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What To Know About Quartal Harmony and the Tritone Substitution




In this lesson, JGT contributor Ivan Gygi discusses quartal harmony – with video and examples.

Sometimes the music we play calls for the colorful, outside sound of altered dominant harmony. The idea of using the tritones substitution to achieve this sound is often taught in the context of single line improvisations and comping with tertian harmony. In this lesson I will discuss how I apply this same concept with quartal harmony.

The first portion of this article is aimed for those who are not yet confident in their basic knowledge of quartal harmony. It is meant to be a brief study on its meaning and application that will prepare you for the following material. The second portion dives into the previously mentioned altered dominant application and the tritone substitution. If you are already comfortable with your quartal harmony fundamentals you can jump to this part.

What Is Quartal Harmony?

In contrast to traditional, tertian harmony which is built by stacking the notes of a scale in 3rds, quartal harmony is built by stacking 4ths.

Below is a fretboard diagram with the quartal harmony shapes derived from the C major scale. Practice playing these shapes in both 3 note and 4 note groupings.

While tertian harmony chords have a very specific sound and function, quartal harmony is a bit more ambiguous in nature. This ambiguity allows the quartal shapes to be applied in a modal context. What this means is that any of the shapes generated from the C major scale can be played over any harmony from the key of C.


Quartal shapes are often used to create movement over modal/static harmony. Below is an example of shapes from the D dorian mode that could be used when comping on tunes like “Impressions,” or “So What.”

The same shapes can also be applied over a ii7 – V7 – I progression. When we do this we are harmonically generalizing the whole progression as being in the key of C major. Harmonic clarity comes when these shapes are combined with the root movement in the bass.


Once you get a hang of the regular quartal shapes, a good way of getting new sounds is by using their inversions. These new structures help add variety and interest. A great example of these used in action is John Scofield’s comping on the record So Near So Far. Specifically, check out the track “Joshua”. Below I have included fretboard diagrams with these new shapes.

1st Inversion Shapes In C major

2nd Inversion Shapes in C major

There is a lot of educational material available on this topic of quartal harmony fundamentals. For a more comprehensive lesson on these introductory concepts, I recommend checking out Corey Christiansen’s Mel Bay video from the “In the Pocket Series”.

Continue with Quartal Harmony lesson >>>>

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