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Major Seventh Chords: Shimmering Sounds

Major chords serve as the cornerstone of music harmony, providing stability, brightness, and a sense of resolution. Whether you’re strumming a guitar, playing piano, or composing intricate symphonies, understanding major chords is essential. One such chord is the major seventh chord (often abbreviated as maj7 or denoted by the symbol Δ). The major seventh chord is both elegant and expressive, adding a touch of sophistication to compositions across various genres. In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating characteristics of major seventh chords, their construction, common appearances, and practical applications.



Anatomy of the Major Seventh Chord

The major seventh chord consists of four essential notes:

  1. Root (1st): The starting note of the chord.

  2. Major Third (3rd): Four half-steps above the root.

  3. Perfect Fifth (5th): Seven half-steps above the root.

  4. Major Seventh (7th): Eleven half-steps above the root.

For example, in a Cmaj7 chord:

  • The root is C.

  • The major third is E.

  • The perfect fifth is G.

  • The major seventh is B.

These intervals create a lush and harmonically rich sound, making the major seventh chord a favorite among composers and performers. The seventh of the chord provides its characteristic shimmer due to the dissonance created between the root and the major seventh, B and C.

Where to Find Major Seventh Chords

In Major Keys:

In major keys, the major seventh chord naturally occurs on the first degree of the scale. For instance, in the key of C major, the Cmaj7 chord consists of the notes C, E, G, and B. This chord serves as a tonic, providing stability and resolution within the key. Often, the major seventh is used to create a relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere. The major seventh note can be resolved upwards into a C major triad or downwards to a C6 chord. Countless standard songs start with the major seventh chord including, “Misty”, “Girl from Ipanema”, and “I’ll Remember April”. The major seventh chord can also be found on the 4th scale degree. This is an Fmaj7 chord in the key of C. This is a very commonly used chord and it is often extended further to include the 9th or sharp 11 tension as well. Many common jazz standards start with this chord such as, “Just Friends”, “After You’ve Gone”, and “I’ll See You In My Dreams”.

In Minor Keys:

In minor keys, the major seventh chord appears on the third degree of the scale. For example, in the key of A minor, the Cmaj7 chord (C-E-G-B). This chord is often called the “relative major” chord due to its connection to the relative major key. The relationship between relative major and minor is one of the most common movements and can be found in songs such as, “Autumn Leaves”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, and “Summertime”

The major seventh chord is also found on the 6th degree in the minor key. This chord is famously used in the J-Pop chord progression (6-5-1-3, in minor). This chord progression can be traced back to the soul song, “Just the Two of Us”. It is a very common starting chord for minor key songs.

Expressive Potential

The major seventh chord conveys a sense of elegance, nostalgia, and yearning. It often appears in passages that evoke heightened emotion, whether in classical compositions, jazz standards, or contemporary music. Let’s explore some famous examples:

Classical Music: In 1888, the French composer Erik Satie composed three slow waltzes, entitled Gymnopédies. The first and best-known of these alternates two major seventh chords. The first eight measures alternate between Gmaj7 and Dmaj7.

In Jazz: The major seventh chord is one of the most common chords found in jazz music as the tonic resolution. It can be found in most jazz standards. It is also commonly used in bossa nova music. It is used in both major and minor keys as listed above.

In Pop/Rock: The major seventh chord became popular in the 1970s with easy listening, soft rock, and fusion styles. Its sophisticated sound is well suited to more relaxed and “adult contemporary” styles. Bands like Steely Dan and Chicago made heavy use of this chord.



Guitar Fingerings

For guitarists, mastering common fingerings for major seventh chords opens up new creative possibilities. Here are a few basic shapes for the Cmaj7 chord that most guitarists learn within their first few years of playing.

  1. Root on the 5th String (A String):

e|--------

B|---5---

G|---4---

D|---5---

A|---3---

E|--------


  1. Root on the 6th String (E String):

e|--------

B|---8---

G|---9---

D|---9---

A|---x---

E|---8---


  1. Root on the 4th String (D String):

e|---12---

B|---12--

G|---12--

D|---10---

A|-------

E|-------


These shapes can be moved up and down the neck to form other major seventh chords. So, whether you’re playing jazz, classical, or your own compositions, let the major seventh chord enrich your musical palette and add depth to your harmonic explorations.

