Interested in learning about polychords?

Polychords are a great way to add color and depth to your music. They can be used in any style of music, and they’re a great tool for composers and improvisers.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about using polychords in your music. You’ll get step-by-step instructions on how to create polychords, voice them, and use them in your compositions. Plus, you’ll also learn about the different types of polychords that are available to you.

Read through the complete article to have comprehensive knowledge about polychords today!

What is a Polychord & How to Use it in Your Music?

As you may be aware that the word “poly” means “many.” Hence the literal meaning of the term polychord is many chords. But in practice, a polychord is made by combining two chords to produce a new chord. Theoretically, you can extend the concept to more than two chords, but combining more chords results in complex chords that are often difficult to play.

For simplicity and initial understanding, you can consider them to be 2 chords played simultaneously, with one chord being played on top of the other one.

For example, consider the G Major chord and C# or Db Major triad played simultaneously. G Major has the notes {G B D}, while Db major has {Db, F, Ab}. Playing these two separate chords simultaneously, we get a single chord with the notes {G B D F Ab Db}, which appears to be an extended chord of some sort, as the first four notes form the Dominant seventh chord.

Polychords can be formed by combining two major triads, as shown above, or major and minor triads, two seventh chords, or triad & seventh chords. The constituent chords of the polychords are also sometimes referred to as embedded chords.

Notating Polychords

The polychords are notated similarly to a fraction in mathematics, with the only difference being that instead of numbers, there are two different chords. In other words, the symbol for a polychord consists of 2 chords separated by a horizontal line. The entity in the numerator position represents the top chord, while the one in the denominator is known as the bottom chord.

CMaj7 / Dm

The above chord symbol shows C Major seventh chord as the top and Dm as the bottom chord. The bottom chord forms the lower part, while the top chord is played on top of the bottom chord. Hence CMaj7 chord is played on top of the D minor Chord. So the notes of both chords written together are

D (R), F (m3), A (P5), C (m7), E (M9), G (P11), B (M13)

This, if you recall, is a D minor 13th chord. In the key of D minor, the notes of the 7th C major chord are the minor 7th, Major 9th, Perfect 11, and the Major 13th.

Polychords are not Slash Chords.

At first glance, polychords may appear like slash chords. The difference lies in the fact that the forward slash representation of a slash chord tells you whether any of the notes from the original chord or a chromatic note is to be played as the bass note. For example, D/A is the slash chord, which denotes the 2nd inversion of the D Major chord.

While in the case of a polychord, a dividing line is used instead of a forward slash in the chord symbols and denotes full chords. Look carefully for the dividing line or the forward slash in the chord symbol.

Considerations When Analyzing Polychord Structures.

To analyze a polychord or to understand its functionality, you can treat both the chord as either a single entity or two separate entities. Both considerations have different implications, as we will see in the next sections.

Polychords As A Single Entity

In an earlier section, you saw that CMaj7 over Dm resulted in a D minor 13th chord. So, you can represent the 2 chords written previously using the polychord symbols by a single chord symbol, Dm13.

Consider the second example of the D major triad over the A minor triad with notes {D F# A} and {A C E}, respectively. Grouping them together, you get the notes {A C E D F#}. As A is a common note in the two triads, you can leave it out from the D Major triad.

The note E after D represents a very big leap. In all single-entity polychord examples, it is important to consider all the notes in the key of the bottom chords. So in the key of A, D is a Perfect 4th or a Perfect 11th if we consider the upper extensions. Similarly, F# is key of A is Major 6th or a Major 13th. You may note that there is no 7th in the underlying chord.

Hence, it is a minor triad with no 7th and 9th and two added tones. Remember that such chords are known as added tone chords, notated as Am(add11, add13). Hence in both examples, you have represented the exact same chords with the new chord symbols using extended chords.

So considering polychords as a single entity appears to be a shorter way of writing the long and very advanced chords using extensions, added tones, or altered notes in a simpler way. This approach comes with its share of problems, as you don’t know at first glance the type of chord you are up against. The relationship between the notes of the top chord and the key of the second chord at the bottom is not obvious without an analysis like the one above.

