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What is the music theory behind augmented chords?
How and when do you use augmented chords in songwriting?
What are some popular examples of augmented chords being used?
Augmented chords are synonymous with instability and tension. They ring with a noticeable gravity and angst, leaving the listener with a restive yearning for resolution, which may or may not follow.
I still remember the first time I heard the first chord of Oh Darling! by The Beatles that innocuously ‘struck a chord’ with me instantly. I chased them through theory and music history, fueled by my fascination for their dissonance. I’ll share some of those insights with you below.
But first… to get you in the mood, here’s a quick audio example I whipped up of augmented chords in action…
All About Augmented Chords
As you probably know, triads are formed by playing the root, the third, and the fifth of a scale. In music theory, there are four types of triads: major, minor, diminished, and augmented.
The mysterious-sounding augmented chords evoke dissonance and generate mystery, anxiety, and enigma. They are a well-known way to create unease that can be traced back to Western classical music – all the way up to modern jazz, rock, and blues.
Yet, it’s uncommon to see them used in music, especially popular music. In this article, we’ll explore what gives augmented chords their flavor alongside some practical ways in which songwriters and composers can use them.
What Is An Augmented Chord?
An augmented chord is a three-note triad formed by a stack of two major third intervals. For example, the C aug chord is C-E-G# with C to E being one major-third interval and E to G# being another major-third interval.
In other words, the augmented triad is the same as a major triad but with a sharp fifth. For example, a C major triad is C-E-G whereas a C Augmented triad is C-E-G#. This means it has no perfect 5th interval, which makes it sound very tense and unstable.
All three notes of the triad are equidistant – 2 whole steps (a major-third interval) above the previous musical note.
Augmented chords are represented using the ‘+’ sign or “aug” besides the note i.e. C aug or C +.
In music, an augmented chord acts as an ‘unstable major chord‘. They can be used in similar ways as diminished chords – to add tension.
Just because it sounds like an unstable major chord doesn’t mean it sounds major at all. It simply means it is a major triad with the fifth raised by a half step, which is not a note of the major keys i.e. there is no G# in the key of C. In fact, there’s no way to fit an augmented chord into a major key no matter how you transpose it.
What Does An Augmented Chord Sound Like?
Augmented chords are gritty and adventurous chords that can spice up a predictable chord progression. They are only impactful when used correctly – but seeing how music is subjective, let’s replace ‘correct’ with ‘used effectively’.
How Many Augmented Chords Are There?
It seems that the simple answer here would be that there are 12 different augmented chords, one for each note of the chromatic scale. This is true on one level, but if we dig a bit deeper we discover something really fascinating about augmented chords.
If you try to add another major third interval to the augmented triad, you will get the root note. For example, in C+ (C-E-G#), if you add another major third on G# the resulting note is C (technically, it is B#, which is enharmonic to C).
So if you continue this process, you will keep seeing the same three notes repeat at different octaves. You could also say that C+, E+, and G#+ are enharmonic to each other. They all contain the same notes and are just inversions of the same chord.
You can understand this better once you look at an augmented C chord and its inversions.
C Augmented: C B D#
First inversion: B D# C
Second Inversion: D# C B
This is because of the symmetry of the chord i.e. the M3rd interval between each note. This means, in theory, there are only 4 augmented chords and the rest would be their inversions.
When To Use Augmented Chords?
The word augment means to ‘make something larger’. Since we are stacking major thirds, the major third interval (C to E in C+) gives the augmented triad a major quality. However, the raised 5th interval (C to G#) makes it an unstable triad. So they sound expansive but tense/unstable.
We saw how the augmented fifth interval makes augmented triads unstable. So, naturally, we want them to resolve to a stable chord.
Simplistically speaking, an augmented chord can be resolved in six different ways – three resolutions to a major chord and three to a minor chord.
Each note of the augmented triad is an ‘active’ note, all of which are four half steps apart. Each active note act as a ‘leading note’ (7th degree of a major scale) and they want to move towards stable tones (the root of the scale).
Let’s brush up some theory lest you get tangled up. A leading tone is a pitch that “leads” you to a note that is half a step higher or lower for resolution. They are tense and create a yearning for the stable sound of the tonic note.
In a C major scale, B is the leading note (7th degree of the scale) that resolves to C. And a C+ chord has three active notes: C, E & G#. Each of these notes can be resolved by moving up or down a half step, based on the intention and context.
‘Augmented chord’ refers to the augmented triad (R, M3, #5). You can add more notes to the chord to get chord extensions on the guitar or piano such as the following:
The Augmented Sixth Chord (I+6):
You’ll find the Augmented Sixth and its variations used by various German, French, and Italian composers of the late Romantic and Classical period. That is how the names of these subtypes were derived.
The theory of it, however, is complex and highly contested in the divergent views of guitar players, music historians, and scholars. For the sake of brevity, we won’t go into great detail and, perhaps, we’ll reserve that for a future post.
