Minor Major 7th Chords: The Spy Chord
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To the untrained ear, it can often be difficult to distinguish one musical sound from another. Perhaps you struggle to detect the difference between a violin and a viola, or between a major 6th interval and a minor 6th. However, with repeated listening, our ears actually learn to discern differences in musical sounds in that same way that you recognize the voices of your loved ones or the particular sound or your own car alarm. When learning to identify musical sounds by ear, it also becomes helpful when we acquire the proper terminology to codify these sounds in our mind. In today’s Quick Tip, Minor Major 7th Chords: The Spy Chord, we are going to do just that. John Proulx explains how the distinctive minor major 7th chord is constructed and the various ways you can use it in your piano playing. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Minor Major 7th Chords
- Examples of Minor Major 7th Chords
- Melodic Minor: The Minor-Major Parent Scale
- Minor-Major Extensions & Voicings
- When to Use Minor Major 7th Chords
- 3 Spy Chord Improv Licks
Regardless of your playing level, you’ll discover plenty of insights and useful applications in today’s lesson.
Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably already familiar with the sound of minor major 7th chords, especially if you enjoy watching spy movies. In fact, other common names for minor major 7th chords are “the James Bond Chord” or the “spy chord,” since its distinctive sound is commonplace in espionage films. The minor major 7th chord is also sometimes referred to as “the Hitchcock Chord” because it is featured prominently by film composer Bernard Herrmann in the 1960 Hitchcock film Psycho. In today’s lesson, you’ll also learn to identify this sound in musical terms.
A minor major 7th chord is 4-note chord that features a major 7th interval above a minor triad. For example, a Cm(maj7) contains the notes C–E♭–G–B. It is also called the tonic minor chord, and it often occurs at the end of a minor jazz tune as the final tonic chord. These chords are characterized as having an exotic sound that is simultaneously dark and bright. The source scale for minor major 7th chords is both the ascending melodic minor scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B) and the harmonic minor scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B). However, for improvisation, the ascending or jazz melodic minor scale is the primary choice.
Music publishers use a variety of chords symbols to represent minor major 7th chords on lead sheets. That’s because there are differing views on how chords suffixes should be notated. One view emphasizes that suffixes should use standard letters such as “M, ma, or maj” to represent major sounds and “m, mi, or min” to represent minor sounds. The advantage of this approach is that these suffixes require little explanation or prior knowledge. However, the downside is that a chord symbol like Cmin(maj7) takes up a lot of space and can be more difficult to quickly interpret when sight reading. Therefore, other publishers prefer to use special characters such as a triangle (▵) for major sounds and minus sign (–) for minor sounds. For instance, the symbol C–▵ is much more efficient in print form and when reading. However, this symbol can also be intimidating to beginners.
Because of varying perspectives on how chords suffixes should appear, you may encounter any of the following chord symbols to represent a C minor major 7th chord:
Now, let’s listen to some classic examples of minor major 7th chords in action. Here are three you should know:
“The Name’s Bond…James Bond” – Casino Royal (2006)
The James Bond theme song was written by British film composer Monty Norman (1928–2022) for the 1962 film Dr. No, starring Sean Connery. Composer and fellow Brit John Barry (1933–2011) was brought in during post-production to arrange Norman’s theme song for the film, which was performed by guitarist Vic Flick. Since Barry went on to compose the score for eleven subsequent Bond films, the Bond theme was often mistakenly attributed to Barry, until a jury ruled in Norman’s favor in 2001.¹ The featured 007 excerpt here is by British composer David Arnold, from Casino Royal (2006), and concludes on an Em▵9 chord: E–G–B–D♯–F♯.
American composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975) is considered one of the most original and distinctive composers to ever work in film.² In fact, Herrmann’s biographer appropriately describes him as a “music-dramatist.”³ Herrmann is most-recognized for his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, a total of nine films, which include Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Herrmann’s Psycho “Prelude” opens with a string ensemble playing tense rhythmic stabs on a B♭m▵7/F chord.
