7th Chords for Piano—The Complete Guide
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If you’re a piano student looking to play jazz, blues, R&B or gospel music, then you have to learn how to play 4-note chords called 7th chords. In today’s Quick Tip, 7th Chords for Piano—The Complete Guide, Jonny May breaks down the 5 essential categories of 7th chords that provide the building blocks for hundreds of jazz standards. You’ll also discover fun and exciting ways to practice these essential piano chords.
- The 60 Essential Chords for Jazz Piano
- Piano Exercises to Master 7th Chords
- Application of 7th Chords
Quick Navigation by Chord Type:
If you’re a beginner or early intermediate piano student looking to level up your sound, then this lesson is for you!
Jonny calls 7th chords “the king of jazz chords” because they constitute the primary sounds of jazz music. Indeed, a casual glance through any jazz fake book will reveal that the majority of the chord symbols end with the number “7”. For example, here some chord changes from 3 familiar jazz standards.
As you can see, 7th chords are everywhere in these examples! This leads us to a very logical question…
In music, 7th chords (also seventh chords) are four-note chords that are built from the first, third, fifth and seventh tones of a parent scale. There are five main types of 7th chords, which include major 7th chords, dominant 7th chords, minor 7th chords, half diminished 7th chords and diminished 7th chords. While 7th chords appear in many styles of music, they are the foundational harmonic concept in jazz theory and composition.
Let’s look at an example of how to use a parent scale to build a 7th chord. All we need to do is follow the 3 steps indicated on today’s lesson sheet PDF:
- Start with the Major Scale
- Skip Every Other Note
- Play the Notes Together
Today’s lesson PDF is downloadable from Lesson Resources section which appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. There you’ll also find 3 downloadable backing tracks to assist you in practicing the 7th chord exercises that we’ll cover this lesson. In addition, you can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Okay, now let’s follow the 3 Steps to Play a 7th Chord listed above. For this example, our parent scale will be the C major scale, which contains all white keys: C–D–E–F–G–A–B. If we build a 7th chord on the starting tone of this scale, we’ll wind up with a C major 7th chord.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each step. First, we’ll simply play the 7-note scale. Each scale tone or scale degree is numbered in the example below.
Step 1: Start with a Major Scale
Next, we’ll skip every other note of the scale. In other words, we’ll only play the odd-numbered degrees and skip the even numbers.
Step 2: Skip Every Other Note
Finally, let’s play the all the odd-numbered scale degrees simultaneously.
Step 3: Play the Notes Together
Following this process, we see that scale degrees 1–3–5–7 of the C major scale give us a C major 7 chord. We can also refer to each chord tone as either the root, 3rd, 5th or 7th.
To create other types of 7th chords, we can start with different parent scales. Another approach is to continue to start with a major scale as demonstrated above, but then modify the resulting chord tones according to a particular chord formula, such as 1–3–5–♭7 for a dominant 7th chord. In fact, we’ll explore this approach in greater detail in just a few moments.
For a step-by-step learning plan for mastering all your 7th chords, check our Level 4 Early Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.
Sometimes, the study of jazz harmony can feel overwhelming. In fact, it might even seem like there is a bottomless pit of chords to learn. Certainly, in one sense, this feeling is rational since there are many advanced harmonic concepts modern jazz music. However, it’s also equally important to realize that a piano student can become a functional jazz pianist after learning to play a finite number of chords. In fact, that number is sixty.
For some students, sixty chords might still seem rather intimidating. However, if we dig a little deeper, we discover that there are just 5 essential types of 7th chords—(1) major 7th chords, (2) dominant 7th chords, (3) minor 7th chords, (4) half diminished 7th chords, and (5) diminished 7th chords. Since each 7th chord type can be constructed with any of the 12 available pitches serving as the root, there are exactly sixty essential jazz chords. Therefore, with a structured practice routine, these chords can be mastered in a matter of months. This should come as a great encouragement to aspiring jazz pianists.
In the following sections, we’ll explore the five essential types of 7th chords listed above. Within each section, you’ll find a helpful piano chord chart illustrating how to construct the given 7th chord type from each of the 12 possible roots. Altogether, these 5 sections contain piano chord diagrams for all sixty essential chords! Therefore, you’ll want to be sure to bookmark this lesson in your web browser for easy reference in the future.
Alright, let’s begin with the first category. If you are already comfortable playing 7th chords on piano, you can skip to the 7th Chord Exercises section.
A major 7th chord is a 4-note chord with a bright and beautiful sound. Major 7th chords are constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones of a major scale. Another easy way to build a major 7th chord is to start with a major triad and add a major 7th interval above the root. (Think: 1–3–5–7). For example, C major 7 contains the notes C–E–G–B. In a major key, major 7th chords naturally occur for the Ⅰ chord and the Ⅳ chord. Examples of common chord symbols for major 7th chords include Cmaj7, CM7, CMA7 and C▵7.