Chord Extensions

Chord extensions are additional notes added to a basic chord to create richer and more complex harmonies. For a major seventh chord, common extensions include the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. Each extension adds its unique color and character to the chord, expanding its harmonic possibilities.

Major 7th with a 9th (maj9)

A major seventh chord with an added ninth (Maj9) introduces a note that is a whole step above the root note. This extension creates a lush and expansive sound. In the key of C, a Cmaj9 chord would include the notes C, E, G, B, and D. The addition of the ninth adds a bright and open quality to the chord, often used in jazz and contemporary music to add sophistication without overwhelming the harmony. A classic example of the Maj9 chord can be found in the song "Girl from Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The use of Maj9 chords in this standard adds to its intricate and elegant harmonic progression.

Major 7th with an sharp 11th (maj7#11)

The major seventh chord with a sharpened eleventh (maj11) incorporates a note that is an augmented fourth above the root. In the key of C, a Cmaj11 chord would include C, E, G, B, D, and F#. This extension provides a more complex and sometimes dissonant sound because the raised eleventh (F#) is a tritone above the root (C). However, this dissonance can be beautiful and haunting when resolved appropriately. Leonard Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story uses a Maj11#11 chords to great effect, giving the song a dreamy and slightly unresolved feeling that complements its sense of longing and wonder.


Major 7th with a 13th (Maj13)

A major seventh chord with an added thirteenth (Maj13) includes a note that is a major sixth above the root. For Cmaj13, the notes would be C, E, G, B, D, A. The thirteenth adds a jazzy and mellow character, enriching the chord without clashing with the existing notes. This extension is often used in jazz and soul music to add depth and warmth. A great example of the Maj13 chord can be heard in Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." The Maj13 chords in this song contribute to its upbeat and sophisticated vibe, demonstrating how such extensions can  transform a simple progression into something more engaging. Sometimes this chord accidentally occurs when musicians are unsure whether the harmony is a C6 or Cmaj7 chord. Luckily, the two chords play well together making a pleasing maj13 sound.


Combining Extensions

In practice, musicians often combine these extensions to create even more complex and colorful chords. For instance, a Cmaj13 chord can also include the ninth and eleventh, making it a Cmaj13(9,11). These combined extensions are particularly popular in jazz, fusion, and modern classical music, where harmonic richness and complexity are highly valued.


Chord extensions on a major seventh chord offer a wealth of harmonic possibilities, each bringing a different flavor to the music. By adding the ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth, composers and musicians can craft chords that evoke a wide range of emotions and atmospheres. Whether it's the open and airy sound of a Maj9, the intriguing dissonance of a Maj7#11, or the warm, jazzy feel of a Maj13, these extensions play a crucial role in shaping the harmonic landscape of countless songs across various genres.


A Harmonic Journey

Major seventh chords are a fascinating and essential component of music, providing a blend of stability and sophistication that can enhance any musical piece. From their basic construction to the rich, complex sounds achieved through various extensions, these chords play a pivotal role in numerous genres, including jazz, classical, pop, and rock.


By understanding the anatomy of major seventh chords and their common appearances in both major and minor keys, musicians can unlock new levels of harmonic richness. Whether it's the foundational Cmaj7 in the key of C major or the emotive Fmaj7 chord in A minor, these chords bring a distinct elegance and emotional depth to music.


Exploring chord extensions like the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth further expands the harmonic palette. The Maj9 adds a lush, expansive quality; the Maj7#11 introduces a haunting, dreamy feel; and the Maj13 brings a mellow, jazzy warmth. For guitarists and pianists alike, mastering these chords and their extensions opens up new creative possibilities, allowing for sophisticated and expressive compositions. 


As you continue your musical journey, look out for major seventh chords! They can guide you through lush harmonies and intricate progressions. Whether you're composing your own music, performing jazz standards, or adding a touch of sophistication to pop and rock songs, the major seventh chord will undoubtedly elevate your musical expression. So, embrace the elegance and depth of major seventh chords and let them inspire your next masterpiece.


-Ryan

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