You’re listening to a jazz combo at your local cafe, gently nodding along to the groovy rhythms, when the music takes an interesting turn. The pianist seamlessly transitions to a new chord, marked in his sheet music by a mysterious triangle.
“What does that triangle symbol mean?” you wonder. Well friend, you’ve come to the right place to uncover this peculiar musical marking!
Music notation symbols have a long and storied history stretching back over a millennium. From neumes in Gregorian chant to the familiar notes and clefs we know today, symbols evolved to represent musical ideas more precisely while condensing the complex information of melodies, harmonies and rhythms.
The triangle has its own winding journey within this lore. Let’s navigate exactly how it came to denote that major seventh chord under the pianist’s skilled fingers.
The Triangle Symbol in Jazz Chord Notation
Jazz music relies heavily on improvisation, making clear harmonic communication between musicians vitally important. Chord notation uses various symbols as shorthand to map out the shifting harmonic landscape.
The triangle specifically indicates a major chord quality, meaning the chord contains the root note, major third and perfect fifth of its parent scale.
This symbol likely emerged in the 1940s on handwritten lead sheets to represent major chords, though its meaning has expanded over time. Now it commonly denotes a four-note major seventh chord, essentially the addition of one more major third atop a major triad.
The triangle elegantly mirrors this intervallic structure, showing the familiar shape of an augmented triad.
Types of Seventh Chords in Jazz
Beyond signaling major harmony, triangles typically signify the broad family of seventh chords for jazz musicians. What exactly are seventh chords, you ask? Allow us to explain…
The Major Seventh Chord
The major seventh chord reigns supreme as the most popular extended chord symbol marked by the triangle. As described above, it adds a major seventh interval to a major triad to form a lush and colorful sound.
Jazz musicians love the richness and versatility these chords provide for comping and soloing. Triangles offer a compact way for leads sheets to outline exquisite major seventh movements.
From Minor Seventh to Half-Diminished
The minor seventh chord lives up to its name by having a minor third and minor seventh added to its root, creating a moody and soulful effect. You may even spot its morose cousin the half-diminished seventh lurking in the shadows of a minor key.
Symbols for minor chords and “half-dim” chords visually convey the darkness in their sounds through minus signs, slashed circles and other markings avoiding the brightness of a major triangle.
Fully Diminished and Suspended Variations
On the farthest ends of the seventh chord spectrum, we find the ominous diminished seventh grinding dissonance through stacked minor thirds, while the suspended chord seems to defy gravity by suspending tendency tones.
Symbols for these chords likewise stand apart with their own codes, the diminished often denoted by ° while suspensions earn the abbreviation sus.
Extended and Altered Chords
The basic triads and seventh chords represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harmonic options in jazz.
Let’s dive deeper now into mysterious extended chords and harmonic alterations denoted by additional symbols. Get your scuba gear on, it’s about to get interesting…
Upper Extensions: Ninths, Elevenths and Thirteenths
Extended chords add more layers to the harmonic cake by building additional thirds atop our original ingredients. We frequently find major ninth, sharp eleventh and thirteenth chords spreading buttery goodness through a chart’s changes.
The triangle symbol implies these richly layered structures by assuming any chord extensions beyond the seventh. Symbols marking upper extensions tell chord-playing performers what sweet treats to bake up.
Spicing Things Up with Altered Chords
To add some zing to the mix, composers also sprinkle altered tones into chords through flats, sharps and in some cases, natural signs. Common targets for alteration include the fifth, ninth, eleventh and thirteenth scale degrees.
Just a half step in any direction unlocks a kaleidoscope of new harmonic colors readily absorbed by the triangle. For the particularly adventurous, an abundance of alterations earns the apt designation of an “alt chord”.
No harmonic stone remains unturned in the quest for new jazz sounds. Enter slash chords: novel blends combining nearly any “bass note” against various chord qualities, with the bass pitch slashed below the chord name.
These compound sonorities open powerful polytonal effects and voice-leading for skilled jazz musicians guided by the symbols before them. Talk about tasty musical spice!
Origin Theories of the Triangle Symbol
As jazz developed these sophisticated harmonic practices so reliant on clear communication, shorthand chord symbols evolved in turn through various pioneers advancing the idiom. Handwritten charts provide clues to the triangle taking shape under several foundational figures.
Deciphering Mysteries in Coltrane’s Music
Symbols scattered through John Coltrane’s own drafts exhibit triangles denoting major chords in compositions such as “Naima” dating to 1959.
Given his harmonic sophistication, however, the designation likely referenced the fuller major seventh sonority. Coltrane’s heavy influence as both performer and composer undoubtedly popularized the triangular abbreviation.
Linking Triadic Roots
The triangle symbol also relates to the stacked thirds creating the intervallic structure of major chords.
Two major thirds form an augmented triad, yielding a triangle shape on the staff mirroring that within the notation symbol itself. This relationship potentially inspired its early adoption.
Following Symbols Back through Time
Looking further back, lead sheets charting Miles Davis’ innovative 1949 recordings entitled “The Birth of the Cool” contain extensive triangle notations likely penned by Gerry Mulligan during live rehearsals. Triangular mystery spans eras!
Purpose and Function
Beyond the cryptic myths surrounding its genesis, the triangle chord symbol serves important practical functions for jazz musicians old and new across various instruments and ensembles:
The open-ended nature of lead sheets and chord charts fosters jazz’s spontaneous style, with room for creative embellishment. Triangle symbols efficiently outline the harmonies for improvisers to weave endless melodic variations through, and accompany singers adding flair to familiar standards.
Quick Chord Code Communication
Like a succinct harmonic Morse code, triangular shorthand delivers key information on chords otherwise requiring lengthy descriptions.
For duos or larger groups, these symbols mean quick reading, close coordination and clear ensemble playing. Let the triangles guide your comping!
Link to Classical Music Theory
Jazz notation maintains ties to the Roman numeral analysis and figured bass symbols developed in Europe centuries prior.
Chord symbols function as guideposts for harmonizing melodies and improvised jazz solos much like Baroque continuo players would harmonize a figured bass line on the fly. Though used quite differently, chord notation symbols like the triangle emerge from this lineage.
Musical Shorthand on Lead Sheets
Lead sheets represent bare-bones references for jazz heads, simple and open to interpretation. With melody and lyrics notated above, chord symbols packed with harmonic details sit discretely below the staff, VGG BB acknowledging the melody’s primacy.
Triangles precisely fit this shorthand role, conveying major chord qualities and beyond in an unobtrusive but useful manner.
So there you have it friends – through detours and discoveries we’ve traced the winding history of this peculiar little symbol denoting characteristic jazz chords and beyond. It emerged mysteriously like so many innovations within the idiom, yet found purpose in facilitating musical communication and expression.
Not bad for a humble geometric shape! Next time you spot a triangle adorning a chart at that cozy jazz lounge, you’ll share knowing smiles with the musicians about its legacy gracing stages worldwide. Now it’s your time to scat some triangles!