I. Fundamentals

Seventh Chords

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • A is a four-note chord whose notes can be arranged in thirds. A seventh chord can always be “stacked” so that its notes are either on all lines or all spaces.
  • When stacked in its most compact form in thirds, the lowest note of a seventh chord is called the , the lower middle note is called the , the upper middle note is called the , and the highest note is called the .
  • There are five common qualities of seventh chord. These qualities are the , , , , and the .
  • There is another common way of naming seventh chords: the major-major seventh chord is also often called the , the major-minor seventh chord is also often called the , the minor-minor seventh chord is also often called the , and the fully diminished seventh chord is also often simply called the
  • Within major and minor keys, seventh chords have particular qualities that correspond to scale-degrees. These are the same in every major and minor key, which makes memorizing them useful.
  • Seventh chords are identified by their , of triad and chordal seventh, and .

In this chapter we will focus upon : four-note chords whose notes can be stacked into thirds.

Seventh Chords

Like triads, the notes of a seventh chord can always be arranged in thirds. Example 1 shows a seventh chord written both melodically and harmonically:

Example 1. Two seventh chords written melodically and harmonically.

This seventh chord is written on four adjacent spaces; however, seventh chords can also appear on four adjacent lines when stacked in thirds. If a triad in looks like a snowperson, then a seventh chord in closed spacing looks like an extra-long snowperson, with a bottom, two middles, and a head.

When a seventh chord is stacked in this manner, the lowest note is called the the . The notes above the root are called the , the , and the . Example 2 shows this:

Example 2. A seventh chord in root position.

Like a triad, the third is so named because it is a generic third above the root, the fifth is so named because it is a generic fifth above the root, and the chordal seventh is so named because it is a generic seventh above the root. The root is analogous to a snowperson’s bottom, the third and the fifth to its “extra-long” middle, and the chordal seventh to its head.

Seventh Chord Qualities and Listening to Seventh Chords

There are five common qualities of seventh chord: a major-major seventh chord, a major-minor seventh chord, a minor-minor seventh chord, a half-diminished seventh chord, and a fully diminished seventh chord. The top line of Example 3 shows the five qualities of chordal seventh in each of these seventh chords, each with a root of F, while the bottom line of Example 3 shows their qualities of triad labeled:

Example 3. The qualities of sevenths and triads in various seventh chord types.

As seen in Example 3, a has a major triad and a major seventh, while a has a major triad and a minor seventh. A has a minor triad and a minor seventh. Both a and a have a diminished triad—their difference lies in their quality of chordal seventh. A half-diminished seventh chord contains a minor chordal seventh, while a fully diminished seventh chord contains a diminished chordal seventh.

The names of seventh chords listed above—major-major, major-minor, minor-minor, half-diminished, and fully diminished—are a common way for music theorists to name seventh chords. However, there is another common way of naming these chords:

  • The major-major seventh chord is also often called the .
  • The major-minor seventh chord is also often called the .
  • The minor-minor seventh chord is also often called the .
  • The fully diminished seventh chord is also often simply called the .
  • The half-diminished seventh chord does not typically have an alternate name.

Your instructor may have you label these chords using one set of terminology or the other, or a mix of both.

Listen carefully to the different qualities of seventh chord in Example 4:

Example 4. Different qualities of seventh chords.

It is common to pair expressive qualities with seventh chords when learning what they sound like. You might think of major-major seventh chords as sounding “happy and jazzy,” major-minor seventh chords as sounding “unresolved” (like they strongly need to move to another chord), minor-minor seventh chords as “sad and jazzy,” half-diminished seventh chords as “scary and jazzy,” and fully diminished seventh chords as “very scary.”

Shorthand and Chord Symbols of Seventh Chords

There are several different ways of naming seventh chords. Example 5 summarizes the shorthand system for naming seventh chords that was described above:

Seventh Chord Name Shorthand
Major-major seventh chord (major seventh chord) MM7
Major-minor seventh chord (dominant seventh chord) Mm7
Minor-minor seventh chord (minor seventh chord) mm7
Half-diminished seventh chord ø
Fully diminished seventh chord (diminished seventh chord) o

Example 5. Shorthand symbols for seventh chords.

Chord symbols for seventh chords often include the letter name of the triad’s root, some indication of their quality of triad and seventh, and an indication of the pitch class that occurs in the if it is not the root, as explored more in the Inversions and Figured Bass chapter.

