To expand on a previous video on major and minor chords, today we’re also going to look at how to play chords – the various 7th chords. These are very common in music of all kinds, whether you’re printing off some pop from the internet, or reading through Beethoven – so let’s jump into it!
How to play chords: Major and minor
A quick recap on major and minor chords. Major chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of a major scale. So if these are the notes of C major scale, then this would be a C major chord. Likewise with minor scales, they’re formed from the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of a minor scale. Here’s a C minor scale, and these would be the notes of a C minor chord.
There’s just a semitone difference between a major and minor chord – the third. To make a major chord minor, you just lower the third a semitone.
How to play chords, the semitone method
For those of you who have no interest in learning scales (though you should!) or just want to double-check you’re doing them right, a major chord follows this pattern:
C (up 4 semitones) E (up 3 semitones) G
A minor chord follows the opposite pattern:
C (up 3 semitones) Eb (up 4 semitones) G
Major 7th chords
We’re going to start out with major 7 chords, and how to figure them out, because they’re the most basic. Say you want to figure out how to play a C major 7 chord. First, you need to know the notes of a C major scale:
C D E F G A B C
Then, you find the notes of a C major chord – the 1st, 3rd and 5th (CEG). All a major 7th chord does is add the 7th note of the scale to the whole party. In the case of a C major scale, it would be B. So a Cmaj7 chord would be: C E G B.
Now to show the semitone method of figuring out a major 7th chord, you use the formula mentioned previously:
C (up 4 semitones) E (up 3 semitones) G (up 4 semitones) B
You can apply the semitone rule on any key to find a major 7th chord. So I’m just going to pick a random letter – E. Up four semitones is a G#, then up three semitones is B, then up four semitones is D#. So an Emaj7 chord is: E G# B D#.
Major 7 chords have this smooth jazz sound to them which are really dissonant, but really interesting.
Next up is the good ol’ 7th chord. These are written like “C7” or “G7”. It’s the exact same thing as a major 7th chord, EXCEPT instead of playing the 7th note regularly, you lower it a semitone.
So with our example using C, a C major 7 chord is C E G B. To turn that into a C7, you would play C E G Bb.
To follow our semitone rule, the pattern would be as follows:
C (up four semitones) E (up 3 semitones) G (up 3 semitones) Bb
The difference between it and the C major 7 should be clear – first of all, the C7, while tense, is far less dissonant. It’s also way more common – extremely common in all baroque, classical and romantic music, and also common in classic rock and blues.
Let’s build another 7 chord, for practice. How about G7. Start on G, up four semitones to B, up three semitones to D, then up 3 semitones to F. So a G7 chord is: G B D F
Minor 7th chords
Finally, we’ve got the minor 7 chord to talk about. A minor 7 chord is the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th note of a minor scale – or in other language, a minor chord plus the 7. So a Cmin7 would be C Eb G Bb. In semitone language:
C (up 3 semitones) Eb (up 4 semitones) G (up 3 semitones) Bb
Let’s do another example, starting on D. Find our D, go up three semitones, F, go up four semitones to A, go up 3 semitones to C. So a Dmin7 would be DFAC.
How to play chords: Inversions
4-note chords can be inverted just like 3-note chords. You could play, say, a C minor 7 with C on the bottom (in root), or Eb G Bb C, or G Bb C Eb, or Bb C Eb G.
Since 4-note chords can be challenging to play, they’re often simplified to being just 3 notes. When deciding which note to omit from a 3-note chord and still have it sound right, you really only have 1 option. Let’s use this Cmin7 as our example. If we get rid of the 7, suddenly it’s just a C minor chord, so we have to leave that note in place. And we can’t get rid of the C, because that’s the letter our chord is based on. If we get rid of the Eb, we lose the sense of whether or not it’s a major or minor chord, leaving its tonality ambiguous. Our only real option is to omit the 5th note, in this case, G.
And that’s all there is to learning how to play chords, and some of the most common types! I recommend keeping all these chord formulas written down in one place for reference – eventually you’ll internalize them, but it’s better to figure out chords for yourself than looking up a chord chart online, in my humble opinion. When you have to do the work yourself, you tend to learn faster.