Ninth Chords

Ninth chords are a surefire way of making piano music feel rich and a little magical. If you love dreamy sounds, they can be a valuable part of your playing repertoire. Here's what you need to know.

Last updated on 14 Aug 2023

Below, we'll introduce the ninth note and how it can be added to various chords to create ninth chords. You'll learn how to play the most common ninth chords and get an idea of how they sound on piano. Then, we'll explore some examples of ninth chords in pop and Romantic-era music.

Introducing the ninth note

Note: To be as clear as possible, we'll use ninth to refer to the ninth note in a scale and ninth chord to refer to the chord.

You may be thinking, "There are only seven notes in a scale," and you'd be right. 

The ninth note we're referring to here is in the same scale, but one octave higher. The eighth note is the same as the root note, but one octave above. The ninth note is the same as the second note, but one octave above.

What is a ninth chord?

A ninth chord is any chord with the ninth note added.

How do ninth chords function in piano music?

Adding the ninth adds ambience and makes full chords sound even richer—plus, the pleasant yet unresolved mild tension of the ninth makes the chords sound a little magical. 

The full effect of each ninth chord depends mostly on the type of chord it's built on. Below you'll find sections on added ninth chords in major and minor scales, and ninth chords in major and minor scales.

Playing added ninth chords

Added ninth chords are the simplest form of ninth chord: a major or minor triad with an added ninth. They're used relatively often in pop music to add some depth to "ordinary" triads.

How do you play an added ninth chord on piano?

In the left hand, start with the major or minor triad. This could be with your little fifth finger, third finger, and first finger on the root, third, and fifth notes, or however you feel comfortable. In your right hand, play the ninth note with any finger—this is seven keys up from your middle finger (seven semitones above the fifth). It will look and sound a little different depending on what type of chord you're starting from.

Adding the ninth note to a chord makes added ninth chords a bit of a stretch, unless you have incredibly large, dextrous hands. Therefore, the ninth is often transposed down one octave, so the left hand can play a deep bass note and the right hand can play all notes of the chord in one octave. Adding the ninth in between the root and the third, this structure is sometimes also referred to as an add2 chord.


Major added ninth chord

A major triad with a ninth note added. For example, if you played a C major added ninth using the method above, it should look and sound like this:

The ninth adds complexity and brings a little happy magic to a major triad. The chord is written as Cadd9.

Minor added ninth chord

A minor triad with a ninth note added.

The ninth creates a small dissonance and brings some sad magic to a minor triad. The chord is written as Cmadd9.

Playing ninth chords

Whereas added ninth chords are created by adding a ninth note to any major or minor triad, ninth chords are created by adding a ninth note to any seventh chord. It may be a little confusing—both include adding a ninth, after all, and both create a dreamy, fuller-sounding chord. The key difference is that added ninth chords have four notes, whereas ninth chords have five.

The five-note complexity of ninth chords makes them rare in pop music, but you can find them in many Romantic-era pieces.

How do you play a ninth chord on piano?

We mentioned above that added ninth chords can be challenging to accomplish with a single hand; with ninth chords, since they comprise five notes, this is even more so the case. For this reason, they're almost always played with two hands.

In the left hand, start with any seventh chord. Place your fifth finger, third finger, second finger, and first finger on the root, third, fifth, and seventh notes. In your right hand, play the ninth note with any finger.

If this stretch in your left hand is uncomfortable, you can play the seventh note with the right hand. As you get used to playing ninth chords, you may see that, in practice, spreading the chord across both hands is common.

Major ninth chord

A major seventh with a ninth note added. 

The ninth takes the already-emotional sound of a major seventh chord up a level. The chord is written as Cmaj9.

Minor ninth chord

A minor seventh with a ninth note added. 

A minor ninth chord takes the reflective feeling of a minor seventh chord and brings in a slight dissonance. The effect is even more nostalgic, with a bit of an edge. It's written as Cm9.

Dominant ninth chord

A seventh chord with a ninth note added. This is where the naming gets tricky, because it's sometimes (confusingly) just called a 9th chord. If it helps, remember that neither the 7th chord or 9 chord have "major" or "minor" in the name.

A quick recap

Even experienced players can get confused with the names of ninth chords. Here's a recap of how to build each of them and how they're written:

What songs use ninth chords?

The Police – Every Breath You Take

This is a song that takes the use of added ninth chords to another level. Throughout the introduction and verse, every chord is an added ninth, played as broken chords. It takes a progression that might otherwise sound ordinary and gives it a wistful, yearning edge that fits what have been called the world's "most misinterpreted" lyrics.

Christina Perri – A Thousand Years

A pure love song about eternal love needs a little magic. Here, the first chord in the verse is a major added ninth, which sets the tone beautifully. The same chord returns in the chorus under the line "a thousand years," to help us really feel it.

Claude Debussy – Clair de Lune

Debussy was a virtuoso when it came to taking the listener on a fantastical journey using huge chords. One of those moments happens in the fifteenth bar of this masterpiece. Listen for that strong, deep note down low, followed by the lush flourish in the octaves above. Together, those eight notes make up a breathtaking minor ninth chord.

Maurice Ravel – Pavane pour une infante défunte

Ravel takes a darker approach for this classic, known in English as "Dance for a Dead Princess." Moving from bar twenty-six into bar twenty-seven, you can hear five rich chords moving down, then up again. All of them are ninth chords, bringing extra impact to this dreamy, mystical piece.

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