Seventh Chords in Music: The Complete Guide

Seventh Chords in Music: The Complete Guide
Seventh Chords in Music: The Complete Guide

Mastering Seventh Chords

Seventh chords have the ability to add extra harmonic richness to your music. 

Although they can seem a complex topic at first, they are worth dedicating time to learning, as they will greatly add to the quality and emotion of your music.

Beginners who are starting out their musical journey often start with the simplest chord structure, the triad chord.  Once they feel confident in this, the next logical step is to learn how to read, construct and play seventh chords.

Today we’re looking at 7th chord rules and the different types of chords, as well as some handy tips on learning them and writing music with them. Let’s dive in by understanding what exactly they are.

What is a Seventh Chord? 

A seventh chord is a type of chord that is made up of a root note, a major (or minor third), a perfect (or diminished fifth), and a seventh interval. 

C Major 7th Chord - Seventh Chords

C Major 7th Chord

This chord type is often used in jazz, classical, and some pop music. This is because this type of chord is perfect for adding richness and complexity to a sound. 

Seventh chords generally create a more expressive and emotional feel, making them a popular choice among musicians and composers that want to evoke a specific response from the listener.

The Seventh Chord Rule

The seventh chord rule is a simple rule to remember when building a seventh chord, using triad chords as the foundation. We’ll use the piano to display this rule.

To begin, start with a basic triad chord (which consists of a Root, Third and Fifth note). We’ll use the C major triad chord.

C Triad Chord - Building Seventh Chord Rule

Next, add the Seventh note from the Root note in either the major scale or minor scale.

The Seventh Chord Rule - Cmaj7

Perform all 4 notes together, and you have your first Seventh chord. Congratulations!

This rule can be adapted and applied to build any type of chord, just make sure you have the correct musical notes for each type.

Next, let’s look at these different types of seventh chords you will come across in music.

The Different Types of Seventh Chords

There are 5 distinct types of seventh chords, each with its own unique sound and flavor. We’ll include each chord type on musical staff notation and the piano.

To begin, we’ll start with the most common, the Major 7th.

Major 7th

A major 7th chord is constructed by adding a major seventh interval to a major triad. It is notated as chord + M7, ma7, maj7, or Δ. 

For example, a C major 7th chord (CM7) would include the notes C, E, G, and B. CM7 would look like this:

C Major Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

And CM7 on the piano:

C Major Seventh Chord - Piano

Dominant 7th

Next up we have the dominant 7th chord, which is formed by adding a minor seventh interval to a major triad. It is notated as 7.

For example, a C dominant 7th chord (C7) consists of the notes C, E, G, and Bb. C7 would look like this:

C Dominant Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

And C7 on the piano:

C Dominant Seventh Chord - Piano

Minor 7th

Moving to the minor triad starting structure, A minor 7th chord adds a minor seventh interval to a minor triad. It is notated as m7 or min7. 

For example, a C minor 7th chord (Cm7) has the notes C, Eb, G, and Bb, and looks like this:

C Minor Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

And Cm7 on the piano:

C Minor Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

Half diminished 7th

A half-diminished 7th chord is built by adding a minor seventh interval to a diminished triad. It is notated as ø7 or 7b5. This type comes from the locrian mode, which is the 7th mode of the major scale.

For instance, a C half-diminished 7th chord (Cø7/C7b5) includes the notes C, Eb, Gb, and Bb. This chord type would look like this:

C Half Diminished Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

And on the piano:

C Half Diminished Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

Diminished 7th

Finally, a diminished 7th chord is formed by adding a diminished seventh interval to a diminished triad. It is notated as o7 or dim7. 

A C diminished 7th chord (Co7) consists of the notes C, Eb, Gb, and Bbb (a double flat accidental note). It looks like this:

C Diminished Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

And Co7 on the piano:

C Diminished Seventh Chord - Musical Notation

Seventh Chord Inversions

Once you understand the structure of the 5 different types of 7th chords, next is to explore chord inversions.

An inversion of a seventh chord is simply a rearrangement of its notes, placing a different note in the lowest key position. 

Here’s an example of the CM7 chord on the piano, but with a second inversion:

CMaj7 Seventh Chord with Second Inversion

Notice how the G note is now the lowest note being played (instead of the C note). This gives the seventh chord a slightly different sound and balance.

There are four types of inversions for seventh chords:

  • Root position: The root note is the lowest note.
  • First inversion: The third is the lowest note.
  • Second inversion: The fifth is the lowest note.
  • Third inversion: The seventh is the lowest note.

Chord inversions open up a realm of new harmonic possibilities for your music, as the inversion often features an expansive yet interesting sound. 

Using inversions when building your 7th chords is one of many ways to change the chord voicings.

Tips on Learning Seventh Chords

Learning these chords can feel overwhelming for beginners. That’s why we’re including our best tips to help you learn and master 7th chords:

Master triad chords: Understand both major and minor triads before diving into seventh chords. Doing this makes it easier to understand the structure and construction of seventh chords.

Practice on different instruments: If you play multiple instruments, try practicing these chords on each of them. This will reinforce your understanding and help you adapt to different playing techniques.

Use chord charts and diagrams: There’s no shame in using visual cues, such as chord charts and diagrams. They can be a super helpful resource for memorizing chord structures (and other music theory topics).

Test different musical modes: A more advanced technique that musicians and composers adopt is the creative use of musical modes, which changes the degree in which you start the scale on.

Writing Music with Seventh Chords

Once you have built your confidence, it’s time to start incorporating them into your own songwriting, song arrangement, and performance. 

Remember, these chords are a valuable tool for adding depth and emotion to your music, so take advantage of their harmonic power!

Here are some of our tips to follow when introducing 7th chords in your own music. 

Experiment with different chord types: Each type of seventh chord has its own unique sound and emotional qualities. Try using different types of seventh chords to create a variety of moods and textures in your music.

Combine seventh chords with other chord types: Mixing seventh chords with basic triads and other extended chords can add complexity and interest to your chord progressions.

Use chord inversions for smoother voice leading: Chord inversions can create smoother transitions between chords and add variety to your progressions. Experiment with different inversions to find the best-sounding voicings for your music.

Study the use of seventh chords in your favorite songs: Analyze the music you enjoy listening to and identify how seventh chords are used. This can give you inspiration and ideas for incorporating them into your own compositions.

Summary – Seventh Chords in Music

And there you have it, our complete guide to understanding seventh chords.

They are a versatile and expressive tool for musicians and composers, and a tool we recommend all music theorists take the time to understand.

Once you’re fluent in reading and constructing them, you’ll add an extra layer of depth to your musical ability. 

With both the power of 7th chords and chord inversions, you will be writing more powerful music in no time.

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Thomas Smith
As Visionary and Chief Editor of 122BPM, Thomas is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of music pioneers. With a degree in Music and 10 years industry experience, Thomas is now shaping 122BPM as the central hub for music and audio education.
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