Example 6 shows common chord symbols for seventh chords (a root of “F” has been used as the example in the right-side column):

Seventh Chord Name Chord Symbol
Major-major seventh chord (major seventh chord) Fmaj7, F∆7, or Fma7
Major-minor seventh chord (dominant seventh chord) Fm7, F-7, or Fmi7
Minor-minor seventh chord (minor seventh chord) F7
Half-diminished seventh chord Fø7, Fm7♭5, or F-7♭5
Fully diminished seventh chord (diminished seventh chord) Fo7

Example 6. Chord symbols for seventh chords.

Don’t forget that when the root of a seventh chord has accidentals you add these accidentals into its name. For example, a B♭mm7 (chord symbol B♭m7) chord would be the shorthand for a seventh chord with a B♭ minor triad and a minor seventh. Likewise, a G♯∆7 (shorthand G♯MM7) is the chord symbol for a seventh chord with a G♯ major triad and a major seventh.

In chord-symbol notation, if a pitch class other than the chord’s root is the lowest note in a seventh chord, then a slash is added, followed by a capital letter denoting the pitch class in the bass (lowest) voice. Example 7 shows two seventh chords in chord-symbol notation. The chords in measure 1 has the root in the bass, while the chord in measure 2 does not:

Example 7. Two seventh chords.

In the first measure of Example 7, a Gø7 (shorthand Gø7) appears in root position. In the next measure the same chord is shown, but with the note “F” in the bass voice. This topic will be explored more below in the chapter Inversion and Figured Bass.

Seventh Chord Qualities in Major and Minor

Seventh chords can be built on any note of the major scale, as shown in Example 8:

Example 8. Qualities of seventh chords in major keys.

As you can see in Example 8, which is in the key of G major, seventh chords built on do [latex](\hat1)[/latex] and fa [latex](\hat4)[/latex] have a major triad and a major seventh, while seventh chords built on sol [latex](\hat5)[/latex] have a a major triad and a minor seventh (a dominant seventh chord). Seventh chords built on re, mi, and la [latex](\hat2,\ \hat3,[/latex] and [latex]\hat6)[/latex] have a minor triad and a minor seventh, while seventh chords built on ti [latex](\hat7)[/latex] are half-diminished—they have a diminished triad and a minor seventh. These seventh chord qualities do not change in different keys; consequently, memorizing these qualities can be very useful.

Triads can be build on any note of the minor scale, as shown in Example 9:

Example 9. Qualities of seventh chords in minor keys.

Example 9, which is in the key of G minor, contains only one seventh chord built on sol [latex](\hat5)[/latex] and one on ti [latex](\hat7)[/latex]. It is common for these seventh chords to contain the raised leading tone—ti instead of te [latex](\hat7[/latex] instead of [latex]\downarrow\hat7)[/latex]. In Example 9, seventh chords built on do and fa [latex](\hat1[/latex] and [latex]\hat4)[/latex] have a minor triad and a minor seventh, while seventh chords build on sol [latex](\hat5)[/latex] with the raised leading tone has a major triad and a minor seventh (a dominant seventh chord). Seventh chords built on me and le [latex](\downarrow\hat3[/latex] and [latex]\downarrow\hat6)[/latex] have a major triad and a major seventh, while those built on re [latex](\hat2)[/latex] are half-diminished (containing a diminished triad and a minor seventh), and those built on ti [latex](\hat7)[/latex] are fully diminished (containing a diminished triad and a diminished seventh).

Spelling Seventh Chords

To build a seventh chord from a chord symbol, you need to be aware of its root and quality—inversion is discussed in the next chapter titled Inversion and Figured Bass. The steps for spelling a seventh chord are similar to the steps for drawing a triad. Let’s start with spelling a major-major seventh chord:

  1. Draw the root on the staff.
  2. Draw notes a third, fifth, and seventh above the root (i.e., draw an “extra-long” snowperson).
  3. Think of (or write down) the major key signature of the triad’s root.
  4. Write any accidentals from the key signature if notes in that key signature appear in the triad for a major triad and major seventh.
  5. For any other quality of seventh chord, add additional accidentals to alter the chord’s third, fifth, and/or seventh when appropriate.

Example 10 shows this process for a DMM7 (chord symbol DM7):

Example 10. Drawing a D major seventh chord in four steps.

