What are Seventh Chords? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Composing music can be lots of fun, but you need to understand your chords to get it just right. In this lesson, we'll look at seventh chords, talk about how to make them, and see how to use them.

Seventh Chords

Did you know that there is a real art to making espresso drinks? You've got to pull and pour the espresso itself the right way, add any flavors you want, and then top it all with a perfect layer of steamed milk. Now, the way you add this steamed milk can make all the difference. A smoother pour with more milk and less foam makes a latte. A wider pour with lots of foam makes a cappuccino. And now two things are probably running through your mind: 1. I want coffee, and 2. what does this have to do with music? Good question.

Musical composition relies on the relationship between chords, combinations of harmonious notes. Each chord is built kind of like an espresso drink; you start with a base and build up from there by adding new ingredients. Sometimes, you may be able to add basically the same ingredient in multiple ways, like the milk in a latte or cappuccino. That's what we're looking at today: a four note combination called the seventh chord.

Building a Seventh Chord

So let's talk chords. Your average chord is a triad of three notes, spaced at roughly equal intervals. If I asked you to make a C major chord, that triad would include the first, third, and fifth notes of that scale. The C scale is CDEFGABC, so your basic C chord would be the triad of CEG.

The C Major scale
C major scale

A seventh chord is created by adding one extra layer to this chord. Any guess as to which note we add? The seventh. So, a C seventh chord would use the notes CEGB. Technically, since this is a major scale, we can also call this chord the major seventh. In a major seventh, we start with the root note (the C), add a major third (two whole steps above the root), a perfect fifth (three and a half steps above the root), and a major seventh (five and a half steps above the root).

Other Kinds of Seventh Chords

Seventh chords are lots of fun. You may notice that by adding the seventh, you are placing the note B in a C chord. This places two notes next to each other which clash a little, giving seventh chords a cool, tension-filled sound that begs to be resolved. Thanks to this sound, seventh chords are often used in jazz music to create a unique sound and directionality to the piece. However, just as you can change your espresso drink by pouring the milk in different ways, your seventh chords can come out differently based on how you alter that extra note.

Minor Seventh Chords

If there is a major seventh, it really shouldn't be surprising to learn that there is a minor seventh. The minor seventh is created by using the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes of the minor scale instead of the major scale. If you don't know how to convert a major scale into a minor scale, then the minor seventh can easily be created by lowering the third and seventh a half step each. So, our C minor seventh would be C Eb G Bb.

Dominant Seventh Chords

A similar way to build tension is to only put part of the chord into the minor scale, but not all of it. In a dominant seventh, the seventh is lowered a half step, but everything else is still the same as in the major chord. The result is a major triad with a minor note on top of it, which really brings out the tension that already exists between the root and seventh. In our C major scale, the dominant seventh would be CEGBb.

Partially-Diminished Seventh Chords

Now that we've got the basics out of the way, we can get really weird. In minor and major chords, the fifth is always a perfect three and a half steps above the root. The basic rule of music is that you don't mess with the perfect fifth, so let's mess with it. A chord with a fifth that has been lowered a half step is diminished. These are funky, open and ambiguous chords that sound strange and build up incredible musical tension.

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