Quartal Harmony – 9 Killer Concepts

quartal harmonyEver wondered how to get that lush and modern jazz sound? The sort of rich voicings you get to hear from people like Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Chick Corea? The answer is in quartal harmony.

In this lesson we’re going to show you 9 different ways you can use quartal harmony in your own playing.

How to Play Jazz Piano Chords Built in 4ths

Take a minute and watch Steve break down some sweet quartal based chords and then scroll down to learn more.

Quartal harmony involves the use of a series of fourths in a sequence. At the very least, it involves two notes separated by fourths. For example, playing C and F together produces a sound that characterizes quartal harmony.

If you stack another fourth (Bb) on top of the C and F, you get a typical quartal harmony voicing. Add more on top or below and you get really open-sounding chords.

McCoy Legendary Use Of 4ths

One of the most legendary jazz pianists closely identified with the use of quartal harmony is McCoy Tyner. His composition called “Passion Dance” is a very good example of quartal harmony usage in jazz:

Quartal Harmony In Other Styles Of Music

Quartal harmony sounds really cool, right? Guess what! These fourths sound so hip that they’ve been used for some time now. “Classical” composers such as Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg have used them in their compositions.

The coolness factor of quartal harmony even extends to genres other than jazz.

With notable jazz and classical influences, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s masterpiece, “Tarkus” has its signature riff based on 4ths and is filled with quartal chords played on the piano and Hammond organ:

Isn’t it amazing that quartal harmony still sounds so fresh and modern?

Up next, you are going to learn 9 ways how you can use quartal harmony in your own playing:

1. Use This Bill Evans m7(11) Voicing to Get the “So What?” Sound

This iconic Miles Davis piece “So What” exploits quartal harmony to create an open-sounding atmosphere. In the A section of the song, Bill Evans plays this chord progression of minor 7th(11) chords:

quartal harmony

You can use this lush minor 7th(11) chord voicing in many songs to add a kind of cool airiness to your music. Practice this chord voicing in all 12 keys.

If you don’t know the shortcuts to instantly transpose to all 12 keys we have a 2 hour course inside   our Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership  that will take you step by step through the process.

2. Ramp Up the Tension With a Dominant 7th (b13,#9) Chord

Step up the tension in your jazz piano with a quartal harmony voicing.

Take a look at this dominant 7th(b13,#9) chord voicing:

quartal harmony

This G7(b13,#9) voicing gives that quartal harmony with the F, Bb (A#), and Eb played by the right hand.

As you are about to find out in a few moments, this awesome chord easily resolves to the next one.

3. Create a Satisfying Quartal Harmony Resolution with a maj7(13,9) chord voicing

How can you go further than using a major seventh chord to give a satisfying conclusion to your tune in a major key? Try out this really cool maj7(13,9) chord voicing:

quartal harmony

With this chord, the quartal harmony starts in B that’s played with the left hand then the rest of the notes go up in fourths (E, A, and D).

4. Put it All Together with a ii – V7 – I Progression in Quartal Harmony

It’s now time to make some real musical sense with the chords we’ve learned so far. In jazz, the ii – V- I chord progression is a cornerstone.

So, we’ll attempt to put all of those quartal harmonies together into something that can work in many musical settings. Check out the chart below:

 quartal harmony

By playing the chord voicings in this manner, you can hear a chromatic melodic element that resolves nicely to the I chord.

5. Use a 6/9 Chord as a I chord

If you want a hip-sounding jazz chord other than the staple major 7th, use a 6/9 chord. You can play a 6/9 chord using a power chord the left hand and a quartal voicing with the right starting with the 3rd:

quartal harmony

The 6/9 chord sounds really stable with an extra degree of “hip” care of the 9th.

6. Unlock Various Chords by Changing the Bass Note

Because of the openness of quartal harmonies, they can be easily used to expand your arsenal of chords.

