eleventh chords

The lush world of eleventh chords

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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:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

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.

Minor eleventh

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:

1 5 m3 11 b7 9
C G Eb F Bb D

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):

1 11 b7 m3 5
C F Bb Eb G

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 storybookediting@gmail.com.

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11 thoughts on “The lush world of eleventh chords

  1. Wichita Lineman performed by Glen Campbell used a C11, played as a barre chord from the 5th to 1st string on the third fret. Actually the whole song, written by Jimmy Webb, is a nice study of song composition.

    1. Oops, sorry I mean add 4. = Add 11. So it’s the note below the 5th, up an octave. Add 9 is the same as add 2 up an octave.

      Personally I just think in my mind add 2 or add 4 rather than add 9 and add 11. The octave is really just an inversion anyway.

  2. This is the same type of “discussions” I have had with other predominately rhythm players who often tell me they don’t even know the name of the chord they’re playing, they just play what sounds good.

  3. The very first subject or topic also contains the minor 9 of “B-C” and the Tritone “F-B”; unless for some reason they are excluded and if so why?

  4. I am an amateur guitarist and an amateur keyboard player. When I play guitar, it’s usually blues which seldom uses any 11th chords. In fact, I’m woefully ignorant about forming these chords on a guitar. However, I’m also a lover of Steely Dan and enjoy simply comping chords on a keyboard while a Dan CD plays and they do use a lot of ‘jazz chords’ including 11th chords, major and minor sevenths and many others. Sometimes I can play a ‘Dan chord using two hands to get a very full sound while other times I might leave out a few notes and play the chord’ with one hand. Either way, doing this has taught me a lot about music theory. I also have a wonderful chord sheet that says across the top “you may never need these chords unless you are hanging around with your jazz friends.” Well, I hang around with Steely Dan and Donald Fagen CDs. Thanks for this email. Great topic!

    1. You can’t really finger them well, that’s for sure. As a young guitarist, I devoured the Ted Greene book “Chord Chemistry.” It has pages and pages of just guitar chords in every voicing imaginable. Start there.

      This article isn’t written for us guitar players. Initially, I had a negative reaction to the headline. Lush? Really? But upon reading the article I think it’s great and important. Oh, and it’s really easy to understand the theory. It’s for arrangers and keyboardists. We should know the theory behind it, but with the constraints the guitar has it’s very rare to play all six notes in these 11 chords. I strongly urge people that play guitar to try to use them. He’s right, lush means more notes, not normal guitar chords. That’s why our normal Major7 chord sounds so full. We play all the notes.

      Using the term “11” means the note should be played at the top of the chord, the same way that a 9th is used. A 9th chord is also a 2nd chord if you just consider the notes being used, but if you try and play it it probably sounds like a clashy mess because of the dissonance. When the 9th is on top, that octave gives the chord space for the harmonics to ring. It’s possible to play all 7 notes on a guitar, but usually it’s not done. My favorite 9th chord uses just 3 notes but has some octaves in it. It goes 1, 5, 1(8), 9, 5. The third is usually the first note to go in most chord extensions on the guitar. When playing Jazz guitar, 3 notes is enough to imply chords, especially if there’s a piano player. I often drop the root, because the bass player is probably playing it. When comping on guitar, 2 notes is enough to imply the chord. We do this in lots of different genres on the guitar. What’s a power chord, after all? 2 notes. Some Jazz guys think that 1 note is enough to imply a chord when comping or soloing.

    2. Actually, 11th chords aren’t too hard. For both major dominant 11th and minor dominant 11ths (C11 and Cm11, respectively) you can just barre one fret. (barre the 3rd fret from the A string down for a C11 and barre the entire 8th fret for a Cm11.) There are other variations, some of which will sound better and some are more difficult to play, but in general, 11ths are easy on guitar, because you’re stacking 4ths.

  5. Thanks for the excellent look into the world of eleventh chords. McCoy Tyner has used stacked fourths liberally in many tunes. They provided a wonderful backdrop for several of John Coltrane’s solos. Another very interesting use of dominant eleventh and minor eleventh chords voiced in stacked fourths can be found in Black Glass by Pat Martino. Martino uses elevenths as the melody notes in the A and B sections to great effect.

    1. Tyner’s my favorite pianist, and I’m kind of surprised I forgot to mention him, especially since I was looking at a lot of transcripts of his music. But yes, he’s Mr Stacked Fourth and his playing is always incredible.

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