For your reference, here is a complete Piano Chord Chart of All Major 7th Chords in every key. You’ll see the chord symbol followed by the specific notes on the piano within each major 7th chord.
A dominant 7th chord is a 4-note chord that has a bluesy or earthy sound. Dominant 7th chords are constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones of a Mixolydian scale. An easy way to build a dominant 7th chord is to start with a major triad and add a minor 7th interval above the root. (Think: 1–3–5–♭7). For example, C dominant 7 contains the notes C–E–G–B♭. However, the 5th is often omitted from a dominant 7th chord voicing. In a major key, a dominant 7th chord naturally occurs for the Ⅴ chord. An example of a chord symbol for a dominant 7th chord is C7.
For your reference, here is a complete Piano Chord Chart of All Dominant 7th Chords in every key. You’ll see the chord symbol followed by the specific notes on the piano within each dominant 7th chord.
A minor 7th chord is a 4-note chord that has a warm and beautiful sound. Minor 7th chords are constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones of a natural minor scale. An easy way to build a minor 7th chord is to start with a minor triad and add a minor 7th interval above the root. (Think: 1–♭3–5–♭7). For example, C minor 7 contains the notes C–E♭–G–B♭. In a major key, minor 7th chords naturally occur for the Ⅱ chord, Ⅲ chord and Ⅵ chord. In minor keys, minor 7th chords naturally occur for the Ⅰ chord, Ⅳ chord and Ⅴ chord. Examples of common chord symbols for minor 7th chords include Cm7, C–7, Cmi7 and Cmin7.
Piano Chord Chart: All Minor 7th Chords
For your reference, here is a complete Piano Chord Chart of All Minor 7th Chords. You’ll see the chord symbol followed by the specific notes on the piano within each minor 7th chord.
A half diminished 7th chord is a 4-note chord that has a mystical or enigmatic sound. Half diminished 7th chords are constructed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones of a Locrian scale. However, a simple way to build a half diminished 7th chord is to start with a diminished triad and add a minor 7th interval above the root. Another method is to start with a minor 7th chord and simply lower the 5th. (Think: 1–♭3–♭5–♭7). For example, C half diminished contains the notes C–E♭–G♭–B♭. In a major key, a half diminished 7th chord naturally occurs for the Ⅶ chord. Examples of chord symbols for half diminished 7th chords include Cø7 and Cm7(♭5).
Piano Chord Chart: All Half Diminished 7th Chords
For your reference, here is a complete Piano Chord Chart of All Half Diminished 7th Chords. You’ll see the chord symbol followed by the specific notes on the piano within each half diminished chord.
A diminished 7th chord is a 4-note chord that has an agitated, unstable or spooky sound. Diminished 7th chords include a diminished triad and a diminished 7th interval. Therefore, they are also called “fully diminished.” A simple way to build a diminished 7th chord is to start with a diminished triad and add a major 6th interval above the root, since a major 6th is equivalent to a diminished 7th. (Think: 1–♭3–♭5–𝄫7). For example, C diminished 7 contains the notes C–E♭–G♭–B𝄫. Diminished 7th chords naturally occur as the Ⅶ chord in a harmonic minor scale. An example of a chord symbol for a diminished 7th chord is Cº7.
Piano Chord Chart: All Diminished 7th Chords
For your reference, here is a complete Piano Chord Chart of All Diminished 7th Chords. You’ll see the chord symbol followed by the specific notes on the piano within each diminished 7th chord. Keep in mind that composers, arrangers and music publishers often favor simplified enharmonic spellings that eliminate double-flats. Thus, Cº7 may appear as C–E♭–G♭–A instead of C–E♭–G♭–B𝄫.
In this section, we’ll explore 3 exercises for mastering 7th chords. You can use the links below to skip directly to the exercise that’s tailored for your level of experience:
For each of these exercises, you’ll use the fingering 1–2–3–5 in the right hand and 5–3–2–1 in the left hand.
Our first example is called The Mystery Exercise. This exercise allows beginner students to have fun while getting used to how each 7th chord feels in the hand. Initially, we’ll demonstrate this exercise with major 7th chords. Afterward, you can repeat the exercise at will using any of the other four types of 7th chords.
The Mystery Exercise uses a compositional technique called contrary motion, which means that the hands are essentially moving in opposite directions. Even though this sounds difficult, most beginners find contrary motion patterns to be quite accessible because you wind up using the same exact fingers in each hand. The result is a “mirror image” effect. For example, the finger pattern for The Mystery Exercise is 5–1–2–3–5–1–2 in both hands.
The Mystery Exercise begins on Cmaj7 and then moves down chromatically to Bmja7, followed by B♭maj7, and so on. Check it out:
The Mystery Exercise
Once you think you have the hang of it, try playing The Mystery Exercise along with the included “beginner” backing track which moves at 85 BPM. Afterward, try exploring this exercise with some of the other 7th chord types, such as minor 7th chords or half diminished 7th chords.
