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 a seventh chord is stacked in thirds, the lowest note is called the , the lower middle note is called the , the upper middle note is called the , and the highest note is called the , which is sometimes called the “chordal” seventh to distinguish it from the seventh scale degree.
  • There are five common qualities of seventh chord. These qualities are the , , , , and .
  • 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 seventh, and .

In this chapter, we will focus on : 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, on adjacent lines or spaces of the staff. If a triad in looks like a snowperson, then a seventh chord in closed spacing (as in the second measure of Example 1) looks like an extra-long snowperson, with a bottom, two middles, and a head.

Example 1. A seventh chord written melodically and harmonically.

notation
Example 2. A seventh chord with the root, third, fifth, and seventh labeled. Click to enlarge.

Like in a triad, the lowest note of a seventh chord stacked in closed spacing is called the , and the other notes are named for their generic intervals above the root, as shown in Example 2: the , the , and the .

Seventh Chord Qualities and Nomenclature

Example 3 lists the five most common qualities of seventh chord: , , , , and . These qualities are determined by two factors:

  1. The quality of the triad created by the root, third, and fifth (shown in the second column)
  2. The quality of the seventh from the root to the seventh (shown in the third column)

A chord symbol for a seventh chord begins with the letter name of the triad’s root followed by an indication of the quality of its triad and seventh. Examples of chord symbols for different seventh chord qualities are given in the last column of Example 3.[1]

Seventh chord quality Triad quality Seventh (interval) quality Example chord symbol
Major-major seventh chord
(Major seventh chord)
major triad major seventh Fma7
Major-minor seventh chord
(Dominant seventh chord)
major triad minor seventh F7
Minor-minor seventh chord
(Minor seventh chord)
minor triad minor seventh Fmi7
Half-diminished seventh chord diminished triad minor seventh F∅7
Fully diminished seventh chord
(Diminished seventh chord)
diminished triad diminished seventh Fo7

Example 3. Summary of nomenclature for different qualities of seventh chord.

For the first three qualities of seventh chord, the first word describes the quality of the triad, and the second word describes the quality of the seventh:

  • major-major seventh chord = major triad + major seventh
  • major-minor seventh chord = major triad + minor seventh
  • minor-minor seventh chord  = minor triad + minor seventh

The other two qualities are both built on diminished triads but differ in the quality of the seventh:

  • half-diminished seventh chord (diminished triad, minor seventh)
  • fully diminished seventh chord (diminished triad, diminished seventh)

Music theorists often use the names described above, but there is also another common way of naming these chords, given in parentheses in the first column of Example 3:

  • 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.

Example 4 summarizes all this information in music notation.

Example 4. The qualities of sevenths and triads in various seventh chord types.

Don’t forget that when the root of a seventh chord has an accidental, you add that accidental into its name. For example, B♭miis the chord symbol for a seventh chord with a B♭ minor triad and a minor seventh. Likewise, a G♯ma7 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 5 shows a G half-diminished seventh chord (G∅7). In the first measure, the chord appears in first position; in the second measure, the chord’s seventh (F) is in the bass voice, so the chord symbol is written as G∅7/F. This topic will be explored more in the chapter Inversion and Figured Bass.

Example 5. Two seventh chords.

Listening to Seventh Chords

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

Seventh Chord Qualities in Major and Minor

Seventh chords can be built on any note of the major scale. As you can see in Example 6, 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.

Example 6. Qualities of seventh chords in major keys.

Seventh chords can also be built on any note of the minor scale. Example 7, 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 7, 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 have 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).

Example 8. Qualities of seventh chords in minor keys.

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 that apply to the notes in the chord, creating a major triad and a major seventh.

For any other quality of seventh chord, add additional accidentals to alter the chord’s third, fifth, and/or seventh when appropriate.

Example 8 shows this process for a D major-major seventh chord (Dma7):

notation
Example 8. Spelling a D major-major seventh chord in four steps. Click to enlarge.
  1. The note D, the chord’s root, is drawn on the staff.
  2. An extra-long snowperson is drawn—an F, A, and C, the notes a generic third, fifth, and seventh above the D.
  3. The key signature of D major has been recalled. D major has two sharps, F♯ and C♯.
  4. Sharps (♯) have been added to the left of the F and the C, because F♯ and C♯ are in the key signature of D major.

The quality of the next chord will require us to write additional accidentals, so the process has a couple more steps. Example 9 shows the process for an A♭ fully diminished seventh chord (A♭o7):

notation
Example 9. Spelling an A♭ fully diminished seventh chord in six steps. Click to enlarge.
  1. The note A♭ is written because it is the root of the triad.
  2. An extra-long snowperson is drawn: C, E, and G are added because they are a generic third, fifth, and seventh, respectively, above A♭.
  3. The key signature of A♭ major is recalled. A♭ major has four flats: B♭, E♭, A♭, and D♭.
  4. E♭ is added, because it is in the key signature of A♭ major.
  5. We have now followed the process to spell a major-major seventh chord, but we want a fully diminished seventh chord, which means adding accidentals that are not in the key signature of A♭ major:
    1. C and E♭ are lowered by a half step to C♭ and E𝄫 to change the triad from major to diminished.
    2. To change the chord’s seventh from major to diminished, it needs to be lowered by two half steps, from G to G𝄫.

Following these steps is a reliable way for beginners to spell seventh chords, but it’s a time-consuming process. If you practice playing all of the qualities of seventh chords on an instrument until you are fluent in them, your knowledge of these notes will become more automatic without using this process.

Identifying Seventh Chords, Doubling, and Spacing

Like triads, seventh chords are also identified according to their , , and ; inversion is discussed in the Inversion and Figured Bass chapter, so the examples here will be in .

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

Example 10 shows a seventh chord in root position for the process of identification.

Example 10. A seventh chord in root position for identification.

To identify this seventh chord:

  1. Because the chord is in root position, the root is the lowest note, C♯.
  2. The key of C♯ major has seven sharps (every note is sharp). E and G would be sharp in the key of C♯ major, but we see that both of those notes are natural instead—lowered by a half step—making the triad diminished.
  3. The chord’s seventh, B, would also be sharp in C♯ major, but it is natural here. When a major seventh is made a half step smaller, it becomes a minor seventh.
  4. A diminished triad and a minor seventh form a half-diminished seventh chord; therefore, this is a C♯ half-diminished seventh chord (C♯∅7).

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, following the process outlined in the last section of the Intervals chapter.

Like with triads, a seventh chord’s identification is not affected by the of notes or  of notes (even across multiple clefs). Example 11 shows two different seventh chords in [pb_glossary open spacing with doublings. Simply imagine or write the notes of seventh chords in closed spacing without any doublings to identify these chords, as we did previously.

Example 11. Two seventh chords with doublings in open spacing.

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)

Media Attributions


  1. These chord symbols reflect those used in Open Music Theory, but you may come across others in your studies. See Chord Symbols for a more thorough explanation of these variations.

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