SEVENTH CHORDS MADE EASY
In this tutorial, we’ll be covering the major 7th chord and the dominant 7th chord. While these popular chord types are very similar in their construction, they differ in their sound and applications.
We’re going to start our examples using the key of C. I’m using C because it’s easier for beginners to visualize each chord, interval, and so on in this key. If you’re more comfortable playing in another key, by all means, I recommend you use that key as well to aid your exploration of the piano.
Major 7th chords
The major 7th chord is a four-note chord. The chord C major 7th is symbolized as Cmaj7 or CΔ and is formed of the notes C – E – G – B. The chord is constructed of the following intervals: a major 3rd (C to E), a perfect 5th (C to G), and a major 7th (C to B).
The most common way I teach major 7th chords to beginners is to first build the major chord (e.g., C – E – G to form C major), add the octave note on top of the major chord (C – E – G – C), and then lower that octave note by a half-step (C – E – G – B). This gives you a maj7 chord in any key you choose to play. It’s as easy as that.
You can try this using the chord G: start with G major (G – B – D), add the octave (G – B – D – G), and then lower it by a half-step (G – B – D – F) to form Gmaj7 or GΔ. You can try it on the D chord as well: begin on D major (D – F# – A), add the octave note above (D – F# – A – D), and then lower that octave by half a step (D – F# – A – C#) to create Dmaj7 or DΔ.
This is how I began visualizing major 7th chords when I started learning piano until they became familiar enough that I could pick them out more naturally. If you’re a beginner, this is a really easy way to get to any maj7 chord without having to count intervals and other time-consuming techniques like that.
Another way you can look at the maj7 chord is by taking a major chord (C – E – G) and building a major 3rd on top of it (C – E – G – B). The distance between the 5th note G and the 7th note B is a major 3rd. As a quick refresher, a major 3rd is made up of four half-steps, as we find between G and B – the four half-steps being G to G#, G# to A, A to A#, and A# to B. Remember, you count intervals like counting footsteps; count the note you land on as the first note, not the note you step off from.
In a major key, you will most likely hear the maj7 chord used on the I and IV chords. Although maj7s can be used in other cases in more advanced progressions, the most fundamental use of a maj7 chord within a major key is on the I chord and the IV chord, or the C and F chords in our example in the key of C.
In basic, a ‘voicing’ is a term for a different inversion of the same chord or a different order that you can stack the notes within a chord to form it. Like all chords, there are different voicings in which you can play the maj7 chord. Try playing through these three examples of chord progressions:
Play the root on the left hand, the third, the fifth, and the seventh on the right hand.
Chord 1 – LH: C3. RH: B3 – E4 – G4
Then follow this chord with an Am chord, with an F on the bass:
Chord 2 – LH: F2. RH: A3 – C4 – E4
Through this progression, you can create a Fmaj7 while using a Cmaj7 inversion.
Another way is by playing the root and 7th in the bass, with the third and the fifth on the right hand:
Chord 1 – LH: C3 – B3. RH: E4 – G4
Chord 2 – LH: F3 – C4. RH: E4 – A4
As you play this progression over, you’ll notice the inversion technique gives a slightly different texture and allows you to easily accomplish the right hand’s change between the notes G and A.
Another thing you can experiment with to make these chords sound a little fuller is to add the 9th into it:
In the chord Cmaj7/9: C3 – B3 – D4 – E4 – G4. The D in the middle of the chord – and the interval from C3 to D4 – is the 9th. This gives a much silkier sound to the chord when added in.
Let’s use the chord progression of Cmaj7/9 to Fmaj7/9. We know that the 9th in C major is D. In F major, the 9th is the note G, which we can place on top of the Fmaj7 chord rather than in the middle to change the sound more.
This forms our progression in full:
C3 – B3 – D4 – E4 – G4
F2 – A3 – C4 – E4 – G4
Play this progression a few times and get a feel for what adding the 9th brings to a maj7 chord.
Dominant 7th chords
I want to cover the other type of 7th chord in this lesson is the dominant 7th chord. Following our C major example, the C dominant 7th chord is formed of the notes C – E – G – Bb and symbolized as C7. It’s very similar to the maj7 chord; the only difference is that we lower the 7th by two half-steps rather than one.
The formula to create a dominant 7th chord is: take a major chord (C – E – G), add the octave note on top (C – E – G – C), lower the octave by two half-steps (C – E – G – Bb) which will form your dominant C7 chord. By playing this, you will notice how the bass notes of both the Cmaj7 and C7 chords remain the same: C – E – G, which is a C major chord.
You can try this formula on E, for example. Try taking the E major chord (E – Ab – B), add the octave (E – Ab – B – E), and then lower it by a whole step (E – Ab – B – D) to get a dominant 7th chord, E7. You can also try it on B, taking the B major chord (B – Eb – F#), adding the octave (B – Eb – F# – B), and lowering it by two half-steps (B – Eb – F# – A) to form B7.
If we break the dominant 7th chord down into intervals, we find that it’s formed of a major 3rd (C to E), a perfect 5th (C to G), and a minor 7th (C to Bb). If it helps, you can count ten half-steps between the minor 7th interval of C to Bb. But you won’t necessarily need to memorize each interval in terms of how many half steps there are in between – it’s more important to memorize them in terms of their relationship and distance from the root note.
There’s another way of looking at it, too: C – C is an octave chord. If we lower the top note by two half-steps, we get C – Bb, a minor 7th interval. Lastly, if we add the remaining notes of the root’s major chord in between, we get C – E – G – Bb. This forms the dominant 7th chord, C7.
Uses for the dominant 7th chord
The dominant 7th chord naturally wants to resolve a 4th upwards, in our example, from C7 to F. Try moving between the following chords progressions to hear how this sounds:
Chord Progression 1:
C – E – G – Bb
F – A – C
Chord Progression 2:
F – A – C – Eb – A
Bb – D – F – Bb
You’ll notice a clear difference between the sound of a maj7 chord and a dominant 7th chord. Major 7ths are accessible and groovy, but contrastingly, the dominant 7th raises tension within the piece which wants to be resolved a 4th upwards.
Dominant 7th chords are predominantly used in blues music. When playing classic blues progressions like the 12-bar blues, you’ll notice that the chords I, IV, and V are all dominant: C7, F7, and G7.
Some other applications of the dominant 7th chord include using it as a passing chord. For example, you can slide in a D7 passing chord to smoothly fill that space, propelling from C into the G chord to get from C to G. This type of chord is called a secondary dominant as it temporarily makes G sound like it’s the root of the song, not C.
While maj7 and dominant 7th chords are similar in their composition, they are very different in their sound and applications. Try playing these examples over to start building a fluent grasp of the effect they have when inserted into a piece.
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