“Prelude” – Psycho (1960)
“Chelsea Bridge” (1967)
The jazz standard “Chelsea Bridge” was written by American composer Billy Strayhorn in 1941 for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Strayhorn wrote the impressionistic piece after visiting Europe and viewing an inspiring painting of a bridge. Sources cite that the painter was either James McNeill Whistler or J. M. W. Turner and that the bridge may not have actually been Chelsea Bridge, but rather Battersea Bridge, which also crosses the River Thames in London.⁴ The recording here is by the Joe Henderson Sextet, with Kenny Barron on piano. The tune begins on a B♭m▵7 chord: B♭–D♭–F–A.
When studying any harmonic sound, it’s always a good idea to ponder its origins. In jazz theory, we call this concept chord/scale relationships. Understanding chord/scale relationships helps you mentally associate improv scales with chord symbols. In this section, we’ll provide a more thorough answer to the question, “Where do minor major 7th chords come from?”
Earlier, we stated there are actually two parent scales or source scales for minor major 7th chords. Both the harmonic minor scale (1–2–♭3–4–5–♭6–7) and the ascending melodic minor scale (1–2–♭3–4–5–6–7) produce a minor major 7th chord from the 1st, 3rd 5th and 7th scale tones. However, we typically consider the jazz melodic minor scale as the primary choice. (Unlike the traditional or classical melodic minor scale, the jazz melodic minor scale features the ♮6 and ♮7 whether ascending or descending.) In fact, the jazz melodic minor scale is also the source scale for minor 6th chords. Therefore, Cm6 (C–E♭–G–A) and Cm▵7 (C–E♭–G–B) are often played interchangeably by jazz musicians.
The following examples notate and demonstrate an ascending C Melodic Minor Scale with its corresponding diatonic triads and 7th chords on piano. Notice in the third example that it is the 1st scale degree that produces Cm(▵7)—the tonic minor chord.
C Melodic Minor Scale Practice
Now, let’s practice playing the C Jazz Melodic Minor Scale over a Cm▵7. The following exercises come from today’s lesson sheet PDF. In fact, you can download the lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, our Smart Sheet Music allows you to easily transpose these examples to any key.
You’ll notice in the demonstration below that the right-hand scale fingering is identical to a C major scale: 1–2–3–1–2–3–4–5. In fact, it is only different from C major by one note—E♭ instead of E♮. Therefore, even beginners can play the C Jazz Melodic Minor Scale, despite its fancy name.
C Jazz Melodic Minor Over Cm(▵7)
You may notice that the right-hand note C has a less pleasant sound when played simultaneously against Cm▵7 in the left hand. For this reason, Cm6 is more commonly used to harmonize the note C when it occurs prominently in the melody.
The next exercise features the diatonic triads from C Melodic Minor played in triplets over Cm▵7. We us the term broken chords to describe this manner of playing chords melodically.
C Jazz Melodic Minor Broken Chords
Next, try to play the same exercise in descending form. Later in this lesson, we’ll demonstrate how to use descending broken chords to create a hip ending for a familiar jazz standard.
In this section, we’ll cover the most common voicings for minor major 7th chords on piano, including chord shells, rootless voicings and polychords. By the end of this section, you’ll know how to imply a minor-major sound with a few as 2 notes or as many a 6 notes!
Since the melodic minor scale does not have any weak tones, we can use any of the scale tones in our voicings. This includes the chord tones (1–♭3–5–7) and the chord extensions (9–11–13)
Chord Tones: 1–♭3–5–7
The most common chord extension for minor major 7th chords is the 9th. In addition, jazz pianists sometimes combine the Cm6/9 sound with the major 7th to create a Cm(▵13). Minor major 11th chords are also a valid sound, but they occur with less frequency.
First, let’s explore 2-note shell voicings for Cm▵7. These voicings can be categorized as either the root+3rd (measure 1 below) or root+7th (measure 2). In addition, the 2+2 rooted style (measures 3–4) combines the root+3rd or root+7th shells with two additional notes for accompanying in a 4-part texture.