Let’s take for example the quartal harmony C, F, and Bb then take our left hand through the F major scale to see what chords we can come up with:

Left Hand Right Hand Resulting Chord
F C F Bb F(sus4)
G C F Bb Gm7(11)
A C F Bb F(sus4)
Bb C F Bb Bb(add9)
C C F Bb F(sus4)
D C F Bb Dm(b13)
E C F Bb C7(sus4)

Take note about the last chord in this example. You can’t really have both E and F together at the same time since it sounds really harsh.

You usually play just the quartal harmony at first as a C7(sus4) chord, and then move to the C7 by taking out the F and playing the E.

Here’s a video where Steve breaks down sus7 chord techniques. Listen closely to what he does on the C7 and F7 chords. Pretty cool right?

By looking for other chords this way, you’ve made a great step into becoming a better jazz pianist. You can also go further by checking out Steve’s 7 tips for playing better jazz piano.

7. Harmonize a Scale with Quartal Harmony

One of the awesome things about quartal harmonies is that you can work out some thick yet open sounding harmonized melodies with them.

This is especially true if you have great jazz theory skills.

Let’s take something like a C bebop dominant scale and see if we can apply quartal harmony to it. You can get something like this:

Left Hand Right Hand Resulting Chord
C E A D G B Cmaj7(13,9)
D G C F A C Dm7(11)
E A D G B D Em7(11)
F A D G C E Fmaj7(13,9)
G C F A D G G7(sus4)(9)
A D G C E G Am7(11)
B E A D F A Bm7(b5)(11)

These chords sound thick yet kind of airy.

Quartal harmony sounds so modern.

If you want to try out more two-handed chords such as these, take a look at this tutorial on playing piano chords with both hands.

8. Rootless 6/9 Chords Using Stacked Fourths

Another really cool voicing for the 6/9 chord is a five-note voicing that looks like this:

quartal harmony

This is actually a rootless C6/9 chord built off of a stacked quartal harmony.

Take a look at the sequence of notes on this chord. If you look at the sequence EADGC, the notes are separated from each other by a perfect fourth.

9. Play Quartal Harmony as Arpeggios

From a more melodic aspect of things, you can play a quartal harmony as an arpeggio.

You can run this short note pattern throughout a scale as a note sequence exercise, excellent for developing riffs and licks.

Here’s an example of a quartal arpeggio run across a C Mixolydian scale:

quartal harmony

In this example, you are running the scale with quartal arpeggios using only the notes of the scale. In this way, there are times where you will run into an augmented fourth.

Take a look at the F, Bb and E natural arpeggio from the example above. F to B is a perfect fourth but Bb to E is an augmented fourth.

Another variation of this approach is that only the root note of each arpeggio will outline the scale. The rest of the notes should be a perfect fourth apart from each other. You’ll end up with something like this:

quartal harmony

Both approaches to arpeggios based on quartal harmony can give you really cool soloing ideas you can introduce into your own improvised solos.

More Jazz Improvisation Training 

If you want to learn to improvise just like the jazz masters check out this program that teaches you improv secrets from 9 legendary jazz musicians.

Practice Quartal Harmony Concepts in All 12 Keys

To really spice up your playing to the next level, each time you are able to master one of the nine ways you’ve just discovered, practice it in all 12 keys.

By being able to master one concept in all 12 keys, you will be able to apply it into any tune.

It also will help you greatly to apply these quartal harmony techniques into actual tunes. There really is nothing like learning by hearing how quartal harmony can work in the context of a song.

Quartal Harmony In The Blues

quartal harmonyA lot of people think that quartal harmony is just a sound used in jazz and classical. Did you know that you can actually use it in the blues too?

In fact, we have a whole chapter inside the Breakthrough Blues Method where we teach you how to use 4ths to make your blues chords sound fresh and modern.

Learn 100’s Of Great Jazz Chords

quartal harmonyAlso, if you want to learn 100’s of more killer chords (including lots of great quartal harmony voicings) check out www.freejazzlessons.com/premium. 

For under $1 a day you can access a lifetime of jazz piano secrets and save yourself many years of hard practice at the piano.

We look forward to sharing music with you further!

About The Author

Mark A. Galang

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at FreeJazzLessons.com. He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, rock, classical, and Christian church music.