• Carl Does Music

Why dominant 13th chords are on the rise...

There’s a subtle, attractive chord that I’m hearing more often in some recent music of the past handful of years... the dominant 13th. The dominant 13th is one of the most unique and versatile chords in music, because there are so many ways it can be played. And it’s actually not a popular chord, because of its required fingering and musical tension. It mainly lends itself to genres like jazz or neo soul music, where there’s more harmonic experimentation and what I guess you can call “soul”.

Many instances of the chord are produced by a combination of two or more different instruments and even including the sung melody of a particular song. A full dominant 13th chord would include the root, third, fifth, flat seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth degree of a scale… but that would all entail seven different notes, which is inconvenient on piano and impossible on most guitars due to lack of strings or practical chord shapes. Fortunately, dominant 13ths can eliminate the 5th, 9th, 11th, and even 3rd degree while still qualifying as such. So a 1, flat 7, and 13 are essentially enough to get you a substantial dominant 13th chord. Here are some other versions of a dominant 13th:

1 3 b7 13

1 3 b7 9 13

1 3 b7 11 13

1 5 b7 13

1 b7 9 11 13

1 b7 9 13

Here are some inverted versions:

1 3 13 b7

1 5 13 b7

1 5 b7 3 13

1 b7 3 13

1 b7 3 5 13

1 b7 9 3 13

1 b7 9 13 3

1 b7 11 13 3

1 b7 13 3 5

Saxophone legend John Coltrane frequently used dominant 13ths, and my guess for why he did so is because he was notorious for rapidly changing keys yet using the same chord progression throughout the changes. This created a need or preference for using a common theme among the new keys he would enter. Plus, the combination of Coltrane’s melodies and chords naturally created a dominant 13th feel within his songs. Since Coltrane often composed using the basis of a 2-5-1 progression, he would specifically build his chord progression using the minor 9th chord of the 2, the dominant 13th of the 5, and then resolve to the major 7th chord of the root. For example, let’s use an early section of Coltrane’s “Central Park West”, within the first 10 seconds, where he’s briefly in F major. The 2-5-1 here is a G minor 9th, C dominant 13th, and F major 7th. Let’s focus on the note A. A is the the 9th of F major’s 2nd degree note’s scale (which is the G minor 9th chord I mentioned), A is the 13th of F major’s 5th degree note’s scale (which is the C dominant 13th I mentioned), and A is also the 3rd of F major’s root (the root note is F).

Important point, if you don’t already understand the concept of “dominant”... look at it as referring to the fact that the 5th degree of most popular/western scales is “dominated” by the root note of that scale. Basically it feels/sounds like it wants to return “home” to the root note. C is the 5th degree of F major, and therefore the dominant of F major. It doesn’t mean C “dominates” F, it implies that C is “dominated” by F. So whenever you play a 7th chord of a 5th degree note based on the scale you’re in, you are playing a dominant 7th chord, which must include the flat 7th of that 5th degree note’s scale. Whenever you play extensions beyond a 7th, you continue to use that flat 7th. So a dominant 9th, 11th and 13th all must use a flat 7th. This can all be a confusing concept, because you’re analyzing two different scales at the same time, and even explaining it can be tricky. You’ll be alright.

Getting back to the dominant 13th. It creates an interesting phenomenon. Rewind this next part, if you need to. A C dominant 13th chord must include the flat 7th of C, which is Bb. Bb is the 4th of F major, and this Bb creates a “suspended” feel that wants to move down a half step. A suspended F major chord is played F Bb C and then often immediately followed by some form of its major triad home of F A C. The dominant chord of an F major scale, which is C dominant 7th (played C E G Bb), also creates a type of “suspended” feel since the Bb wants to move down to A, in order to release the tension/suspense. However, as in the case of “Central Park West”, C dominant 13th includes both an A and Bb, and this creates a conflict; both notes overlap and interfere with the logic of a suspended chord. The chord is saying “I want to resolve this tension, but, somehow, also saying, I already resolved the tension”. I look at it as playing the future note, now, with a shadow of the past note. It creates a “beautiful” mess. A dominant 13th chord already allows for so many notes, so it’s bound to create an even deeper tension/conflict within the chord. Those are negative words to me, so again, I’ll go with “beautiful”.

Here’s an example of the dominant 13th being used without leading to the root chord, breaking away from the tension and ignoring the urge to resolve.

If you’re interested in any of the songs I mentioned, check the link to my Spotify playlist, below. Feel free to add to it or comment below with some more songs that feature dominant 13ths. I’m always on the lookout. Thanks for your intake.