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.
|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|
|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|
|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 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 ›