• An In-Depth Study On The Dominant Seventh Chord

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    dominant seventh chord

    Today, we’ll be doing an in-depth study on the dominant seventh chord.

    We’ll be covering some other things like its relationship with the leading note, tritone, and its resolution. These things are easier than they sound – I can guarantee you that.

    Join me in the next segment as I give you a simple yet elaborate definition of the dominant seventh chord that will get us started.

    “What Is A Dominant Seventh Chord?”

    The term dominant seventh chord can be broken down into three components – chord, dominant, and seventh. Check out the breakdown of the dominant seventh chord:

    Chord: A chord is a collection of three or more related notes [whether pleasant or unpleasant.]

    Dominant: The technical name for the fifth degree of the major scale is known as the dominant.

    Seventh: The distance between seven degrees of the [major or minor] scale is known as a seventh.

    I know there are more sophisticated definitions of the dominant seventh chord, however, here’s a simple one you can go with:

    The dominant seventh chord is a collection of related notes [chord] that is built on the fifth degree of the major scale[dominant] which encompasses seven degrees of the scale [seventh].

    Let’s expand these definitions more.

    “…Related Notes…”

    The first thing you need to know about the dominant seventh chord is that it is a collection of related notes. The relationship we’re talking about here exists between notes that are thirds apart from each other.

    A third is the distance between three successive degrees of the scale. C to E:

    …is an example. It encompasses three degrees – C, D, and E:

    This relationship between notes in thirds is called the tertian harmony and it is not peculiar to the dominant seventh chord. According to Jermaine Griggs (2015), “90% of all chords you play are tertian chords.“[1]

    “…On the Fifth Degree…”

    The dominant seventh chord is built on the fifth degree of the major scale. In the C major scale:

    …the fifth tone (aka -“the dominant”) is G:

    Using the relationship of notes in tertian harmony, we can build the dominant seventh chord from the fifth tone of the C major scale, which is G.

    Due to the fact that the dominant seventh chord can also be formed on the fifth degree of the major scale, its root is usually considered to be a fifth degree.

    For example, to form the B dominant seventh chord, you’ll have to consider the B as the fifth degree of a given major scale.

    So, “In what major scale is B the fifth tone?”

    The answer is E.

    In the E major scale:

    …B is the fifth tone.

    If you’re interested in a tool that can help you understand dominant relationships, here you are:

    circleoffiths1

    You can hardly talk about strong chord progressions without making reference to this circle above. In the 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock positions are E and B respectively.

    If B is the fifth degree of the E major scale, then you can derive the parent scale of any other dominant seventh chord by going to an adjacent sector of this circle in a counter clock-wise direction.

    We can do this for any other dominant seventh chord.

    Given the D dominant seventh chord:

    …determining its parent scale is as easy as spotting D on the chat – which is at the 2 o’clock position, then going counter clock-wise by a sector to G.

    So, the parent scale of the D dominant chord is the G major scale.

    “…Which Encompasses Seven…”

    Now that you know about the relationship in thirds and where the dominant seventh chord is built off, let’s put it together.

    Using the C major scale:

    …as the parent scale, we can form the G dominant seventh chord by starting on G:

    …and adding other chord tones in thirds until a seventh is encompassed.

    A third from G is B:

    …a third above G-B:

    …is D:

    Put together, we have G, B, and D:

    …which encompasses five scale degrees – G to D:

    A third above G, B, and D is F:

    …if we add F to G, B, and D, this would produce G, B, D, F:

    …a dominant chord that encompasses seven scale degrees – from G to F:

    Wow! What an amazing breakdown we’ve done here. Let’s proceed to its relationship with the leading note and leading note triad.

    Great job!

    Relationship With The Leading Note

    The same way the fifth degree of the scale is associated with the term ‘dominant’, the seventh degree is known as the subtonic or leading note (when it is a half step below the first tone of the scale.)