Another essential jazz piano voicing technique is rootless voicings. The first two measures in the example below are your “go to” minor major 7th voicings when soloing. On the other hand, measures 3 and 4 are your “go to” voicings for comping on minor major 7th chords. These voicings contain the same notes as the first two measures, except that they are spread out into a 2+2 rootless texture according to the drop 2 voicing technique. In the accompanying video demonstrations, the root is played prior to each voicing to establish the harmonic context.
We can also play 5-note and 6-note minor-major voicings using the polychordal technique, which is also called upper structures. For example, the voicings in the example below feature either a Cm6 or Cm6/9 voicing in the left hand combined with a G major triad shape in the right hand. Therefore, the chord symbol could also be written as G/Cm6. Once again, the video demonstrations include the root of each chord for the sake of context.
So far, we’ve covered how to construct minor major 7th chords, where they come from and how to voice them. The next logical question is, “When are minor major 7th chords used?” This section covers the 3 most common ways that you’ll encounter minor major 7th chords in jazz and pop music.
1. Final Tonic Chord of a Minor Tune
One context in which we often encounter minor major 7th chords is at the conclusion of jazz tunes that written in a minor key. The minor-major sound provides an excellent sense of closure with beautifully complex chord colors.
The following excerpt from today’s sheet features a Cm▵7 as the final chord for the jazz standard “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” It’s important to note that we don’t typically harmonize the tonic note (in this case, the note C) with a minor major 7th chord because it clashes with the major 7th (the note B in Cm▵7). Since the melody of this tune ends on the tonic note, the Cm▵7 chord is deliberately placed after the final melody note.
“Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”
2. Minor 2-5-1 Chord Progression
Another way in which minor major 7th chords are used is as the final chord in a minor 2-5-1 chord progression. The most common tonic chord for minor 2-5-1 progressions is the minor 6th chord sound, which can also be voiced as a minor 6/9 voicing (as in the example below). Since Cm▵7 comes from the same source scale as Cm6, it can substitute in this context. However, minor major 7th chords have more tension than minor 6th chords so the “spy chord” won’t work every time you encounter a minor 2-5-1 progression.⁵
“Because the minor sixth chord sounds more at rest than the minor-major seventh chord, pianists frequently begin a measure by playing a minor-major seventh chord, then resolving to a minor sixth chord.”
—Jeremy Siskind, Jazz pianist and author
The follow example compares and contrasts the difference between Cm6/9 and Cm▵9 in the context of a minor 2-5-1 progression in C minor.
II→V→Im6 vs. II→V→Im▵
3. Chromatic Passing Function
In the previous two examples, we have seen minor major 7th chords used as target chords. This means that they are functioning as a point of resolution. However, in many tunes, minor major 7th chords are used as passing chords. By definition, passing chords are not targets. Instead, they occur as the result of an arranging technique to add harmonic interest and variety.
The following accompaniment excerpt is from the Duke Ellington tune “In a Sentimental Mood.” in D minor. Notice, the overarching chord movement is from the tonic (Dm) to the subdominant (Gm). However, over Dm, there is an inner voice that moves as follows: D→C♯→C♮→B♮. As a result of this chromatic line, we have four different D minor chords: Dm→Dm▵7→Dm7→Dm6. Next, this motif is repeated over Gm with the notes G→F♯→F♮→E. Thus, we have the chord symbols Gm→Gm▵7→Gm7→Gm6. Let’s take a listen.
“In a Sentimental Mood” (Inner Voice Movement)
Often, this chromatic line appears in the bass voice. When this happens, you won’t specifically see a minor major 7th chord symbol. Instead, you’ll see a series of slash chords, such as Dm→Dm/C♯→Dm/C→Dm/B. Just be sure to make a mental note that Dm/C♯ is the same chord as Dm▵7 in 3rd inversion. Here is an arrangement of “In a Sentimental Mood” with the passing minor major 7th chords disguised as slash chords.
“In a Sentimental Mood” (Bass Voice Movement)
Now that you understand how minor major 7th passing chords work, you can actually apply this technique yourself when you see a prolonged minor triad. This movement is especially common on VIm chords and IIm chords in major keys, and Im and IVm chords in minor keys. In fact, Jonny has two full-length courses on this progression, which he calls The Sentimental Progression (Int, Adv). It’s a good idea to spend some time studying this topic because this progression appears in dozens of jazz standards including “Blue Skies”, “Cry Me a River”, and “My Funny Valentine”. It also shows up in many pop songs including “Eleanor Rigby,” “Stairways to Heaven,” and “Love Is.”
