Using the major 7th in your music

Want an easy way to get a thicker, more complex sound in your music? One of the easiest tips I can give you is to start using major 7ths. In this short post, I am going to tell you what major 7th chords are, when to use them, and how to use them.

Sometimes, music terminology can be confusing because we use the same term to refer to different things. The term “major 7th” is like that. We actually call three different things a major 7th:

* The interval that is one half step less than an octave.
* The note that is added to a chord that is an interval of a major 7th away from the root of the chord.
* A chord that is a major triad with the major 7th note added to it.

To be clear, this blog post is about adding the major 7th chord to your music and here is the simplest way I know to tell you to build it: play a major triad and then add the note that is one half step below the root (the lowest note in the chord). In other words, if you want to play a C major 7th chord (CMaj7), play a C major triad (C, E, and G) and then add B (because B is a half step below the root). If you want to play BbMaj7, play Bb, D and F as the major triad and add A. If you are lost at this point, let me suggest The Chord Toolbox I which will spell all of this out in a lot more detail.

Now, let’s listen to how a major 7th sounds. Play a C and a G in your left hand on a piano and C and E in your right hand. That is a simple C major triad. Now, drop your right thumb from C down to B. Play it gently and listen to the complex sound. Alternate back and forth between the triad and the major 7th. See the difference? The triad sounds plain and boring in comparison.

The reason that the major 7th sounds so complex is because of its dissonance. Dissonance comes from intervals and the major 7th interval between C and B is very dissonant. However, unlike some dissonance, it is a dissonance that does not need resolution. If you end a phrase on a major 7th chord, it feels ended.

I don’t play many triads. When I see triads in music, I change them to more complex chords. Very often I change them to major 7ths. But you need to understand that you just can’t change any chord to a major 7th. Two conditions must be met:

1) The chord must be a I or IV chord. (If you don’t understand how chords are numbered, take this course.)
2) The melody note should not be the root of the chord. (In other words, if the melody note is C, don’t play a CMaj7 chord.)

Yes, these are overly simplified conditions and yes there are exceptions. But if you follow these two conditions, you will be in great shape. It is as simple as this. If you see a I or IV major triad in your music, check to see if the melody note is the root. If not, add the major 7th to the chord.

Now that we know what a major 7th chord is and when to play it, let’s talk about how to play it. The “how” is important because you will quickly realize that if you add the major 7th in the wrong place in the voicing of the chord (how it is positioned on the keyboard), it will not sound good. In general, when you play complex chords, you want to spread out the notes between your two pinkies. We call that open voicing. Secondly, we usually play the major 7th in the middle of the voicing between the bass note and the melody note. I often talk about what I call the “rule of thumbs” because the thumbs (which are physically always in the middle of the voicing) often end up playing the 7ths. If you place the 7th of the chord too close to the melody note or the bass note, bad things happen.

Believe it or not, that is all you need to know to get started playing major 7th chords. Give it a shot. You will love the sound and will never look back.

By the way, if you want to see some labelled examples of the major 7th chord in music, check out this free arrangement of Be Thou My Vision. It is full of them.