Our next example is called The Swingin’ Exercise. This exercise is for intermediate students and uses conventional jazz swing rhythms to explore major 7th chords in an ascending chromatic progression. For example, you’ll start on Cmaj7 and proceed to D♭ maj7, then to Dmaj7, and so on. Check it out:
The Swingin’ Exercise
The Swingin’ Exercise goes along with the “intermediate” backing track, which is set to 140 BPM. Once you’ve mastered this exercise with major 7th chords, be sure to try some of the other types of 7th chords that we examined earlier.
Next, we have super fun 7th chord piano exercise for advanced students called The Dreamy Exercise. Unlike our previous exercises, The Dreamy Exercise doesn’t move chromatically. Instead, this progression uses counter-clockwise movement around the Circle of 5ths:
| C▵7 | F▵7 | B♭▵7 | E♭▵7 |
| A♭▵7 | D♭▵7 | G♭▵7 | B▵7 |
| E▵7 | A▵7 | D▵7 | G▵7 |
Let’s take a listen to The Dreamy Exercise. Afterward, we’ll discuss how this exercise is put together.
The Dreamy Exercise
At first glance, it may appear that the hands are following the same pattern. However, each hand is playing a slightly different melodic contour. For example, the left hand plays an ascending arpeggio followed by a descending arpeggio. This left hand fingering pattern is 5–3–2–1 (up) and then 1–2–3–5 (down). By contrast, the right hand is descending through two 3-note shapes found within the broader 7th chord construction. For example, in the first measure, the right hand plays a descending E minor triad followed by a descending C major triad, both of which can be found within C▵7. This right hand finger pattern is 5–3–2 (down) and then 3–2–1 (down).
In the second measure, it’s important to notice that the F▵7 is in 2nd inversion, allowing it to connect to C▵7 by means of common tones and stepwise motion, without any leaps. The fingering pattern remains exactly the same as in the previous measure, even though the middle and index fingers are now only a minor 2nd interval apart. When transitioning from measure 2 to measure 3, F▵7 and B♭▵7 also connect smoothly by means of common tones and stepwise motion. In fact, in jazz theory, we use the term voice leading to describe the preferable sound of smoothly connected chords. In the next section, we’ll explore the concept of voice leading even further.
In this final section of today’s lesson on 7th chords, we’ll examine how to apply the principle of voicing leading on a cycle of 5th progression like the one that occurs in “Autumn Leaves.” The cycle of 5th progression is a great way to practice 7th chords because it contains a major 2-5-1 progression and a minor 2-5-1 progression in keys that are related by a common key signature. Check out the following chord progression:
Do you see that this progression begins with a 2-5-1 progression in G major? (Am7→D7→G▵7) Then, after the C▵7, we get a 2-5-1 progression in E minor (F♯ø7→B7→Em7), the relative of G major. When repeating this progression, jazz musicians often add an E7 passing chord after the Em7 to lead right back to the Am7 chord.
Now, let’s look at two different way to play these 7th chords on piano.
First, we’ll play all the chords in root position in the right hand while playing the roots in the left hand. This approach is appropriate for beginner or early intermediate piano students who are early in their exploration of 7th chords.
Root Position 7th Chords
This example represents a great first step in learning to play 7th chords on piano. In fact, it’s a necessary first step. However, you’ll notice that all of the chords resolve by leaps, which is a less preferable sound.
Next, we’ll look at how to improve the sound of this progression by inverting some of the 7th chords to create better voice leading.
Once common way to create smooth voicing leading on a cycle of 5th progression is to alternate between root position 7th chords and 2nd inversion 7th chord shapes. Check out the following example:
Alternating Root Position & 2nd Inversion
As you can hear, by alternating between root position 7th chords and 2nd inversion 7th chords, we get a much smoother transition from chord to chord. Note, the final Em7 is actually in 1st inversion, which breaks the pattern. However, in doing so, we are positioned closer to the root position Am7 that would be coming up on a repeat.
Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s lesson on 7th Chords for Piano—The Complete Guide. In the process, you’ve learned a process that will enable you to construct 60 essential chords for jazz piano. That’s a huge accomplishment!
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Diatonic 7th Chords Exercises (Int)
- Major Turnaround Exercises with 7th Chords (Int)
- 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Int)
- Minor 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with 7th Chords (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int)
- Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Int)
- Ear Training with 7th Chords 1 (Int)
- Ear Training with 7th Chords 2 (Adv)
- Jazz Piano Complete Beginner Lesson–10 Steps
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide (Beg/Int)
- Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro
- Improvise Diatonic 7th Chords on Piano (Int)
- Minor Major 7th Chords: The Spy Chord (Int)
- 6th Chords—The Complete Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings–The Complete Guide (Int)
- The Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise (Beg/Int)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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