7th chords can be viewed as first manifested from existing major or minor chords that prepare a passing note (the 7th) from the tonic into the next chord, as shown in the figured bass notation first introduced in Module 1.6. As music history evolved, the use of a straight-on or unprepared 7th chord became more common, before the chord embodied a new and less functional approach in 20th- and 21st-century music. Therefore, 7th chords deserve a strong focus in contemporary keyboard harmony training.

This module builds on Module 2.1 by raising awareness and building appetite of different types of 7th chords. Training for fluency and accuracy ultimately relies on the amount of time and effort spent by the individual student. In the reservoir of 7th chords, it is important to have a list of priorities that need to be achieved over time, both short-term and long-term. The first short-term priority should be placed upon the immediate recall and appropriate resolution of diminished 7th and dominant 7th chords. The diminished 7th chord is emphasized with a strong bond to the dominant 7th chord, due to their closeness in sound and harmonic function. The diminished 7th is a chord that is much easier to play than to notate. Notating it on the page requires considerable theoretical bases as far as having each note appropriately spelled enharmonically. On the other hand, improvising it on the keyboard removes the fear of enharmonic correctness, and deals with a simple consideration of three basic collections. The instructor may establish a system to label these three types of diminished chords on the keyboard, for the convenience of discussion — for example, “diminish A" for diminished 7th chord involving A, “diminish B” for diminished 7th chord involving A-sharp or B-flat, and so on.


  • Dominant 7th chords

The importance of being able to identify the root of dominant 7th chords, and to establish the correct dominant-tonic relationship, is an important foundation to have before the student increases the scope of 7th chords.

Main Concepts

  • Relationship between diminished 7th and dominant 7th chords
  • Other 7th chords: major-major, minor-minor, and half-diminished

In spite of the vast array of 7th chords to be explored, it is important to point out how changing one note of the chord would result in another chord. For example, lowering any note on a diminished 7th chord would result in a dominant 7th chord. The difference of a dominant 7th chord and a minor-minor 7th chord is slight, but nevertheless important: A dominant 7th chord is based on a major triad with an added 7th above root, whereas a minor-minor 7th chord is based on a minor triad with an added 7th above root. The half-diminished chord, aside from being one note away from a fully diminished 7th chord, can also be viewed as one note away from the minor-minor 7th chord.

Drills and Improvisations

  • Each diminished 7th chord and its eight possible resolutions
  • Closely examining the relationship between dominant and diminished 7th chords
  • Playing along with the sound track

There are three kinds of diminished 7th chord collections on the keyboard, as mentioned in the opening remarks of this module. Practice and identify the possible resolutions of the same kind (Figure A). The resolution is dictated by each note of the diminished 7th chord that can be perceived as the root. The root would rise by a semitone to the tonic of the major or minor chord. The root does not need to be the bass note, although it is highly encouraged at first to practice root-position-type diminished 7th chords and their resolutions, before dealing with other inversions.

Figure A

Divide the class into three groups, with each group focusing on a particular kind of diminished 7th collection. In Fig B, the three kinds are conveniently marked as Dim A, Dim B, and Dim C. When the group is called upon to play, everyone in the group plays, in any register and inversion desirable (resulting in similar sounds to the fermatas in Figure B). When a particular student is called upon to play, the student will proceed from the group’s diminished 7th assigned, to dominant 7th (making one pitch semitone lower), before a resolution in the new tonic. If another student from the same team is called upon to play next, the student may not copy the solution(s) they just heard.

Figure B

Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” was first introduced in Module 1.2 as a fun activity for triads. Here we enrich the same excerpt (Figure C) with 7th chords. The 7th chords in Kern’s era lacked a goal-oriented purpose. Rather, they added an extra aura to the musical sound and language of the time. Students are advised to first listen to the recording and label the chords on a separate sheet of paper away from staff notation. The chords symbols — bass note name along with quality, such as “m7” for minor-minor 7th, “maj7” for major-major 7th, and “7” for dominant 7th — are similar to a lead sheet notation for the jazz and pop genres. Students can improvise the chords in different inversions, spacing, and register, while having the recording played and/or singing along.

Figure C

Goals for Next Class

  • Fluently improvise diminished 7th chord (—> dominant 7th chord) —> tonic in the appropriate major/minor key
  • Accurately recall and play chords labelled with bass note and quality of the 7th chord (Maj7, m7, dominant 7, diminished 7, and half-diminished 7)

The student should fluently resolve any diminished 7th chord into tonic, with or without the bypass of a dominant 7th chord. It is important to build speed and accuracy in recalling different types of 7th chords. A great way to assess the responsiveness of the student (without making it the nerve-wracking experience of randomly asking for different keys of various types of 7th chords) is to ask them to link from one type of 7th chord to another while preserving three identical notes (e.g., starting from D half-diminished 7th, to D diminished 7th, to D dominant 7th, and finally to D minor 7th).

Complete and Continue