    Attention: The leading note so called because of its tendency to lead us to the first tone of the scale. It has a sense of attraction towards the first degree of the scale (aka – “the tonic”.)

    In the key of C major:

    …the seventh tone (aka – “leading tone”) is B:

    …and its triad is also known as the leading note triad.

    Using the underlying principles of chord formation I broke down to you in the previous segment, here’s the leading note triad – the B diminished triad:

    The leading note triad is formed by stacking notes in thirds…

    B to D:

    …and D to F:

    The Dominant seventh chord has a relationship with the leading note and its triad. The leading note triad is the upper part of the dominant seventh chord. Here’s what I mean…

    The B diminished triad:

    …is the upper part of the G dominant seventh chord:

    Basically, if you take the root of the G dominant seventh chord away, you’ll be left with the B diminished triad:

    …the leading note triad.

    Before now, I’ve always promised to explain why the chord of the seventh degree is not used and this is because of its relationship with the dominant seventh chord – chord 5.

    We’ll be talking more about this in a future post, but all I can say now is that the dominant seventh chord is the harmonic substitute of the leading note triad.

    It has the elements of the leading note triad and that’s why it’s the strongest chord quality that takes us to chord 1.

    Relationship With The Tritone

    The diminished triad (aka – “leading note triad) if broken into intervals, will produce two intervallic components, the minor third and the diminished fifth.

    The B diminished triad can be broken down into…

    B-D:

    …a minor third.

    B-F:

    …a diminished fifth.

    The diminished interval popularly known as the tritone is one of the harshest intervals in music. This interval is associated with tension and instability.

    Chords that contain the tritone have a degree of instability and tension and tend to resolve. This explains why the leading note triad has the tendency to resolve to the tonic triad (aka – “chord 1”)

    Attention: Considering that the leading note triad is part of the dominant seventh chord, the tritonic attributes of the leading note triad still applies to the dominant seventh chord.

    The G dominant seventh chord contains the tritone and this is its essential intervallic component that makes it sound unstable.

    The tritone is formed by the relationship between the third and seventh tones (aka – “skeleton”) of the dominant seventh chord.

    In the C dominant seventh chord:

    C is the root

    E is the third

    G is the fifth

    Bb is the seventh

    The third and seventh tones – E and Bb:

    …are a diminished fifth (or tritone) apart.

    Resolution Of The Dominant Seventh Chord

    The dominant seventh chord is not like major and minor chords that are stable and pleasant – No! Dominant seventh chords (which are basically chords of the fifth degree) resolve to the tonic chord (chord of the first degree.)

    The dominant chord resolves down a fifth to the tonic chord of its parent scale.

    If the B dominant seventh chord:

    …is the dominant chord of the E major scale (like we covered in the previous segment), that means that the B dominant seventh would resolves to the E major triad:

    Here’s the cycle of fourths/fifths:
    circleoffiths1
    Take Note…

    During the resolution of the dominant seventh chord, there are two chord tones you should watch out for – third and seventh tones.

    Here are the third and seventh chord tones of the G dominant seventh chord:

    …B and F.

    B is the seventh tone (aka – “leading note”) of the C major scale. It resolves by rising to the first tone of the C major scale – C, while F resolves by falling to the third tone of the C major scale – E.

    The leading note (B):

    …rises to the tonic (C):

    …while the fourth tone (F):

    …falls to the third tone (E):

    Final Words

    Using two or more chords to play one chord produces a polychord.

    If you choose to break the G dominant seventh chord into two triads, you can have the G major triad:

    …and the B diminished triad:

    To form a dominant seventh polychord, you’ll need to put these two triads together – a major triad and a diminished triad.

    In the case of the G dominant seventh chord, we can put the G major and B diminished triads together thus:

    We’ll go into this and more in another post. See you then

    Reference

    Jermaine Griggs (November 2015). “Tertian Chords and the Secret Relationship Between Almost Every Chord”. HearandPlay Music Learning Center. Retrieved 26th March 2016.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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