Sixth Chords

Sixth chords can add subtle complexity to your songs

Sixth chords have an inherent lack of identity and purpose that can be riveting — a sixth chord can provide ambiguity, set curiously dark moods, and add a layer of complexity to your music.

Sixth chords are curious creatures, perhaps best defined by what they aren’t rather than what they are, and by what they don’t do as opposed to what they do. And yet sixth chords can juice up your songs by adding contemplative dissonance (in the case of major sixths), or brooding mystery (in the case of minor sixths). Here’s a look at sixth chords and how to use them to stir the muse or add a little spice to your songs.

What are sixth chords, exactly?

Major, minor, and dominant seventh chords are the most powerful chords in music. They each have a definite identity, and they take us places, either away from, or back to the root. Sixth chords lack both of these characteristics.

What I mean by identity is this: major chords are major chords no matter how you invert them or orchestrate them. Any time you play the notes C-E-G, with no added notes, you are unambiguously playing a C major chord. Play G-E-C and you still have a C major chord, though in a less stable form. Same is true with C minor (C-Eb-G) and dominant seventh (C-E-G-Bb) chords. (Yes, in certain context there may be exceptions to how these notes function, but 99% of the time, a C major is a C major.)

Sixth chords, on the other hand, can be called different things, depending on voicing and context.

For example, a C6, or C major added 6, uses these notes: C-E-G-A, with A being the sixth note up from C. If you simply move that A to the bass, you have an Am7.

Cm6 uses C-Eb-G-A. Place the A in the bass and you have an A half-diminished chord, or Aø. In jazz, where minor sixth chords are common, those same notes are often considered a form of F9, minus the root. (An F9 chord is F-A-C-Eb-G.)

So, unlike with major, minor, and dominant chords, sixth chords can just vanish if you change the voicing.

Not only do they have an identity issue, sixth chords also lack a strong sense of purpose.

Music is about tension and release. Major, minor, and dominant chords all have very strong roles to play in creating and alleviating this tension. Take this simple progression: C-Dm-G7-C. The minute we play that D minor chord, we feel we have wandered away from home, but there is no immediate need to return. When we get to that G7, however, we absolutely want that to resolve back to C major. (Ending a song on a dominant seventh chord can make some listeners absolutely cringe, which can be fun, but can almost feel cruel.) It’s that F in the G7 chord that gives us such tension. It “wants” to resolve down to the E in C major. Resolving a dominant seventh is one of the most-used and most satisfying cadences in music.

Sixth chords don’t pull the listener anywhere. Try changing that G7 to a G6 (G-B-D-E) and you’ll see what I mean. That E doesn’t pull us towards another note. It doesn’t sound bad, it just doesn’t function as a dominant chord. And because that G6 could easily be an Em7, it doesn’t feel or function as a major or minor chord, either.

In other words, sixth chords don’t necessarily “do” anything; they “just” add color.

But that lack of identity and purpose can be riveting. Sixth chords give you ambiguity and curiously dark and/or wistful moods to add a new layer of complexity to your music.

How to use major sixth chords

When learning to use chords, I usually turn to the Beatles, for they seemed to have used every trick in the book. And, sure enough, they give us some nice examples of ways to use sixth chords.

Their most famous use of a major sixth chord comes at the end of “She Loves You,” which ends on a G6. George Harrison apparently suggested it. George Martin said it was too old-fashioned. They were both right. Using major sixth chords at the end of songs was a very popular trick in the ’40s and ’50s. (Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'” and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” are just two examples.) But it’s a good choice for this particular song. It makes sense in terms of the melody, and it gives the song a juicy, big finish. Try playing that song without it and you’ll see how empty it is. “Help!” ends with an A major, but the singers hit a sixth (F#) on that final, a cappella “Ooh” for a nice, subtle sixth.

Note to future readers: The Beatles’ songs typically get removed from YouTube after a while, so forgive us if these links don’t work.

But while those songs use a sixth as a splashy embellishment, “The Fool on the Hill” gives us a better example of how to use major sixth chords as an integral part of throughout a song. The song opens with a sweet D6 chord and switches between that and a G6 in the verses. Paul easily could have used a D major chord, but that sixth gives the song a wistful, bittersweet feeling, which perfectly matches the lyrics. Try playing the song with straight D and G major chords. It works, but you lose something.

Big Star’s glorious Radio City opener, “O My Soul,” delivers big, fat, crashing A6 and D6 chords, showing that sixth chords don’t have to be sorrowful. They can flat out rock. Switch out the sixth chords for major chords, and you lose some of the enormity of the sound.

A major sixth chord can essentially be substituted for any major chord, or its relative minor. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule of thumb for experimentation.

How to use minor sixth chords

Though common in jazz, minor sixth chords are pretty rare in popular music. It’s a shame, because there is a dark majesty to them that is quite unique. When they do occur, they are frequently only used in support of a descending figure, like the chromatic descent in the strings (D to C# to C to B) in the chorus of “Eleanor Rigby.”

