(musTh212) Lecture Notes: Chords/Verticalities

General Naming and Issues of Identification

Some people avoid the word chords for non-tertian structures. For our purposes, we can use the terms chords, verticalities, and sonorities interchangeably.

With all the chord types now possible, it can be difficult to properly identify the type, or construction, of any give chord. Musical context will be of prime importance, and there may often be more than one valid interpretation. You will need to be prepared to justify your labels.

“Tall” Tertian Chords

  • Tall tertian refers to chords that use 9ths, 11th, and/or 13ths.
  • A 13th chord utilizes all 7 diatonic pitch class letters.
  • Tall chords are usually dominants (including secondary), but can also happen on other scale degrees, particularly ii and vi.
  • It is common to omit chord tones, which often are the third, fifth, and/or seventh of the chord.
  • Omitted chord tones, as well as inversions, make them difficult to analyze. Look for the movement of the bass for contextual help.
  • Chord alterations are common, and can be combined. You can alter the fifth, like altered dominants from previous material, or raise/lower any of the tall notes (b9, #13, etc.). Such alterations can support particular chromatic voice leadings of a piece, or simply provide a more diverse harmonic palette.

Tertian with Added Notes

  • Triads with (usually) one added tone.
  • Common added tones are the 2nd and 6th.
  • Some added tones can give the appearance of inverted tertian chords (added sixth looks like a first inversion seventh chord).
  • In some contexts added tones can be labelled Wrong-Note Style. h

Tertian with Split Chord Members

  • Chords include two instances of a particular chord tone.
  • Split thirds are most common (C – E – G – Eb, for example), but any chord tone is possible, including split roots (usually the natural and raised root together, C – E – G – C#).
  • Labelled with a ! after the split chord tone number. Ex., F (3!) = F – A – C – Ab

Open Fifths

  • Root and fifth, without a third.
  • Can be used to harmonize a pentatonic scale without non-pentatonic notes.

Secundal and Cluster Chords

  • Secundal chords are built with seconds, which can be mixed major and minor.
  • Cluster chords are a special type of secundal chord, which are usually played with the palm of the hand, or even the forearm.

Quartal and Quintal Chords

  • For both, only perfect intervals are usually used.
  • Quartal chords sound less stable than Quintal chords. (4th sounds dissonant, in need of resolution)
  • We can use a labeling system that that indicates how many pitch classes times what interval on the lowest pitch class. For example, A – D – G – C – F would be 5 x 4 on A.


  • More than one chord (usually 2 triads) sounding at the same time.
  • True polychords are a bit uncommon. To be a polychord (as opposed to a tall tertian),  the musical context must feature each chord in isolation from the other. This could be separate musical parts (instrument/voice/hand), register, etc.


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