How many different chords do you have to know? Probably not as many as you think. Below are examples of the chords I will regularly talk about. By the way, you will not see simple triads here because they are rarely used. You are going to learn that we are almost always going to add a 6th or 7th to every chord.
In the examples, I will give the basic chord and then an example of how it might be voiced in a song. In the parenthesis, I will also tell you how these chords are named–sometimes there are multiple ways.
Major 7th (CMaj7)
The major 7th chord is a major triad with a major 7th added. The major 7th is the note that is a half step lower than the root of the chord. For a C chord, the major 7th is a B natural.
A dominant chord looks just like a major 7th except the 7th is lowered a half step and is called a minor 7th. It is the note that is a whole step lower than the root of the chord. For a C chord, the minor 7th is Bb. Note that the 5th is missing from the second example–I rarely play the 5th in a dominant chord, and it is not needed.
Minor 7th (C-7, Cmin7)
A minor 7th chord is a minor triad with a minor 7th added. It looks just like the dominant chord except the 3rd is lowereda half step.
Major 6 or Minor 6 (C6, Cmin6)
A major or minor 6 chord simply has a major 6th added to it. In a C chord (major or minor), the 6th is A natural. If you are wondering, yes, this does look like A minor 7 in first inversion, and if you want to call it that, feel free. However, in modern harmony, chords are rarely labeled as inversions because they too complex to invert.
Diminished 7th (C, Cdim)
A diminished chord is simply four notes that are all a minor third apart. Sorry about the double flat–that is technically correct and demonstrates that the notes are a third apart. However, in real life, you are likely to see diminished chords written in a more readable way such as in the second example (The A natural is written rather than B double flat).
Half Diminished 7th (Cmin7(b5), Co)
A half diminished chord is a minor 7th chord with a lowered 5th. So, the first three notes are a minor third apart and the fourth note is a major third higher than the third note.
Believe it or not, those are all the chords we need to talk about right now.
Read this: It will clear a lot of things up.
I wish someone had told me a long time ago what I am about to tell you. Study this section carefully.
While the chords you see in a piece of music might appear complex, most of the time, they fit naturally into the key. What does this mean? Consider the chart below. Also, remember that we use capital roman numerals for major chords and lower case roman numerals for minor chords.
This chart shows the natural 7th chords for each tone of a scale. Note that there are no accidentals–each chord is just built with four notes a third apart and whether each third is minor or major is based on the normal notes in the scale.
Assuming that almost every chord you use will be a 7th chord (and they will be once you get used to using them), note that the chord number determines what kind of 7th chord you normally are going to play. For example, if you see a D chord in a song written in C major, it is most likely to be a minor 7th chord. If you see a major IV chord, the seventh is likely to be major rather than minor.
According to the chart, I and IV chords are Major 7th chords, the V chord is dominant, and the ii, iii, and vi chords are minor 7th chords. The vii chord is half diminished. Are there exceptions? Of course. But get used to choosing your chords based on this chart. One very useful takeaway is that you will usually use a minor 7th rather than a major 7th unless the chord is a I or IV.
One more important thing
Depending on who you talk to, you may know that there are sixty or more different possible chords to play. In this lesson, I have only gone over a few of them.
Do we need to cover more chords? Yes, but the ones I have just given you summarize all of them. We are going to extend these basic chords in a lot of ways and each one of those variations is technically its own chord.
Here is what I mean by this. I may tell you to play an F7 at a certain place in a song. When I say that, you can play a plain F7. Or you might choose to play an F7 with an added 9th or maybe a flat 9th. Perhaps you will add a flat 9th and a 13th. That choice is up to you.
When you add this level of complexity, you can see how these chords can quickly grow to a very large number. Within the next few weeks, I am going to extend this lesson to another page to cover this topic in more detail.