9

harsubcon14.TIF (11788 bytes)

Check out Benny Golsen's cool hard bop blues "Killer Joe" the "A" section of which is based on the above motion. By simply changing chord type and colors, new vamps emerge from existing ones. Here is a common tonic to b7 idea in the minor tonality. Example 3e.

   C min 7  C min 7   Bb 7

 Bb 7

harsubcon15.TIF (10818 bytes)

So, when is subbing in Bb 7 appropriate? Well, the root of the chord is a blue note yes? So, if we desire to recolor a line towards a bluer interpretation, the Bb is one cool possibility to get there. Oh, can we extend into the upper structure of our Bb 7 chord and use those tensions? Absolutely. Extend any of our substitutions in any way we want? Yep. This is art and we are the artist yes?

The tritone sub. Db 7. The next chord to be examined from the chart is the Db 7, here subbed in for the G7. Example 4.

   D minor 7 Db 7  C major 7


harsubcon16.TIF (11406 bytes)

Almost a half step lead in yes? Exactly, but it gets a whole measure instead of one beat, making it a bit more "official" as a chord substitution I guess. Do notice though that we are using a dominant type chord resolving to a tonic type chord, an essential distinction to be noted from the more temporal half step lead in. Known affectionately as the tritone sub, this motion hipify's some of the most common motions in the blues and jazz worlds, especially in regards to the actual performance of these music styles of music, for all of the chords are not always written in right?

As the name implies, the tritone sub is based on the theory that the root of the chord ( Db ) is the musical distance of a tritone away from the root of the diatonic Five chord ( G 7 ) and when swapped for one another, generally assumes the same chord type and functions the same way. So, any sort of Db dominant chord is probably some sort of tritone sub in the key of C major? Yep. Cool with this? Curious for more tritone options?

A close associate of the tritone sub is the bII major 7 chord, oftentimes used by the more modern jazz players as well as the Latin enthusiasts. Almost a glorified half step lead in, the flat Two generally takes the same color and type as the tonic to which it is approaching. Example 4a.

   D minor 7  Db major 7  C major 7


harsubcon17.TIF (11470 bytes)

Of course, this motion is also potentially very important in the minor tonality. Example 4b.

 D minor 7 b5  Db major 7  C minor 9


harsubcon18.TIF (11576 bytes)

Extracting just the first two chords of the example 4 idea makes a nice modern vamp for extended blowing. Example 4c.

    D minor 7


 Db major 7


harsubcon19.TIF (11660 bytes)

Like that pairing? Very common in contemporary jazz, and oh so very cool when handled with love. Also works well when flipped about. Example 4d.

   D major 7


Db minor 7


harsubcon20.gif (6719 bytes)

Like Four to minor Three towards the root / tonic A? Yes, pretty much, but if that's the case, shouldn't it be C# minor and not Db? Totally. Just checking. Try inserting any of these two chord "solo cells" into one of your arrangements, maybe into a modal tune, expanding the overall form a bit. Maybe make it part of one of your own tunes? For the players of blues and jazz standards, it's a nice contrast to get longer sections of just one or two chords in a happenin groove so as to be able to improvisationally stretch out a bit.

E 7. The last substitution choice based on the symmetrical diminished color from the chart above moves us up another minor 3rd from Db 7 to E 7. Example 5.

   D minor 7

 E 7

 C major 7


harsubcon21.TIF (11330 bytes)

Of the four choices, the E 7 is potentially the most awkward and hard to control as it so naturally goes to the relative minor tonality, not the major. Maybe it's the # 5. the G#, the third of the E7 that makes it so squirrelly for me. Here to A minor, the relative minor of C major where the G# gets to function as a leading tone. Example 5a.

   D minor 7

 E 7

 A minor 9


harsubcon22.TIF (11538 bytes)

This E 7 chord is the common modulator to the relative minor key of C major n'est pas? So by going to the major tonality, are we creating a "reverse deceptive cadence" motion? Setting up the minor then going to major? As opposed to setting up the major then going to the minor tonality? Either way, the colors are cool and the choice is yours.

Perhaps leaning to the more modern than traditional, I like to use this major 3rd substitution in 3rd inversion and use the natural 11 when heading towards the major tonality. Example 5b.

  D minor 7

 E 7 sus 4 / D

 C major 7


harsubcon23.TIF (11080 bytes)

Better? A bit more civilized eh? This E 7 sub is a rare sort of bird indeed. So perhaps needless to say, the half step lead in and the four substitution ideas with dominant chords discussed above can be altered and expanded to the outer limits of tonality, providing a wonderful array of lines of tonal convergence in a wide assortment of different colors and hues.

Blues chord substitutions.

A potentially huge topic, especially for jazz players, please click to the chord substitution charts of either the major or minor tonalities. These charts place chord substitution ideas within the traditional 12 bar blues form.

blues subs / major blues subs / minor

Comments? Questions? So much Two / Five motion, is it necessary? So, if the chords change, what happens to the melodic line?

Where to next?
review new ideas
WB01337_.gif (904 bytes) WB01339_.gif (896 bytes)

"Anything can be anywhere." Tom Robbins