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How to Add Bittersweet Emotion to Your Chords with 7ths

The above video is taken from one of Soundfly’s most unique courses to date, the 6-week mentor-driven Unlocking the Emotional Power of ChordsLearn to harness harmonic theory in your productions and compositions to maximize their emotional impact.

At first, seventh chords may seem daunting. Do we really need four notes in one chord? Fortunately, they’re not that complicated. Building seventh chords is actually quite easy, and they have the power to create complex blends of emotions to match the lyrical content of your songs. We just stack thirds on top of the chords we already have. The sound of these higher extensions will ultimately help us build a broader emotional pallet.

Let’s take a look.

For all you electronic producers out there, we’ll be using the piano roll in Ableton Live to show you just how easy it is to complexify your chord structures and the world of bittersweet emotion that comes with it.

Major and Minor Seventh Chords

We’re going to start the same way we started building triads: using only the notes of the major scale. Below is an image you should recognize. It’s a major scale with a triad starting on each scale degree. You may remember that we call these triads that only use notes of the major scale diatonic triads.

*If you need a refresher on common intervals like the triad, here’s a handy article or feel free to check out Music Theory for Beginner Pianists, our free course that goes through common scales and progressions step-by-step.

Now, let’s stack an additional third on each of the first two chords of our scale. Remember: we’re only using notes in the scale, so a third above G will be B, and a third above A will be C.

Similar to how we have major and minor thirds, there are also major and minor sevenths. Major sevenths are 11 semitone steps away from the root (or one step down from the octave), while minor sevenths are 10 semitone steps away from the root (or two steps down from the octave).

When you add a major seventh to a major triad, you get a major seventh chord. When you add a minor seventh to a minor triad, you get a minor seventh chord. In this case, we have a IMaj7 (“one major seventh”) chord and a II–7 (“two minor seventh”) chord.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: New to making beats? We’ve got you covered. Check out our free video and resource collection in How to Make Your First Beat in Ableton Live.

Dominant Seventh Chords

If we keep going up the scale, continuing to stack thirds on top of our triads, we get III–7 and IVMaj7. Then we reach our V chord.

If you stack a third here, you’ll find that this new interval is a minor seventh, 10 semitone steps away from the root. We call a major triad with a minor seventh a dominant chord and label them by simply adding a seven next to their name or numeral.

Dominant seventh chords are about as unstable a chord as you can get. They have a tendency to drag the harmony along.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Three Jazz Artists Harmoniously and Creatively Blending Arabic and Western Music”

Half-Diminished Sevenths

Continuing on, we find a VI-7 just before getting stuck again.

On closer inspection, we find a minor seventh on top of a diminished triad. This is called a half-diminished seventh chord or a minor seventh chord with a flat fifth. There are two common ways to label this kind of chord: VIIø or VII–7(♭5).

In the course, we won’t get much utility from half-diminished chords. They have a larger role in jazz harmony, but it’s good to know they’re out there, right?

Learn more easy ways to create emotional complexity in your songs, and analyze the pop songs that exemplify this dynamic range of feeling in Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords!

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.