Music Theory

Learning Types of Seventh Chords: Major, Minor, & Diminished

By Hannah Kendall
Two illustrations of a keyboard on top of each other. The top image has the notes C, E, G, and Bb shaded. The bottom image has the notes C, Eb, Gb, and A shaded.

There are multiple types of seventh chords and you can learn all about them in this article.

Seventh chords are four note chords built out of a triad and an interval of a seventh from the root. Because of the seventh interval, these chords are inherently dissonant. Musicians use seventh chords to add emotions and color to regular major or minor chords. These chords can add feelings of tension, warmth, or soulfulness. In this article, we will explore the 5 main types of seventh chords and how to identify them. 

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What is a seventh chord?

Seventh chords are built by adding a note that’s a seventh interval above the root note of a triad. All four notes of a seventh chord can be arranged in thirds. These thirds are called the root, third, fifth, and seventh. In a C major seventh chord, we take the C major triad C-E-G and add a major seventh (11 half steps) above the root, creating a chord with the notes C-E-G-B. The root of the chord is C, the third is E, the fifth is G, and the seventh is B. 

How do you identify 7th chords?

There are five types of seventh chords: major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh, diminished seventh, and half-diminished seventh. Here’s how to identify each seventh chord:

  • Major Seventh: Major sevenths have a soft, dreamy sound. They’re composed of a major 3rd, perfect 5th and major 7th above the root. 

Illustration of a C octave on keyboard. The notes C, E, G, and B are shaded.

  • Dominant Seventh: Dominant sevenths create tension and are the most common chord in blues. They are composed of a major third, perfect 5th and minor seventh above the root.

Illustration of keyboard with the notes C, E, G, and Bb shaded.

  • Minor Seventh: Minor sevenths have a sullen, mysterious sound. They are composed of a minor third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh above the root. 

Illustration of C minor seventh. Image shows piano keyboard with the notes C, Eb, G, and Bb shaded.

  • Diminished Seventh: Diminished sevenths create a suspenseful, spooky sound. They are composed of a minor third, diminished fifth, and diminished seventh above the root. 

Illustration of a piano keyboard with the notes C, Eb, and Gb, and A shaded.

  • Half-Diminished Seventh: Half-diminished sevenths create a feeling of tension. They are composed of a minor third, diminished fifth, and minor seventh above the root. 

Illustration of a C major octave on keyboard. The notes C, Eb, Gb, and Bb are shaded.

Practice identifying seventh chords on the staff with this exercise

What is the difference between a major 7th chord and a dominant 7th chord?

Major 7th chords are typically perceived as romantic and serene compared to the dissonance of the dominant seventh. When not otherwise specified, the basic term “seventh chord” refers to a major seventh chord. A major 7th chord is built of a major triad and major seventh. A major 7th will always be one half step below the root of the chord. For example when the root of the chord is C natural, the minor 7th is Bb. When the root of the chord is D, the major 7th is C#. When the root of the chord is E, the seventh is D# and so on. 

Like the major 7th chord, dominant 7ths have a major triad. However, the seventh is one whole step down from the root, creating the minor seventh. The minor seventh creates tension and instability and this type of chord tends to resolve to the tonic chord (I). Dominant 7th chords are formed on the fifth degree of any given key, and are also notated with a “7” after the chord. For example, a C7 chord is C-E-G-Bb. A D7 chord is D-F#-A-C, and an E7 chord is E-G#-B-D. Dominant sevenths feel tense because of the tritone (6 half steps) created between the third and seventh of the chord. 

What is the difference between a major 7th chord and a minor 7th chord?

Major 7ths are built from a major triad while minor 7ths are built from a minor triad. If the root of the chord is E, the major triad built on the root is E, G#, B. Add the major seventh D# and we have an E major 7th chord E-G#-B-D#. 

An E minor 7th is built from a minor triad and a minor seventh. The notes in an E minor triad are E, G, and B. Add the minor seventh C, and the notes of an E minor 7th are E-G-B-C. Let’s look at another example. In B major, the major seventh is B, D#, F#, and A#. In B minor, the minor seventh chord is B, D, F#, and A. Here’s an easy way to remember the difference between the major 7th and the minor 7th —if you take the notes of a major 7th and lower the third and seventh by half step, you’ll have a minor 7th. For example, a C major 7th is C-E-G-B. If you lower the third (E) and seventh (B) by a half step, we have the notes of a minor 7th (C-Eb-G-Bb. 

What is the difference between a dominant 7th, a diminished 7th, and a half-diminished 7th?

A diminished 7th chord is built of a root note, minor third, minor fifth and diminished seventh above the root. The difference between a diminished 7th and a half-diminished 7th? It’s the 7th note! Both chords have a root note, minor third, and diminished 5th. However a half-diminished chord has a minor 7th while a diminished chord has a diminished 7th. For example, a C diminished 7th is C-Eb-Gb-Bbb while a C half-diminished 7th is C-E-G-Bb. Dominant seventh chords differ because they are built from a major triad and a minor seventh, so a C dominant 7th is C-E-G-B. 

What musical genres use 7th chords?

A long time ago during the Baroque and Renaissance periods, seventh chords were considered dissonant and unconventional. However today you can’t turn on the radio without hearing seventh chords! Blues, jazz, and RnB are perhaps the most famous genres to use seventh chords, but you can find these chords in all kinds of music: pop, gospel, latin, and classical to name a few. 

Understanding seventh chords will take your piano playing to a whole new level. Start by listening to jazz and blues to begin absorbing the sounds of seventh chords. Before you know it, you’ll be composing with your own dominant seventh chords! 

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