Short primer on adding 7ths

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Most church pianists think in terms of triads and octaves. If you watch, they play triads in the right hand with the melody note doubled or they just play octaves. In the left hand, they usually do the same thing–octaves and triads.

I hate to say it, but triads and octaves are boring. That is not to say that you should never play them, but you should probably play them a lot less than you do.

The easiest way to move toward more interesting harmony is by changing triads into 7th chords. Over the next few posts, I will share some practical ways to make this happen. Today, I will introduce the subject and give the basics.

First, it is important to remember that you can add either a major 7th or a minor 7th to a chord.

Major 7th – the note that is a half step under the root. If you wanted to add a major 7th to a C chord, you would add a B.

Minor 7th – the note that is two half steps under the root. If you wanted to add a minor 7th to a C chord, you would add a Bb.

Take a minute and do a simple exercise. Play each possible major triad and add the major 7th to each one. Then do the same thing but add the minor 7th. You have to get to the point where you can do this quickly.

Here is a quick tip. Don’t do this exercise by starting on C and stepping up by half step until you get back to C. Instead, start on C and work your way around the circle of 5ths until you get back to C. This will keep you from cheating and just adjusting your hand position as you go from chord to chord.

Once you understand the difference between a major 7th and a minor 7th, you have to know which one to add to chords. Fortunately, that is pretty simple.  Here is a quick chart to help you.

I – major 7th
ii – minor 7th
iii – minor 7th
IV – major 7th
V – minor 7th
vi – minor 7th
vii – minor 7th

Or, you could put it this way. If you are playing a I or IV chord, add the major 7th. For all other chords, add the minor 7th.  Are there exceptions? Of course there are, but this chart will get you started.

So, here is how you can start applying this lesson. Pick a song and try to identify the chords in it by number. Then, identify the appropriate 7th for each chord. Then try to play the song with the sevenths added.

In a day or so, I will elaborate on this process a bit more. In the meantime, happy practicing.