Eleventh chords can liven up music in any genre, but they can be confusing. Here are some charts and examples to help guide you in your pursuit of extended chords.
In “Ninth chords add space, dissonance, and ambiance to your arrangements,” we explored the various types of ninth chords and ways to use them. Eleventh chords are essentially expanded ninth chords, adding an extra lush flavor to your music. Although they’re most commonly found in jazz, eleventh chords can liven up any musical genre.
Because people can find extended chords confusing, here’s a handy chart (in the key of C) to help you understand how the numbers relate to the notes we’re going to be talking about:
Major eleventh chords
The red numbers and letters in the chart above show which notes would be played in a Cmaj11. As we saw with the ninth chords, the “major” refers not to the C major triad, but to the use of a major seventh. This is considered one of the more dissonant forms of eleventh chords, because the chord includes not one but two highly dissonant intervals: the minor ninth (E and F) and a tritone (B and F). Compare a Cmaj9 to a Cmaj11 and you’ll see how much nastier the eleventh is.
Uses: Major eleventh chords aren’t used all that often, and I’ve mostly included it to help you understand the concept of an eleventh chord. You can use them the same way you might use a maj7 or maj9 chord. If you ever see a maj11 in the wild, your best bet, in terms of voicing, is to omit the 3rd and alter the voicing of the other notes so the tritone isn’t sitting on top. Something like: C-F-B-D-G.
Dominant eleventh chords
This is the most common eleventh chord, and it functions as a bigger, plushier version of a dominant ninth (or dominant seventh, for that matter), so a C11 wants to resolve to an F major chord, just like a C7 or C9 would.
What makes a dominant eleventh “dominant” is the use of a flattened seventh note, so a C11 includes these notes: C-E-G-Bb-D-F. (You’re essentially playing a C major and Bb major chord at the same time, so no wonder this wants to resolve to F.)
By flattening the seventh, the dominant eleventh eliminates the tritone ugliness of the maj11 chord, so it’s a “prettier” chord. However, you still have the minor ninth issue, so usually the third is omitted, and sometimes composers will even omit the fifth as well, leaving C-Bb-D-F. As you can see, this can also be written as a Bb/C. In “‘Good Vibrations’ and Smile: A complex album built on a song,” we noted that the “ah” climax of “Good Vibrations” is an Eb/F chord, which is essentially an F11.
Dominant elevenths roam wild in jazz, but to offer up a nice example of a dominant eleventh in rock, check out “Sun King” by the Beatles. The eleventh chord shows up around the 0:52 mark, when the group chimes in with a giant G11 chord on the word “ah.” (Is it a rule that you need to sing the word “ah” when singing an eleventh chord?)
Unlike with “Good Vibrations,” where both the third and fifth are omitted from the chord, the Beatles do include a fifth, so we hear G-D-F-A-C.
“Sun King” offers a nice example of why one might choose to use an eleventh chord over, say, a seventh. Although a dominant eleventh does in fact function like a dominant seventh chord, those extra notes offer you more creative options. In “Sun King,” John Lennon uses the G11 to modulate from the key of E to the key of C. (The chord progression is E6 to G11 to C.) Try substituting a G7 for that G11 and you’ll see how the modulation is more awkward.
Relationship with sus4 chords
I can hear some of you already: “Hey, wait a second there, mister. If you omit the third from some of those voicings you’re really playing sus4 chords.” OK, sure. Write your chord as a C9sus4 if that makes you feel better.
Here the “minor” refers to a minor triad. (It’s confusing, I know.) So a Cm11 includes these notes: C-Eb-G-Bb-D-F. The minor eleventh eliminates both of the issues we had with the maj11 chord: there is no tritone, nor is there a minor ninth interval. Minor elevenths are just flat out beautiful chords.
When to use them: In major keys, minor eleventh chords are most easily substituted in for ii and vi chords, or Dm and Am in the key of C. This makes sense as every note in Dm11 and Am11 can be found in the key of C major. A beautiful progression is ii11-V9-I (Dm11-G9-C).
In minor keys, you can easily substitute minor elevenths in for your i and iv chords, or Cm and Fm in the key of C minor.
In terms of voicing, you have several options. One is to just voice it naturally, using thirds (1-b3-5-b7-9-11). Another, favored by Herbie Hancock, is this:
This voicing is useful for when you have a minor chord where your melody lands on a ninth. Throw that extra eleventh note in there to really add some nice color.
Another option, most famously used by Bill Evans in Miles Davis Sextet’s recording of “So What,” is to stack fourths and top it off with a major third (omitting the ninth):
Interestingly, “So What” offers nothing but minor eleventh chords: Em11, Dm11, Fm11, Ebm11. (Technically, because they omit the ninth, one could argue that the chords are actually m7/11 chords, but I think it’s nitpicking.)
When to use this voicing: If you have a minor chord (or minor seventh) and your melody lands on the fifth (the highest note), try this voicing.
Sharp elevenths and beyond
You can go a little nuts with all the variations of eleventh chords. Just like we saw with ninth chords, you can sharpen the eleventh, or you can leave the eleventh where it is and sharpen or flatten the ninth or seventh, or some combination therein.
Here are four alternate eleventh chords I find rather beautiful:
maj9#11 (C-E-G-B-D-F#). This is a nice alternative to the maj11 chord that nicely avoids that chord’s B-F tritone problem.
7b9#11 (C-E-D-Bb-Db-F#). Works nicely with the maj9#11 chord, to modulate up a whole step. Try it: Cmaj9#11-C7b9#11-D.
7#9#11 (C-E-G-Bb-D#-F#). A dominant eleventh that resolves nicely into a minor tonic (F minor).
m7b9(add11) (C-Eb-G-Bb-Db-F). Just a lovely little chord.
I hope this sparks your creative juices. Comment below on your favorite uses of eleventh chords.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at email@example.com.
Ninth chords add space, dissonance, and ambiance to your arrangements
“Good Vibrations” and Smile: A complex album built on a song
Sixth chords can add subtle complexity to your songs
Spice up your musical arrangements with substitution chords
Music theory can help you write a great chorus