Chord substitutions

In a chord context, a substitution, refers to a chord that replace another. There are mainly two situations for chord substitutions: an extended chord replaces a triad or an altered chord replace a chord of the same type. A third, less common, approach is melodic substitution which is explained further in the article.

The typical method for substitutions is that they use the same root note as the chord that is replaced. D7 could be substituted for D13, but not for A9. This principle can, however, be stretched. In these cases, the function of the chords is replaced as well, for example, replacing the I chord with a iii chord.

Typical chord types that are used as substitutions

Extended chords, such as 9th, 11th and 13th, are often used as substitutions for regular triads, seventh chords as well as other extended chords.

This means that a C major triad can be substituted for a Cmaj7, a C7 can be substituted for a C9 or C13 et cetera. C7 can also be substituted for alternate chord such as C7#9 (this kind of chord swapping is a standard approach in jazz).

In most kinds of substitutions both the root note and the chord quality remain the same, but the chord quality can change. For example, C7 substituting C.

Lists with chord types and potential chord substitutions

To outline some applications in this area, the following lists include chords and possible substitutions that can be used.

Table 1. Dominant chords substitutions list
Extended chords Alterations
C7 C9, C11, C13 C7-5, C7+5, C7-9, C7+9, C7+11
D7 D9, D11, D13 D7-5, D7+5, D7-9, D7+9, D7+11
E7 E9, E11, E13 E7-5, E7+5, E7-9, E7+9, E7+11
F7 F9, F11, F13 F7-5, F7+5, F7-9, F7+9, F7+11
G7 G9, G11, G13 G7-5, G7+5, G7-9, G7+9, G7+11
A7 A9, A11, A13 A7-5, A7+5, A7-9, A7+9, A7+11
B7 B9, B11, B13 B7-5, B7+5, B7-9, B7+9, B7+11
Table 2. Major chords substitutions list
Extended chords Alterations
Cmaj7 C6, Cmaj9, Cmaj13 C6/9, Cmaj7#9
Dmaj7 D6, Dmaj9, Dmaj13 D6/9, Dmaj7#9
Emaj7 E6, Emaj9, Emaj13 E6/9, Emaj7#9
Fmaj7 F6, Fmaj9, Fmaj13 F6/9, Fmaj7#9
Gmaj7 G6, Gmaj9, Gmaj13 G6/9, Gmaj7#9
Amaj7 A6, Amaj9, Amaj13 A6/9, Amaj7#9
Bmaj7 B6, Bmaj9, Bmaj13 B6/9, Bmaj7#9
Table 3. Minor chords substitutions list
Extended chords Other options
Cm7 Cm9, Cm11, Cm13 Cm7b5, Cm6/9, Cm+5, CmMaj7, CmMaj9
Dm7 Dm9, Dm11, Dm13 Dm7b5, Dm6/9, Dm+5, DmMaj7, DmMaj9
Em7 Em9, Em11, Em13 Em7b5, Em6/9, Em+5, EmMaj7, EmMaj9
Fm7 Fm9, Fm11, Fm13 Fm7b5, Fm6/9, Fm+5, FmMaj7, FmMaj9
Gm7 Gm9, Gm11, Gm13 Gm7b5, Gm6/9, Gm+5, GmMaj7, GmMaj9
Am7 Am9, Am11, Am13 Am7b5, Am6/9, Am+5, AmMaj7, AmMaj9
Bm7 Bm9, Bm11, Bm13 Bm7b5, Bm6/9, Bm+5, BmMaj7, BmMaj9

Notice that there are more possibilities and that some of the substitutions might be atonal (meaning that the substituting chord may have notes that don’t match the relevant key).

Melodic substitution

Melodic substitutions differ slightly, but the concept is intact though. When playing melodies over chords, such as improvising using arpeggios, matching chords can be used. Instead of playing a C major arpeggio over a Cmaj7 chord, Em7 could be used. The notes are almost matching and the D note in Em7 what is not included in Cmaj7 is nevertheless included in the C major scale.

Applications in progressions

Finally, examples will be given how progressions containing substitutions can look like.

ii - V - I with substitutions:

Dm7 - G13 - Cmaj7 
Em7 - A7 - Dmaj9
Gm9 - C7#5 - Fmaj9
Am11 - D7 - Gmaj7
Bbm7 - Eb7#9 - Abmaj7
Cm7 - F9 - Bbmaj13

I - vi - ii - V with substitutions:

Cmaj7 - Am7 - Dm7 - G13
Ebmaj7 - Cm7 - Fm9 - Bb11
Dmaj9 - Bm11 - Em7 - A7

I - VI - ii - V with substitutions:

Cmaj7 - A7 - Dm7 - G13
Dbmaj9 - Bb11 - Ebm7 - Ab7
Ebmaj7 - C7 - Fm9 - Bb11

See also Voicings ›