So far, we’ve looked at simple three-note chords called triads, which are constructed by taking the root, the named note of the chord, and adding the third and fifth in the scale above it, hit-one-miss-one style:
Triads are the bread and butter of harmony in virtually every genre of Western music, but it’s also possible to vary these basic chords by continuing the game of hit one, miss one to create chords with four or more notes.
You can add one more note to create a seventh chord:
But you can also keep going to create extended chords: the ninth chord, eleventh chord and thirteenth chord:
The most common and most useful of these chords is the seventh, which you can use pretty much anywhere just to add a slightly different color to a chord, or in some types of progression to give the sequence of chords some extra thrust, because the added seventh is a mild dissonance, or clash, that makes the chord sound like it wants to move somewhere.
Here’s a great example where the addition of a few sevenths to this cycle of fifths progression gives the chords an extra push until it lands on the regular C major triad at the end:
(If you look closely, you’ll notice one of the notes – the fifth of each seventh chord – is missing. That’s because as you start extending chords and adding notes, it’s common to omit certain notes, like the fifth, when you voice them in practice.)
The most common type of seventh you’ll use, like these, is where the added note is a minor seventh (the note name a whole step below the root). That is, in a C7 chord, the seventh is the note Bb, or in an Am7 chord, the seventh is the note G. When the chord is major, adding that seventh creates what is strictly called a dominant seventh chord, but informally often called a seventh chord. When the chord is minor, adding that seventh creates what is called a minor seventh chord:
You can also create seventh chords by adding the major seventh (the note name that’s a half step below the root). With a major triad that creates a major seventh chord, and with a minor triad a minor major seventh chord:
I’m not going to say too much about the different types here, but if you want to more about them you can check out this article. The most important thing about these different types of chords is that changing their makeup changes the way they sound – and the best way to get to grips with what that means in practice is to play around with these chords to get a feel for how they sound, both on their own and as part of a larger progression.
We’re not going to go into much detail over ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords either, though you can find out more about them here. The ninth and thirteenth are more common in jazz styles than in pop or rock music. But let’s look at the eleventh chord for a second because it’s quite common in popular music in a particular spacing, like this:
If you leave out the bracketed D – the fifth, which you often also miss out in eleventh chords – you might think this looks like an F chord with a G in the bass, and you’d be totally right. Eleventh chords that look like this are particularly common on the dominant, chord V, like this:
Or followed by the regular dominant chord, like this:
In general, you can add sevenths to any of the chords in this progression, but adding the seventh to the D minor (ii) chord is a really neat trick because it means the upper notes stay exactly the same over the chord change, only the bass changes:
One final thing: if you’re a purist like me, you’ll prefer to write eleventh chords with their proper ‘11’ symbol, as that most accurately represents what the chord does in a larger progression. But you’ll often find the chord written in slash notation – like F/G – which as you know, essentially means the same thing.
Either way, switching up the regular dominant chord (chord V) with an eleventh chord is a great way to create a more contemporary or poppy sound, so it’s definitely a chord worth having in your repertoire for when you need it.
And again, as with any of these techniques, nobody’s saying you should use sevenths or other chord extensions all the time. A more complex chord isn’t automatically a better chord – just a chord with a different color. Sometimes simple chords are most effective. Sometimes more complex chords help give your song the sound it’s crying out for. As always, it’s up to you to make a call for each song as you write it.
Be sure to check back next month for Ed Bell’s next tip: How to Write Interesting Chord Progressions: Suspended Fourth Chords.