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What may be institutionally indefinable, the obscure genre term “indie pop” is considered an umbrella for most of the accessible-yet-alternative pop music being made today by predominantly young, western songwriters. Indie pop is hard to define because it covers an enormous range of sounds, from electronic synth-driven voyages to jangly and reverby guitar-based music, to warm harmonies and acoustic instruments. And while it may certainly feature uplifting, shoutable hooks (like those featured in mainstream Top 40 pop), this music may also sound sad and wistful.
One thing is for sure, though: anything we’d readily recognize as “indie” probably puts forth an element of “independent-ness” — not beholden to any major label contracts, not limited to any formulaic or stylistic constraints, and not without musical elements that can be considered alternative to what you’re probably hearing when you tune in to commercial, nationally syndicated radio stations.
Today, we’re going to pick apart one musical component of that unique, hard-to-define sound: the use of 7th chords.
Simplicity reigns supreme when it comes to writing most forms of pop music, but a well-timed 7th chord has the power to turn an otherwise bland chord progression into a compelling musical statement. They are certainly used a lot in ethereal musical styles like shoegaze music, and whatever you call the music that Björk makes.
So let’s see how to use them to help craft a unique sounding indie pop tune!
Basic chords vs. 7th chords
Let’s take a couple steps back. Chords in music describe the sound of notes being played simultaneously. There are four types of basic chords: major, minor, diminished, and augmented.
Built by combining a root note with a major 3rd and perfect 5th, major chords sound full, stable, and complete. Minor chords on the other hand, tend to sound deep, pensive, and morose. They’re built just like major chords, except they include a minor 3rd instead of a major one. Diminished chords sound tense, dramatic, and unnerving — the kind of tension that might underscore a silent film motif featuring a damsel in distress, tied helplessly to the railroad tracks.
What you’re hearing here is most likely a series of diminished chords. To build a diminished chord, you combine a root note with two minor 3rd intervals stacked above it. Augmented chords, which sound mysterious, weightless, and unresolved, are by far the rarest of the basic chords. Augmented chords are built by combining a root note with a two major 3rd intervals, the second being a raised 5th.
It’s fair to say that all chords have the power to create sometimes simple, sometimes complex emotional responses from your listener, and lining them up into a progression is how you bring your listener on a journey with you.
So now that you’re up to speed on basic chords, let’s talk about 7th chords. These basic chords change magically into something completely different when a major or minor 7th interval note is added to their makeup.
For example, an interval of a major 7th above a root note added to a major chord triad results in a major 7th chord. It’s a captivating sound that’s a universe away from its basic major counterpart. When a minor 7th interval note is added above the root of a minor chord triad, it’s predictably a minor 7th chord. And finally, a dominant 7th chord is a combination of a major triad on the bottom, with a minor 7th interval note above the root on top. Heavily featured in the blues, dominant chords are a great way to add tension and gritty color to your music.
Here’s a video we’ve borrowed from Soundfly’s Mentor-driven online course, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, to help further explain how to create these chords and the tonal flavors they produce.
Other types of 7ths
A half-diminished 7th chord consists of a root, a minor 3rd, a diminished 5th, and a flat 7th. To build it, play the tonic, the flattened 3rd, the flattened 5th, and flattened 7th degrees of any major scale. In other words, it’s two minor 3rd intervals and a major 3rd interval stacked above.
A fully diminished 7th chord consists of a diminished triad plus the interval of a diminished 7th above the root. To build it, you’ll have the root, a minor 3rd, a diminished 5th, and a diminished 7th. In other words, it’s four notes stacked in minor 3rd intervals.
An augmented 7th chord consists of an augmented triad with a minor 7th interval above the root added. To build it, you’ll have the root, a major 3rd, an augmented 5th, and a minor 7th.
Try using 7th chords to craft an indie pop tune
With the expansive nature of the music currently being made under the indie pop umbrella, talking about how to use 7th chords is sort of like talking about how to cook an egg: there are tons of ways to go about it, and everyone has their own preferences. Why I’ve chosen to use indie pop as a background for this is because it often features quirky melodies and complex emotional subject matter, both of which sit very well in the company of 7ths.
Starting a progression with a major 7th chord is a solid way to add a sense of ethereal beauty and weightlessness to a song right off the bat, especially if it happens to be the first chord in your song. Leaving the opening chords open-ended emotively gives you a lot of space to play with your message lyrically. Certain voicings and rhythmic approaches to this chord might create a cheesy retro feel, but that’s a sound that seems to very much be in demand in indie pop these days, so go for it if you like that vibe!
Major 7th chords feature the note with the strongest lead back up to the tonic (the leading tone), but don’t feel like you need to immediately resolve it. Get creative with a vocal or lead instrumental melody that eschews common and predictable motion, and you’re well on your way to indie pop greatness.
Minor 7th chords are great for adding an understated nuance and color to your progressions. They’re cool and jazzy, but without feeling like you’re rooted in a complicated jazz environment. Unlike major 7th and dominant chords, minor 7ths feature a sound that’s much less of a departure from its basic minor counterpart. Rather than throwing a minor 7th chord into a mix of basic chords, you can create a progression filled exclusively with minor 7th chords, without the progression taking on an overly jazzy or dramatic sound.
Minor 7ths open your progressions up for a range of melodic possibilities as well. They don’t automatically ground you in a minor feel, so use the melodic lead to voyage to some interesting places!
Dominant chords can be a bit tough to incorporate into indie pop due to their association with rock and blues music. A common hallmark of indie pop music is simplicity, and that aesthetic is at risk of crumbling when thick diminished chords are added into the mix. But the right voicing and placement of a dominant chord can help inject an intriguing sense of tension into your music, which you can ultimately always resolve, creating ultimate emotional satisfaction. Play around with those for sure.
Diminished, half-diminished, and augmented 7th chords are also great for building towards resolution, or creating mysterious modulations to other keys. For this reason, these chords are frequently used in classical and jazz, but they don’t tend to show up super often in pop music because they can end up sounding jarring and dissonant. Which leads me to my last point…
The indie pop sound is really about being able to present simple musical ideas in a fresh and compelling way. Rather than throwing together a bunch of 7th chords and hoping for the best, you’ll probably be better off developing simple ideas into something that truly sticks.
Consider likening 7th chords to potent spices in cooking: adding a little bit of spice to a dish can be amazing, but too much will make your food taste odd and off balance.
Don’t stop here!
Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, and more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses. Subscribe for access to all, including The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony, Orchestration for Strings, and our exciting new course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.