In the final section of today’s lesson, we’ll explore John Proulx’s 3 cool “spy chord” improv licks from today’s lesson sheet. In each example, John applies a different melodic shapes or pattern based on the C Jazz Melodic Minor Scale. John uses these melodic minor scale patterns to create a sort of miniature cadenza over Cm▵7 at the end of a jazz standard in C minor.
1. Alternating 4ths/Tritones
The first melodic pattern, which John applies to “Autumn Leaves,” alternates between ascending and descending perfect 4ths and tritones that come directly from the C Jazz Melodic Minor Scale. The last interval appears on paper as a diminished 4th (B♮→E♭). However, to the ear, this sound is the same as a major 3rd interval (B♮→D♯). Let’s take a listen:
Notice that this lick contains two separate descending lines. The lower line is G→F→E♭→D→C→B♮ while the upper line is C→B♮→A♮→G→F→E♭. When these notes are grouped as pairs of harmonic interval pairs, you get G and C, F and B♮, E♭ and A♮, D and G, C and F, and B♮ and E♭. To create the “falling leaves effect,” John alternates the melodic direction in which intervals are played—first ascending, then descending, and so on.
2. Descending Triads
Our next “spy chord” improv lick uses descending triad shapes to create a colorful ending to the jazz standard “Alone Together.” Let’s take a listen:
The triads that form this lick are B diminished, A diminished, G major, and F major. What makes this lick sound so good? It’s the descending line created by the top note of each triad: F→E♭→D→C. This line descending right into the 7th of the final C–▵ voicing, the note B♮.
Once you understand how this lick works, you can reverse engineer other descending triad licks. For example, what if we were to voice our final C–▵ as a Cm▵9 with D as the top note, using the right-hand voicing E♭–G–B♮–D. Well, simply walk back upward 4 scale tones from D. You get the notes E♭→F→G→A♮. Now, what triad in C melodic minor has the note A♮ as its 5th? The answer is Dm (D–F–A). So you could play a similar descending triad line using the chords Dm→Cm→Bº→Aº to lead into Cm▵9. Give it a try and you’ll see that these triads work just as well. The secret is in the voice leading.
3. Arpeggiated 7th Chords
Our final “spy chord” lick uses an ascending Cm▵7 arpeggio to create a sweet ending on the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Let’s take a listen:
“You Don’t Know What Love Is”
How does this lick work? It simply arpeggiates the primary chord tones of Cm▵7: C–E♭–G–B♮. In fact, the melodic line even extends up to the 9th of Cm▵9, the note D. Then, the line changes direction, descending by stepwise motion from D to C. In the process, the note C is sandwiched into a melodic shape that we call an enclosure: B♮→D→C. An enclosure is a melodic shape in which a target note (C) is preceded by its lower neighbor (B) and its upper neighbor (D), or vice versa. This singable melodic shape creates a desirable sound. Moreover, enclosures also prepare a melodic line to leap in the opposite direction, in this case from C to G, using arpeggio motion. (The melody note G is the top note of the final voicing). For a deep dive on enclosures, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Enclosures (Adv).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Minor Major 7th Chords: The Spy Chord. Hopefully, you feel much more confident about how and when to use this unique sound in your playing.
If you enjoyed this lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
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¹ Genzlinger, Neil. “Monty Norman, Who Wrote 007’s Memorable Theme, Dies at 94.” The New York Times, 14 July 2022.
² Brooke, Michael. “Bernard Herrmann.” IMDb.com.
³ Johnson Edward. Bernard Herrmann Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist : A Biographical Sketch with a Filmography Catalogue of Works Discography and Bibliography. Triad Press 1977.
⁴ Burlingame, Sandra. “Chelsea Bridge (1941).” JazzStandards.com.
⁵ Siskind Jeremy. Jazz Piano Fundamentals. Book 2 Months 7-12. Jeremy Siskind Music Publishing 2022, p 44.
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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