Seventh Chords: How to Add Richness to Your Songs

Nothing influences your songs more than the chords you choose in your progressions.

The way each type of chord flows into the next is the foundation for the basic feel of a song.

But remembering all the chords and how they work is difficult. There are so many different types to keep straight.

In this article I’ll go through everything you need to know about seventh chords, what they are and how to use them in your songwriting.

Let’s get started.

What are seventh chords?

Seventh chords are four note chords built by stacking thirds on top of a root note. They’re called seventh chords because the top note in the stack is related to the root by a seventh interval.

Seventh chords are essential in functional harmony for the role they play in dominant sevenths.

The dominant seventh is the seventh chord built on the fifth degree of the scale.

The dominant seventh is the seventh chord built on the fifth degree of the scale.

This relationship between tonic and dominant provides the sense of tension and release in functional harmony.

But there’s a lot more to seventh chords than just V7. They add essential color to basic chords and provide important information about their quality.

How to build seventh chords.

Building a seventh chord is as simple as adding thirds on top of a root note.

In this example I’ll build a seventh chord on the tonic in C major.

Stacking up two thirds on the tonic gives you a basic triad.

Evaluate the interval relationship of each stacked note to the root to determine the quality of the chord.

The two intervals in this chord are a major third and a perfect 5th, so this chord is a C major triad. Adding the next third on top makes it a seventh chord.

Building a seventh chord is as simple as adding thirds on top of a root note.

Following the scale formula of C major, the note that goes on top will be a B natural.

Evaluating this note’s relationship to the tonic is different. It’s a major 7th—exactly seven scale steps away from the root.

That makes this four note chord a major 7th chord. The C major 7th chord has a rich and nostalgic sound with extra character from the seventh.

You can use major seventh chords in place of a major chord wherever you want to add the melancholic color of the seventh.

Minor 7th chords

The major 7th is the most basic type of seventh chord, but there are other seventh chords, each with their own unique colour.

In fact, each chord quality you can create in a basic triad has an associated seventh chord.

I’ll go through each one, show how they’re built and what you can use them for.

Each chord quality you can create in a basic triad has an associated seventh chord.

The next type on the list is the minor seventh.

Staying in the C major scale, I’ll build a minor seventh chord on the second degree with D as the root.

If you know your diatonic chords you know that building a triad on this note following the C major scale formula will produce a D minor chord.

I’ll spell out the D minor:

Adding the seventh on top while still following the scale formula means the next note on the snowman is a C natural.

Evaluating this note’s relationship to the root is different once again. In this case it’s a minor seventh away from the D.

The minor third and minor seventh intervals make this chord a D minor 7.

The minor third brings its characteristic “sad” flavour to the chord, and the minor seventh on top adds richness, but a slightly different color than the major 7th.

The seventh softens the gloom of the minor triad slightly and adds a satisfying sense of sophistication:

Minor 7th chords can also be used in place of the minor triad in situations that call for

Dominant 7th chords

So far you’ve seen that changing the interval relationship between the root of the chord and its third and seventh changes the quality of the seventh chord you’ll create.

Major and minor seventh chords are essential, but there are even more combinations you can create by mixing and matching interval qualities.

The next seventh chord I’ll go over is one of the most important for functional harmony—the dominant seventh.

In the key of C major, build a seventh chord starting on the fifth degree of the scale and evaluate each interval relationship.

The dominant seventh chord has a major third and minor seventh stacked on top. It sounds bright, yet tense at the same time:

That’s because of the third and seventh of the dominant seventh. If you listen carefully you’ll hear something special about these two tones.

The third of the dominant seventh chord is the seventh degree of the original C major scale. The seventh is sometimes called the “leading tone” because it wants to resolve up to the tonic.

The seventh in the dominant seventh chords is the fourth degree of the original C major scale. It wants to resolve downward.

You can hear that tension in the dominant seventh as it resolves neatly to the tonic in a musical cadence.

The dominant seventh is mostly used in this role, but it can take on the function of a tonic chord as well in blues progressions.

Half-diminished 7th chords

The next two seventh chords are based on the diminished triad.

If you need a refresher on this basic chord structure, head over to our guide to chord building.

Here’s the quick version. A diminished triad is built with a minor third and a tritone (diminished fifth/augmented fourth) above the root.

Add a minor seventh on top and you’ve got a half-diminished seventh chord. It’s a tense sonority that’s not often heard in pop music.

You’ll most often encounter the half-diminished seventh as the seventh chord built on scale degree two of the minor scale.

You’ll most often encounter the half-diminished seventh as the seventh chord built on scale degree two of the minor scale.

Here’s how that looks in the key of C minor:

It appears frequently in jazz standards that rely on the ii-V-i progression in minor.

You can hear it in several places in the classic minor standard “Autumn Leaves.”


Diminished 7th chords

The final diminished chord I’ll go through is also the most tense and dramatic one.

It’s the diminished seventh.

To build it, take the diminished triad from before and add a diminished seventh on top.

Here’s a diminished seventh built on scale degree seven of the C major scale:

You’ll notice that the diminished seventh interval is one semitone lower than a minor 7th. If that sounds impossible, you’re not wrong.

A diminished seventh is the same distance away from the root as a major 6th. It’s a special case that only appears in certain situations.

Diminished seventh chords have a highly tense sound that feel slightly uncomfortable to hear on their own.

But in context they can provide an extremely strong sensation of tension and release.

Seventh heaven

Seventh chords are an important building block of every musician’s harmonic vocabulary.

Whether you want to add richness to your basic triads, or create dramatic tension with a diminished seventh, learning these chords is worth your time.

Now that you know how to the basics, get back to your DAW and start bringing seventh chords into your tracks.

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