The process for writing this seventh chord is as follows:

  1. First, the note D, the chord’s root, is drawn on the staff.
  2. Second, an extra-long snowperson is drawn—an F, A, and C, the notes a generic third, fifth, and chordal seventh above the D.
  3. Third, the key signature of D major has been recalled. D major has two sharps, F♯ and C♯.
  4. Fourth, a sharp (♯) has been added to the left of the F and to the left of the C, because F♯ and C♯ are in the key signature of D major.

Let’s complete this process for a quality of seventh chord in which we will need to add additional accidentals. Example 11 shows the process for an A♭o7 (shorthand A♭o7):

Example 11. Drawing an A♭o7 chord in six steps.

The process for this example has been broken into steps to make it simpler:

  1. First, the note A♭ is written because it is the root of the triad.
  2. Second, an extra-long snowperson is drawn; in other words, the notes C, E, and G are added because they are a generic third, fifth, and seventh respectively above A♭.
  3. Third, the key signature of A♭ major is recalled. A♭ major has four flats, B♭, E♭, A♭, and D♭. Fourth, E♭ is added, because it is in the key signature of A♭ major. No B♭ or D♭ are needed, because those notes don’t appear in this seventh chord.
  4. Now we have successfully spelled an A♭MM7, chord symbol A♭maj7 (A♭, C, E♭, and G). A fully diminished seventh chord contains a diminished triad and a diminished seventh.
  5. Fifth, in order to make the chord’s triad diminished, we lower its third and fifth by a half-step. This means that A♭, C, E♭ become A♭, C♭, and E𝄫. We need to lower the chord’s seventh by two half-steps in order to make it diminished. This means that the chord’s G becomes a G𝄫. Now we have an A♭o7 (shorthand A♭o7) chord (A♭, C♭, E𝄫, and G𝄫).

The process listed above is an easy way for beginners to be sure that they are able to consistently spell seventh chords. However, it is a time consuming process. If you practice playing all of the qualities of seventh chords on an instrument, such as a keyboard or guitar, until you are fluent in them and your knowledge of these notes becomes more automatic without using this process.

Identifying Seventh Chords, Doubling, and Spacing

Like triads, seventh chords are also identified according to their , , and ; however, inversion is discussed in Inversion and Figured BassExample 12 shows a seventh chord in root position for the process of identification:

Example 12. A seventh chord in root position for identification.

You can identify seventh chords in four steps:

  1. Identify and write its root.
  2. Imagine the major key signature of its root.
  3. Identify and write its quality of triad.
  4. Identify and write its quality of seventh.

The process for this example has been broken into steps to make it simpler:

  1. To identify this seventh chord, you first identify and write its root. Because the triad is in root position, its lowest note is its root—in this case C♯.
  2. Now you can identify and write its quality of triad and chordal seventh. To do this, you will need to imagine the major key signature of its root. The key of C♯ major has seven sharps (every note is sharp). Therefore, E and G would be sharp in a C♯ major key.
  3. Instead, both of these notes have been lowered by a half-step. Therefore, this triad is diminished.
  4. Now we must identify the quality of its chordal seventh. In the key of C♯ major the note B would be B♯. Instead it is B♮—it has been lowered by a half-step. Therefore this chordal seventh is minor. A diminished triad and a minor seventh form a half-diminished chord; therefore, this chord is C♯ø7. We would correctly identify this triad as a C♯ø7 (shorthand C♯ø7) chord.

If the bottom note of a seventh chord has an imaginary key signature (because there is a double accidental that applies to it), use enharmonic equivalence to respell the seventh chord. The process for this will be the same as that outlined in the last section of Intervals.

Like triads, the of notes does not affect a seventh chord’s identification. Furthermore, the spacing of notes more than an octave does not affect a seventh chord’s identification, even if more than one clef is used. Example 13 shows two different seventh chords in with doublings.

Example 13. Two seventh chords with doublings in open spacing.

Neither of these factors will affect how you identify these seventh chords. Simply imagine or write the notes of seventh chords in closed spacing without any doublings to identify these chords, as we did previously.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Seventh Chord Construction (.pdf, .pdf), p. 1 .pdf)
  2. Constructing and Identifying Seventh Chords (.pdf)
  3. Identifying Root Position Diatonic Seventh Chords, Major, p.1 (.pdf)
  4. Identifying Root Position Diatonic Seventh Chords, Minor, p.1 (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Seventh Chords Assignment #1 (.pdf, .mcsz)
  2. Seventh Chords Assignment #2 (.pdf, .mcsz)
  3. Seventh Chords Assignment #3 (.pdf, .mcsz)

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