Today we are going to cover how to add some flavor to your chords and compositions using 7ths in both major and minor. It is surprising how many people know how to play them but do not really understand how they are built and function (guitarists I am talking to you!).
If you have heard of these types of chords but never knew exactly how they were constructed then this tutorial is for you. We will cover everything from basic structure to different voicings of the chords and try to apply them in a creative context. If you want to extend your chord knowledge to the 7th degree then read on!
What is a 7th Chord?
In order to effectively use a 7th chord we first need to understand what exactly a 7th chord is. A 7th chord is simply a basic chord (3 notes) with the 7th degree of the root added in (4 notes). Do not confuse the 7th degree of the chord with the 7th degree of the scale. Here is an example...
The 7th scale degree of the C Major scale is B. The fourth note in a C Major scale is F which traditionally would be played as a F Major chord in the key of C. However the 7th of an F major chord is an E not the B. This is because the E is 7 notes above the F. If you are still having issues visualizing this concept here is a written out example...
Remember, always go to the 7th of the chord you are playing no matter what key you are in. If it says C Min7 then your 7th is B, if it says Bb Maj7 then your 7th is A. End of story.
Major Major, Minor Minor, Major Minor, and Minor Major
Or is it the end of the story? Not all 7ths are created equal some are major and some are minor. If you have a C Major chord that you want to add a 7th to you actually have two choices to pick from; you can add either the Major 7th or the Minor 7th. If this sounds confusing then let me explain.
We find the 7th by going 7 notes above the root of our chord correct? That interval between our root note and the 7th can be either a Major 7th or a Minor 7th. The Minor 7th is simply just one half step down from the Major 7th. Another way to think of this interval is that a Major 7th is 11 half steps above your chord root and a Minor 7th is 10 half steps. Before we move any further take a listen to the intervals and hear the difference...
So how do we know which to play? This is where proper notation comes into play. If you want the play a Major 7th on top of your C Major chord then you would write C Maj7; a major chord with a major 7th. If however you want a Minor 7th on top of your C Major chord you would write C7. Why is that? Because a major chord with a Minor 7th on top is actually a Dominant 7th chord. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of Dominant chords do not worry. For now just remember that a major chord with a Minor 7th is actually a Dominant 7th chord and is written like C7, A7, Bb7, etc.
If you want a Minor 7th on top of your C Minor chord you would write C min7; a minor chord with a minor 7th. If however you wish to have an Major 7th on top of your C Minor chord you would write C min/maj7; a minor chord with a major 7th.
Here are the chords laid out for you so you can hear the difference and see the notational difference...
One final point to note is how people generally talk about these chords. If someone says Major Major they are referring to a Major Chord with a Major 7th on top. By contrast a Minor Minor would be in reference to a Minor Chord with a Minor 7th on top. Your other variations would then be of course Major Minor (also called a Dominant!) and Minor Major.
Up until now we have examined the 7th chords from what is called root position. This simply means we start with our root and add the 3rd, 5th, and 7th chord degrees one after another until our chord is built. What if however we started with the 3rd of the chord and added the 5th, 7th, and root on top? Well then we get an inversion!
A chord inversion is simply taking your chord and starting on a note other than the root. So if we have a C Maj7 our chord would be made up of C, E, G, B. But if we put the E (3rd of the chord) as the lowest note then we have what is called a first inversion. A second inversion would put the G (5th of the Chord) as the lowest note. Meanwhile a 3rd Inversion of the C Maj7 would have the B (7th of the chord) as the lowest note.
Here is an example of the inversions using a C Maj7...
While there are more proper ways to notate inversions we will not worry about them right now; just follow the format I presented above. All you need to remember is the following...
- 3rd as the lowest note means first inversion
- 5th as the lowest note means second inversion
- 7th as the lowest note means third inversion.
Using the 7th Chords
Now that we have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of 7th chords we can finally start to apply our knowledge. If you have noticed already, 7th chords take on a much different character than basic chords. Major chords with a Major 7th tend to have a smooth almost sigh like quality that takes away some of the really cheery aspects of a typical major chord. A minor chord with a Minor 7th however brightens up the darkness of a minor chord just a touch. While these are always open to interpretation here is what I believe best represents the musical quality of the different major and minor 7th chords...
- Major Major: Smooth, sighing, hint of tension
- Major Minor (Dominant): Very tense, wants to move
- Minor Minor: Smooth, hint of happiness
- Minor Major: Jarring, tense, unsure
All of these interpretations however are based on if there chords were in closed position. If you were to use alternate inversions then you would run into other possible feelings behind the chords. For example first and second inversion Major Major chords are tenser than the closed position and third position, especially if the root and 7th of the chord are a half step away. Play around with the inversions and see what kind of response they give you.
There is one final idea to keep in mind when using 7th chords and that is modulation. Every now and again we may want to modulate to a different key then one we are playing in. However some modulations can be a little harsher sounding than others. If you are not looking for that harsh transition then try using 7th chords to and the transition will move a little smoother if you have the write chords chosen.
To stir some musical creativity here is an example of some basic chords I worked out and then expanded into something more. I have included which chords I am using and what inversion they are. Keep in mind this is not the proper way to notate these inversions, it is simply an easier to use reference. In addition, some chord markings may be considered passing tones and not full on chords; measure two beat two for example. However I included the chord names anyways because all the notes of that chord are sounding whether they were played at the same time or not. Finally I kept the chords in closed position for simplicity's sake. You could experiment with different more open voicing if you wanted a wider range of sound.
That about covers the basics for 7th chords my friends. Besides major and minor chords you could also add them to diminished and augmented chords as well if you like that jarring flavor more than the smooth texture. Experiment with different progressions and see how the notes move between one another; 7th chords are very good at creating more common tones. With these new found tools what will you create? Thanks for reading!