Em7         Em6
All the lonely people

C         Em
Where do they all come from?

That’s certainly a valid way to use minor sixth chords – or even just switch back and forth between a minor seventh and a minor sixth – however, I don’t think that makes full use of the color that chord can give. (One hears the descending figure, rather than hearing the minor sixth as its own entity.)

To get that minor sixth feeling, one can simply substitute them for minor chords, as we see in The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

D/A         Bm6
I may not always love you

Like with our major sixth examples, Brian Wilson could have easily used a regular B minor, but the song would have lost its dark emotional impact, nicely mirrored in the lyrics. (Not coincidentally, the highly emotional Pet Sounds is laden with minor sixth chords).

Another fun way to use minor sixths is as a substitute for a dominant seventh. I mentioned above that sixth chords don’t have the dominant seventh’s need to be resolved, and that’s true, certainly of major sixths. As we see in the example of “God Only Knows,” that’s often true for minor sixths as well. But in the right context, a minor sixth can add quite a bit of drama and tension.

Let’s go back to our C-Dm-G7-C progression, or I-ii-V7-I. Instead of that V7 chord, a common substitution is to use a iv. This is known as a borrowed chord, because we’re “borrowing” from the Cm scale. Fm works because we get a nice chromatic inner line – the A in Dm moves down to the Ab in Fm, and then again to the G in C major. So far so good. But if we make that F minor an Fm6, we get even more tension, as the D is held over from the Dm to the Fm6. (It’s even stronger if you use both chords: C-Dm-Fm-Fm6-C.) That sixth gives a much more exotic and dramatic flavor to what is otherwise a fairly standard progression.

You can hear how much yearning an iv6 chord can bring in “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” from Twin Peaks. The theme spends most of its time in Cm and Ab, then, around 2:40 in the video below, the key switches to C major. The melody starts to rise and the chords go to E (!) at 2:44, then to Fm at 2:54. The melody rises higher and higher, and just when you think the tension can’t get any thicker, we get our brooding Fm6 (at 3:02) before we finally get our release in a lush C major chord.

For our final example, we return again to the Beatles with “The Night Before.” This song offers a really great study, not only in how a minor sixth can either have or not have a need to resolve, but also in the differences you get from three different cadences: iv6 to I, IV7 to I, and V7 to I.

The verses give us all three cadences. We get a V7 to I in the first two lines:

D     C     G     A7
We said our goodbyes (the night before)

D     C     G     A7
Love was in your eyes (the night before)

That pull from the A7 back to D isn’t terribly strong, mostly because the melody isn’t driving it (rather only the background singers are). But we’ll get a more impressive V7 to I later.

Then we get two minor sixths in the next line:

Bm     Gm6     Bm     Gm6
Now today I find, you have changed your mind

There are a couple of interesting things about those minor sixths. The first time it’s used, that Gm6 doesn’t feel like it needs to resolve to the I. And indeed we move back to Bm. But when we repeat the progression, that Gm6 absolutely wants to resolve to D – so much so that it almost feels like an entirely different chord. (It’s not.)

Why is the difference between these two instances so stark? It’s because of the melody. When we first land on a Gm6, Paul sings an E, which is the sixth note in that chord. That note (as we saw in “Laura Palmer’s Theme”) definitely pulls us up to an F# note. And he does sing an F#, but instead of giving us a D major chord, Paul goes back to a Bm (which also has an F#) and then, when he returns to the Gm6 he sings a high G note. That absolutely wants to resolve back down to an F# and definitely in our root chord in D major. The fact that he’s singing the highest note so far, coupled with the tease of wanting to hit that F# twice, is what makes that cadence so strong.

We get our third cadence, a IV7 to I, in the next line.

D     G7     D
Treat me like you did the night before.

You can hear how much less of a pull that G major has than the minor sixth (which is fine; frankly we need the breather).

I mentioned we would get a stronger V7 to I cadence later in the song. We get that in the bridge (at 0:55).

The song modulates to G, but then finishes off with a dominant seventh cadence (V7 to I) on the word “cry.” This, of course, is a much more standard cadence than a iv6 to I, and it’s great here. It gives a much more crashing, angular sound than our minor sixth. One isn’t “better” than the other. They simply give us different feelings.

Am     D7     G
Last night is the night I will remember you by

Bm     E7     A       A7
When I think, of things we did, it makes me wanna cry

Minor sixths are certainly more unsettled than major sixth chords. Major sixths can give you a big fat sound that you can happily hang on to all day long (as we saw in “O My Soul”), whereas minor sixth chords feel like they need to go somewhere. But where they want to go, exactly, is up to you.

Happy experimenting!


Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors.

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7 thoughts on “Sixth chords can add subtle complexity to your songs

  1. SRV’s “Lenny” makes great use of major 6th chords. Surprised it wasn’t mentioned here. Amaj6, Dmaj6, Gmaj6, Bbmaj6, and back to Amaj6.

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