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Let’s Play #3 – Four Note Chords

Continuing on in our look at chords, let’s move from the basic 3-note chords (called triads) into four note chords, commonly called seventh chords
by Jerry Kovarsky

Continuing on in our look at chords, let’s move from the basic 3-note chords (called triads) into four note chords, commonly called seventh chords. We saw last column that by stacking thirds we created triads. If we add another note a third higher above the 5th we come to the 7th. 

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Seventh Chord Qualities

If we add a note a major third (4 half steps) above the 5th of a major triad we call that a Major 7th chord: 

Listen to the example below: the chord sounds pretty and at rest.

Next up is the minor 7th chord. It adds a seventh that is a minor third (up three half steps) above the 5th to the minor triad. 

Here is what it sounds like:

There is another variant of this chord, where you add a seventh that is a major third above the 5th (count up four half steps). It is called the minor major7th chord.

Listen to the example below: it has a more mysterious sound, with a little bit of tension in it. 

Next up is the diminished 7th chord. Like the diminished triad, it is built up from stacked minor 3rds, so we add the A to the top of the triad to get this: 

Here is what it sounds like: 

Note that because the diminished 7th chord is made up of all minor 3rds, each note can be thought of as the root, and the four chords (in this case C diminished 7th, Eb diminished 7th, F#/Gb diminished 7th and A diminished 7th) all sound alike. So there are only three different diminished 7th chord shapes: C, C# and D.

Next up is what we call a Dominant7th chord. It takes the major triad and adds a seventh that is a minor third above the 5th (count up three half steps). 

Here is what it sounds like: 

There are a lot of variations of the Dominant7th chord. A common one is called the augmented 7th chord, where the base triad is the augmented chord, with the flatted 7th above it: 

It is sometimes called a Dominant7th chord with a sharp 5.

Listen to the example below: it should sound familiar as the way so many older songs end a phrase before starting up again. 

Another variation flattens the 5th instead. It’s called (obviously enough) a Dominant7th, flat 5 chord.

Here is what it sounds like: 

Closely related to the Dominant7th chord is the Suspended chord, which also uses the flatted 7th, but built on the sus4 triad. It is commonly used to precede a Dominant7th chord to add a little bit of movement (the 4th resolving into the 3rd). 

Here is what it sounds like: 

Some More Colorful Chord Qualities

The next 7th chord seems to be a mash-up of the diminished chord and the dominant7th. The Minor7th flat5 chord (also called the half-diminished chord) starts as a diminished triad and adds the flatted7th above it. 

Listen to the example below: it has some tension in it, similar to a Dominant7th chord, but a bit darker. 

Moving to some more peaceful-sounding chords, we can combine the major triad and the sus2 chord to create what we call an “add2” chord. It has the root, 3rd and 5th, and adds the 2nd to them. It is sometimes called the mu chord, coined by the songwriting team of Fagen and Becker, better known as Steely Dan. But the chord was in use for a long time before they gave it that name! 

Here is what it sounds like:

We can do the same thing to a minor triad; adding a 2nd to it .

Here is what it sounds like:

Another variation is to add the 6th (a whole step above the 5th) to the major triad, to create the major 6th chord. 

Here is what it sounds like: 

You can also do this with a minor triad, creating the minor 6th chord. 

Here is what it sounds like: 

Moving on to some less common, but very cool-sounding chords, we’ll start with a variation of the diminished 7th chord, where the top note (the 7th) is a major 7th instead (up four half steps from the flatted 5th). 

Listen to the example below: it very colorful and unique sounding. 

We can take major 7th chords and make them a little “tenser” by changing the 5th of the chord. First up is the Major7th sharp 5 chord: 

Listen to the example below: it is most commonly used in jazz.

We can flatten the 5th to get this chord:

Listen to the example below: it gives the chord a bit of mystery, don’t you think?

This last variation on the major 7th is one of my favorites – it’s like a major 7th built on top of the sus2 chord we explored in the previous column. Not having a 3rd in the chord gives it a very open sound.

Here’s what it sounds like:

It is more commonly written as a G/C, meaning a G triad played over a C bass note. But I wanted you to understand how it is constructed/where it came from.

Wrap Up

This column has presented you with a virtual encyclopedia of 7th chords, and it’s a lot to absorb. Keep coming back to it when you’re looking for some new colors and ways to make your triads sound a little bit deeper and more sophisticated.

Download this chart as a study guide, showing all these chords in all 12 keys.

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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