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Upper structure

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In jazz, the term upper structure or "upper structure triad" refers to a voicing approach developed by jazz pianists and arrangers defined by the sounding of a major or minor triad in the uppermost pitches of a more complex harmony.[1]


Example 1: Below, a common voicing used by jazz pianists is given for the chord C79 (C major chord with a minor 7th, and extended with an augmented 9th).

In the lower stave the notes E and B are given. These form a tritone which defines the dominant sound, and are the major 3rd and minor 7th of the C79 chord.

In the upper stave the notes E, G, and B are given together: these form an E major triad.


This E major triad is what would be called the upper structure. Considered in relation to the root C, the notes of this E major triad function, respectively, as the sharpened ninth (the root of the E major chord), fifth, and seventh in relation to that root.

(Note: the root C is omitted here, and is often done so by jazz pianists for ease of playing, or because a bass player is present.)

Example 2: The following example illustrates the notes of an F minor triad functioning as part of a C13911 chord (C major chord with a minor 7th, minor 9th, augmented 11th, and major 13th):


In relation to the root of C, the C (enharmonic with D) functions as the minor 9th, the F as the augmented 11th, and the A as the major 13th, respectively.


Determining which additional pitches can be juxtaposed with the chord is achieved by considering the relationship between a particular chord and the scale it implies. An example follows:

  1. The chord C13911 contains the following notes, from the root upwards: C, E, G, B, D, F, A;
  2. The following octatonic scale contains all of these pitches[clarification needed], and fits/matches up with the C13911 chord: C–D–D–E–F–G–A–B–C; these scale elements form a pool from which melodic and harmonic devices might be devised.

Shorthand notation[edit]

Common jazz parlance refers to upper structures by way of the interval between the root of the bottom chord and the root of the triad juxtaposed above it.[2] For instance, in example one above (C79) the triad of E major is a (compound) minor 3rd away from C (root of the bottom chord). Thus, this upper structure can be called upper structure flat three, or USIII for short.

Other possible upper structures are:

  • USII – e.g. D major over C7, resulting in C1311
  • USV – e.g. G major over C7, resulting in C7911
  • USVI – e.g. A major over C7, resulting in C7913
  • USVI – e.g. A major over C7, resulting in C139
  • USi – e.g. C minor over C7, resulting in C79
  • USii – e.g. D minor over C7, resulting in C7913
  • USiii – e.g. E minor over C7, resulting in C7911

The second item in the list above (C7911) has a related version called upper structure sharp four minor--with the written shorthand USiv--created with an F minor triad. (See "Example 2" above.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ellenberger, Kurt. Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation, p.20.
  2. ^ "The Jazz Piano Book". Mark Levine. (1989). Petaluma, CA: Chapter Fourteen - Upper Structures pages 109-124