Without fully understanding the harmony, it is difficult to make the playing decisions or improvise.

Polychords As Two Entities

In this approach, you consider the two chords as two separate entities and not simply a chord. This is equivalent to embracing polytonality with two different tonal centers and two separate harmonies.

The resulting harmony can be perceived as the different layers of sound or a single complex sound depending upon the instruments you are using and the spacing of the chords. The spacing defines the amount of tension that may get generated.

You may play a scale or an arpeggio that fits both chords.

Using Scales With Polychords

It is very straightforward to figure out and use a scale to make melodies over the polychords if both the chords belong to the same tonality and you are able to combine them to form an extended, altered, or added tone chord.

If they belong to different tonalities and you want to use bitonal music, you may have to go for a compound scale that carries the notes of the two chords or switch between the two tonalities.

Ways to Use the Polychords In Your Music

A. You can make out chord progressions, keeping the same bottom chord and hence the same tonality, and vary the top chords to spice up your music by adding color.

B. It is better to combine chords from the diatonic keys, which have at least five same notes. They will sound more consonant together. Unless you want to try out the dissonance in your music.

C. In the last method, you can use bitonality and maintain both the top and the bottom chords in the different tonalities. But take care to maintain that tonality throughout the chord progression.

Voicing Polychords

In the end, a few tips or suggestions about the voicings of the polychords:

A. Any consonant music depends on the frequencies and the overtones of the bottom notes. It is always better to voice your chords so that the bottom chords are in an open position while the top chords are in a closed position voicing.

B. As told earlier, the spacing of the chords plays an important role in defining the sound. The resulting sound may have enhanced or lowered consonance or dissonance based on the spacing, the chord structure, which octaves you place your chords, and whether you are using an arpeggio for any of the chords. Chord structure will differ if chord A is over chord B or if B is over A.

C. You may use inversions of the constituent chords to form the voicing of the polychord to have a proper voice leading.

Example of Polychord Voicing.

Let us consider an ii – V – I chord progression using the 9th chords in the Key of G. So, the chord progression is Am9 – D9 – GMaj9. Let us formulate these three chords as polychords.

Am9 has notes {A C E G B} can be considered to be made from the 7th chords, CMaj7 over Am7 with notes {A C E G} followed by {C E G B}.

Similarly, D9 has notes {D F# A C E} can be considered to be made from half diminished F#m7b5 over DMaj7 with notes {D F# A C} followed by {F# A C E}.

And, GMaj9 with notes {G B D F# A} has the embedded chords Bm7 over GMaj7 with notes {G B D F#} followed by {B D F# A}.

In any ii – V – I chord progression with 7th chords, we take the 2nd inversion of the V chord. This is because the V chord has [5 7 2 4} scale degree notes. Its second inversion will have [2 4 5 7} notes that match with the initial notes of the ii chords and are only a step away from the I chord. Taking the 2nd inversion of the D9 chord polychord components, we get {A C D F#} followed by {C E F# A}. Now the three chords are:

  1. {A C E G} followed by {C E G B}, as the ii chords.
  2. {A C D F#} followed by {C E F# A}, as the 2nd inversion of the V chord.
  3. {G B D F#} followed by {B D F# A}, as the I chord.

In (1) and (2), the first two notes in both the components (A C) and (C E) are the same, and the last two notes between them are maximum of two semitones away.

Similarly, in (2) and (3), the 3rd and 4th notes are the same, and the first two notes are maximum of two semitones from each other, which meets the requirements of voice leading. The same can be seen from the diagram below.

Polychords Voicing


Polychords, as advanced chords, are an essential tool for modern musicians. By understanding how to use them, you can add greater depth and sophistication to your music. The key is to experiment with different voicings and progressions until you find the sound that best suits your style. With a little practice, you’ll be using polychords like a pro in no time! Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

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