Augmented Seventh (I+7):
The Aug7 (+7) refers to the augmented triad played with the dominant 7th (or minor seventh interval) i.e. adding Bb to a C augmented triad. This variation has been used in major and minor chord progressions of blues and jazz by guitar players– often as rootless passing chords or for a ‘ii-V passing’ (more on this later).
Augmented Ninth (I+9):
The aug-9th is often known as the ‘Hendrix Chord‘ because it was used generously by guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. Before Hendrix, the augmented-9th rose to fame in the jazz and bebop era of the 1940s as a part of jazz harmony.
It was adopted in guitar playing by various blues and rock musicians who commonly used it as an extension on top of a dominant chord in a chord progression.
How To Use Augmented Chords?
You must remember that the +chord sound is an acquired taste. While they can sound striking, they can also make chord progressions of a song sound gloomy and confused if you are not mindful of the voice leading. Here are some ways in which they have been used:
As a Replacement for Diminished Chords:
Composers and songwriters commonly play diminished chords in a series to create instability right before a resolution or during a solo.
In certain contexts, you can achieve the same impact/effect by using augmented triads instead of diminished chords. Or, you can play different inversions of the augmented chord to switch keys and go to the tonic chord of the new key.
As a substitute to V7 or dominant chords:
Oh, Darling! by The Beatles is in the key of A, which means the V chord is E (or E 7th). Yet, instead of using a standard dominant chord, the song leads into each verse with an E+ chord in different inversions.
This adds heightened tension, in part because the augmented fifth (the note C) is not part of the A diatonic scale. Besides this, you can also play them as a substitute for other dominant chords like the dominant seventh chord.
In blues turnarounds:
Blues musicians don’t shy away from using the augmented chords. After all, they have the liberty of exploring the dissonance of major and minor keys while using augmented chords as a substitute for the V7.
For example, you’ll find +chords in the ‘heightened tension’ of turnarounds in songs such as Stormy Monday by the Allman Brothers Band.
For this reason, it is commonly used as a passing chord. By ‘passing chords’ – I mean the piano or guitar chords played between scale-degree chords to connect them and create some tension and movement.
A ‘ii-V’ passing is when you go from one chord to another in a progression (i.e. C to F major) using the ii-V of the chord you want to land on (F).
So, instead of playing C add9 | Cadd9| F | F | you can try C add9| Gm9. C+7 | Fmaj 7 | Fmaj7/9 | .
To add flavor to vamping:
Using some of the ideas from above, you can easily harness augmented triads/chords to spice up a simple vamp over a tonic chord in a minor key.
You can also use them in a rhythmic part of a song over I-iv while another player is soloing. This creates a really interesting contrast with the notes played by the other musicians, and this really grabs the audience’s attention.
Like we mentioned, you won’t find augmented chords commonly used in radio-friendly pop music as they can be intense and unstable. On the other hand, you’ll find them in various rock, blues, and jazz songs. Here are some examples:
Oh! Darling by The Beatles
In Oh!Darling (Key of A), the Beatles start with the gravitas of the E+, which is a rather brilliant way to setup the melancholic pining that ensues. Throughout the song, the E+ is used at the end of each chorus to build tension and left to linger for just the right amount of time.
This tension is duly resolved by returning to the I chord (A) to sing the verse. Here, the E+ functions quite similarly to a V7 chord, but it has more dissonance and complements Paul McCartney’s raspy-meets-aching vocals to a T.
Stealing Romance by The Milk Carton Kids
The Milk Carton Kids, often called the second-coming of Simon & Garfunkel, are now strangers to augmented chords. In Stealing Romance (Key of G, capo on the 7th fret), they employ it in a waltz-like folk ballad – right at the closing of each chorus, right when you least expect it.
It is a jarring jolt amidst their dreamy, harmonized, and entangled voices and does a particularly stellar job at leading the song to the bridge at 0:58 (Bmin, “A break in the rain”). This example closely follows the earlier one in the way the aug chord is used instead of the traditional V7.
Mamma Mia by ABBA
ABBA employs the aug chord in a slightly different fashion, using it to create some dissonance on the root chord vamp in the verse before moving on to the IV and V chords. They also use it in the intro and the guitar hook in the music instrumental section between verses.
Here are some other well-known tunes that use augmented chords – you can listen to them as an exercise to spot and study where, how and why augmented chords are used.
Duke Ellington – Solitude
T-Bone Walker – Stormy Monday (covered by various artists)
Gotye – State of the Art
Wayne Shorter – Juju
Foo Fighters – Generator
Balance is everything. When something is new or just happens to tickle our fancy, we have a tendency to overdo it. Remember, tension should be controlled and intended. Too much of it can ruin a song and create a haphazard sound.
But when used tastefully, augmented chords will broaden your understanding of theory and help you elevate your compositions, guitar playing, and songwriting.