The Mighty 7th

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Let’s talk about 7ths.  In my opinion, 7ths are the gateway to where we are trying to go in arranging/improvisation.  It is usually the first and easiest way to alter a chord, and 7ths will by themselves add a lot of depth to your sound.

When we start re-harmonizing hymns, it will be our goal to modify almost every chord. In some cases, we will not use a completely different chord but will add color notes to the existing one.  The most important color note by far is the 7th. In fact, I want you to make it a goal to get a 7th into almost every chord you play.

As a small refresher, let’s take a look at the two 7th chords.

Technically, a dominant 7th is a major chord with a minor 7th added (the minor 7th is the note a whole step down from the root). A major 7th could refer either to a 7th interval or a major chord with the major 7th added to it.

Now, let’s take a look at “Just As I Am” again.  Here is the typical hymnal arrangement.

As you can see, we have a whopping total of three altered chords in the entire song (two G7s and a G9).

Now let’s throw in just one 7th and see what happens.  Here is the first measure in two variations.  The first one contains just a simple C chord while the second utilizes a C major 7th chord.  Play these on the piano and listen closely to the difference in sound.

The 7th is the B in the right hand.  I hope you can hear the beauty of this sound.  The difference between a simple C chord and a C major 7th is both subtle and dramatic.  If you don’t hear it, keep playing until you do.

By the way, if the chord sounds ugly to you, the piano may need to be tuned.  The chords that we are going to be playing in the coming weeks contain dissonance that require the piano to be reasonably in tune.  In general, the more complex the chord, the more important the tuning of the piano is.

Now, let’s look at the entire hymn with a lot of 7ths added.

Before we start talking about this example, go through and make sure you can quickly identify all the 7ths and you know whether they are major or minor 7ths.

Here are a few things to note.  First, see how I have usually replaced a duplication of the root note with the 7th.  For example, in the first measure, I slid down from a C to a B in the right hand.  There is nothing inherently wrong with doubling notes in the chord, but you should try to avoid it if you can (unless you are doubling the melody note).  This is, by the way, a rule that I have broken consistently until recently when I got conscious about it.

Secondly, note that I use a lot of major 7ths in this song.  That is a bit unusual.  You will probably find yourself using more minor 7ths than major 7ths.

Also, I admit that I am stretching the use of 7ths in this example.  That especially goes for the C major 7th which starts sound repetitious in a hurry.  I would normally alter the chords considerably but wanted to prove to you that you add a 7th to practically any chord and achieve a better sound without any other alterations.

You might ask how you might know whether to choose a minor 7th or major 7th.  Most commonly, you will use a major 7th on I and IV chords and minor 7ths on all the rest..
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When in doubt, try the minor 7th first.  The next question you might have is where to play the 7th in the voicing of the chord (voicing refers where on the piano each note in the chord is actually played).  The easiest place to easily play a 7th is with the thumb in the left hand.   In the above example, you see me doing this in the third measure as well as several other measures.  I made a point of not always doing that though; note the 7th is often somewhere in the right hand.

Hopefully, this will get you started in adding 7ths to your sound.  From now on, as you play, make sure that you are including 7ths wherever possible.  After you do it for a while, it will start feeling as normal as playing the root, 3rd and 5th.

Practice strategy:
Pick a hymn and try to add a 7th to every chord possible.  I would advise picking a song in the key of C if possible for your first effort.  Stop as you play each chord and see if a 7th is in the chord.  If you are doubling the root instead of playing a 7th, just slide your finger down to the major or minor 7th.