This guide to seventh chord quality and inversions requires a basic understanding of musical intervals and triads. We recommend reading our guide to musical intervals and guide to triads if you need to learn or review these concepts.
In this guide we’ll look at what makes a chord a seventh chord, the different qualities of seventh chords, and their possible inversions.
What is a seventh chord?
A seventh chord is one note more complex than a triad: Whereas a triad is made up of a root, third, and fifth, a seventh chord is composed of a root, third, fifth, and seventh (or a root and three stacked thirds).
This fourth note gives the seventh chord more variety; whereas there are only four triad qualities, there are seven main types of seventh chord:
- Major Seventh
- Dominant Seventh
- Minor Seventh
- Diminished Seventh
- Half-Diminished Seventh
- Minor Major Seventh
- Augmented Seventh
In addition, there are three possible seventh chord inversions for each quality, compared to only two for triads.
Seventh Chord Qualities
Let’s take a deeper look at these seven seventh chord qualities.
Major Seventh Chord
A Major Seventh chord is formed by a root and intervals of a major third, perfect fifth, and major seventh above the root.
You may find it easier to think of it as a major triad with an added major seventh.
If we wanted to build a C Major Seventh, we know that C would be the root note. We know that a C Major triad consists of a C, E, and G, so these are the first three notes.
As for the fourth note (the pitch that makes this a seventh chord), we need to find the note that’s a major seventh above the root note (C). That would be B.
Thus, we find that a C Major Seventh chord consists of C, E, G, and B. This method can be used with any root note to find that root’s major seventh chord.
Dominant Seventh Chord (Major Minor Seventh)
The dominant seventh chord is the most prevalent in music; it’s considered the “default” of sorts. When you see a “7” chord notated in a guitar tab, this refers to a dominant seventh of that key (for instance, E7 refers to an E Dominant Seventh chord).
A dominant seventh chord consists of the root note and a major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh above the root. You’ll sometimes see it referred to as a “Major Minor Seventh,” which refers to the intervals of the third and seventh.
To look at it differently, this is just a major triad with an added minor seventh. Alternatively, think of it as a major seventh with the top note dropped a half step.
Following this pattern, then, let’s build a C Dominant Seventh chord.
It’s a given that the root note is C. A major third above this is E, and a perfect fifth above it is G (as you can see, these are just the notes of the C Major triad).
Lastly, a minor seventh above C is Bb. Therefore, a C7 chord must have the notes C, E, G, and Bb.
Next up, we have the minor seventh. This variation of the seventh chord is formed by the root note and intervals of a minor third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh above it.
Or, to say it differently, a minor seventh chord is made up of a minor triad and a minor seventh.
To build a C Minor Seventh chord, then, we’ll start with C. A minor third above this is Eb, and a perfect fifth gives us G.
And, as we’ve seen, the minor seventh is Bb. This gives us the notes of the C Minor Seventh chord: C, Eb, G, and Bb.
Diminished Seventh Chord
The diminished seventh chord, as its name suggests, is built with a diminished triad and a diminished seventh.
In other words, its notes are a minor third, diminished fifth, and diminished seventh above the root.
We see this when looking at the example above, a C Diminished Seventh chord.
We chose C as the root note for the purpose of simplicity, as with all of the examples. A minor third above this is Eb, and a diminished fifth above it is Gb (recall that these three notes form a diminished triad).
Lastly, we add a diminished seventh to this diminished triad; in this instance, since C is the root note, it’s Bbb (spoken B double-flat, two semitones below B).
Half-Diminished Seventh Chord
Similar to the diminished seventh, the half-diminished seventh chord is built upon a diminished triad. The difference is that instead of using a diminished seventh (9 semitones above the root), the half-diminished seventh chord uses a minor seventh (10 semitones above it).
It’s easy, then, to think of a half-diminished seventh chord as a diminished seventh chord with the seventh raised a semitone.
This can be seen in the example above; the C Half-Diminished Seventh chord is identical to the C Diminished Seventh chord, except for the top note (which is Bb rather than Bbb).
Minor Major Seventh Chord
The minor major seventh chord is essentially the inverse of the dominant seventh; it’s built with a minor third and major seventh, as opposed to the dominant’s major third and minor seventh. Both utilize the perfect fifth.
Alternatively, think of the minor major seventh chord as a major seventh chord with the third lowered a half-step
Using C as the root note, it’s easy to find the notes of the minor major seventh chord. A minor third gives us Eb, a perfect fifth is G, and a major seventh is B.
Augmented Seventh Chord
Last but not least, we have the augmented seventh chord. This may very well be the strangest-sounding seventh chord we’ll cover in this guide.
It’s built by combining an augmented triad (a root, major third, and augmented fifth) with a major seventh.
Using C as our root note once again, let’s find the notes in the C Augmented Seventh chord using intervals.
A major third gives us E, and an augmented fifth is G#. Lastly, a major seventh above C is B. Thus, we see that a C Augmented Seventh has a C, E, G#, and B.
Seventh Chord Inversions
An inversion occurs when the notes of a chord are rearranged. For instance, if you were to take a C Major Seventh chord and move the bottom note to the top, you would have created an inversion, as seen below.
The notes of the chord are still the same; only the order is changed. This chord is still a C Major Seventh, but it’s now considered to be inverted.
Seventh chords can be inverted in the same way as triads. The only difference is that a seventh chord has one more note, and so has one more possible inversion.
Seventh chords can be arranged in four different “positions”: Root Position, First Inversion, Second Inversion, and Third Inversion.
Root position is the position you’ve seen in all of the examples in the previous section. It occurs when the root note is in the bass.
For instance, if we have an E Dominant Seventh chord and the lowest note is an E, the chord is in root position.
In the first inversion of a seventh chord, the third is in the bass. The image above is a first inversion seventh chord, since E is the third, and is the lowest note.
Taking this pattern one step further, the second inversion of a seventh chord has the fifth in the bass.
We know that the above example is a second inversion seventh chord since the fifth (G) is the lowest note.
Finally, we have the third inversion. Third inversion chords have the seventh in the bass.
Since B is the seventh of a C Major Seventh chord, we know that the image above is an instance of a third inversion chord.