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How did we end up with a chord called a minor major seventh?

The vocabulary we use to discuss music (and the concepts behind the music theory which folk currently use) evolved over a long time – and it means that bits of it appear to be messy and confusing.

This lesson is about the current way we give names to chords using letters and numbers.

There are 7 notes in our major scale, not 12 even though we divide our octave into 12 semitones.

That’s down to the Ancient Greeks (including Pythagoras the triangle man) and the work they did with vibrating strings and what we now call the harmonic series. They opted for 7 notes in their scale and we still use that.


Folk all over the world can identify the sound of a major scale when they hear it.

Our major scale is very important in the music we currently make.

C major in particular is very important for teaching, writing and performing – there’s still lots of good music to be written in the key of C major. When teaching it’s easy to understand, just all the white notes on a piano.

The C major scale: C D E F G A B

The intervals between the notes in the scale give it a very definite flavour. They’re not all the same distance apart.

The E and F and the B and C sound closer together than any of the other consecutive notes.

We use the first 7 letters of the alphabet A, B, C, D, E, F and G but we start this scale, the C major scale, a really important scale, on the third letter of the alphabet, C, not the first letter, A.

Why did that happen?


The reason is that the major scale wasn’t as important in the past.

Go back far enough and the folk writing music and trying to teach others to do so aren’t talking about major and minor keys and chords.

You may have heard the religious chanting of monks that dates back to medieval times. They organised their musical thoughts and concepts using modes.

The Church Modes

Think of modes as sort of a combination of a scale and a key.

Like our common scales (and musical keys) modes have 7 notes and use the same 7 letters of the alphabet.

Nowadays we now have major and minor keys for different flavours of tune, go back far enough and they had modes, 7 of them, one starting on each of the 7 notes and they gave them Greek sounding names.

I read once that there’s no evidence the Ancient Greeks used these names – those medieval musical monks just made up names that sounded a bit Ancient and Greekie.


You can easily play these seven modes on the white notes of a piano.

A – A Aeolian (we now call it the natural minor) B – B Locrian

C – C Ionian (our major scale)

D – D Dorian (those monks loved this one) E – E Phrygian

F – F Lydian G - G Mixolydian

The monks really liked the Dorian mode for religious chanting.

They didn’t rate the Ionian mode (our major scale) as they didn’t think it sounded serious enough for their religious purposes. They thought it was more suitable for tunes for the masses to sing and dance along to (how right they were).



They only had those 7 notes (think of the white keys on a piano) to play about with. They noticed when you played one of those notes with a second note that was five notes higher (e.g. a 5th like A-E), they all had the same flavour except for B-F.

Now like Pythagoras, they thought that two notes an octave apart sounded perfect together – they liked the consonance – and they were already calling that interval a PERFECT octave.

They liked the how those 5th intervals sounded (all except the one that was different,

B-F) and they called the 5th interval PERECT too.

We still talk about an interval of a perfect 5th.

The 5th from B-F got a bad name – I’ve seen old texts where they call it “diabolus in


PERFECT fourth

When you INVERT a perfect 5th (e.g. instead of playing G-D with G on the bottom,

play D-G with D on the bottom) you get a 4th and they liked the sound and called

those PERFECT too.

They now had names for PERFECT octave, PERFECT 5th and PERFECT 4th


MAJOR and MINOR thirds

They still only have those 7 notes but they notice that when you sound two notes a third apart there are two flavours.

The third you get when you have C, F or G on the bottom is BIGGER than the interval you get when you start on A, B, D or E.

The Latin words for BIGGER and SMALLER are MAJOR and MINOR. We still talk about a major 3rd or a minor 3rd


Stacking Thirds to make the first Chords

Major and Minor Chords

Keep picturing those musicians with access to only 7 notes in their modes (imagine they have a piano with no black notes) and they’re looking for new sounds and new flavours.

They start stacking thirds and find what we call major and minor chords.

C – E – G, F – A – C and G – B – D all have a major 3rd and a perfect 5th

D – F – A, E – G – B and A – C – E all have a minor 3rd and a perfect 5th

These 6 chords all have a perfect 5th

It’s only one note, the type of 3rd which gives them their flavour.

All that’s different about them is whether they’ve the big 3rd or the small 3rd.

We still talk about MAJOR chords and MINOR chords.

We use a lower case “m” for minor.

e.g. C on its own means a C major chord Dm means a D minor chord


B-D-F and the first four note chord

When they stacked thirds they also found another three note chord which they weren’t initially very keen on (today we call it a diminished chord).

B – D – F

It’s got a minor 3rd but the 5th isn’t PERFECT, it’s got that devil 5th interval they don’t

like – however – someone notices that an extra third stacked on the G major chord gives a 4 note chord which they really do like. The upper 3 notes are the same, B – D – F.

G – B – D – F

They like it a lot. It sounds great when you play a C major chord right after it. They need a name for it so that they’ve some way of talking about it and teaching other musicians about it.

The mixolydian mode starts on G and they decide to use that mode to name chords.


1 3 5 7

They can see it’s a G chord (the major) with the 7th note on top.

We still call it G7.


“H” the first black note

They can play G and G7, but they can’t play Gm.

They’ve still only 7 notes but they can play Am, Dm and Em so they know minor chords exist.

They don’t have the note they need to play Gm, they’ve only B, the major 3rd, G-B.

They need a new note.

They use the next letter in the alphabet, H.

Today we call that note Bb (B flat) but you might see old textbooks or music where it is referred to as H – the next letter in the alphabet.

Now they’ve got a Bb they can play Gm.

Nowadays you’ll see Gm7 This is G – Bb – D – F


C7, Cmaj7 and Cm maj7

They now have eight notes, A to G plus their H (the Bb).

They can play a chord with that G7 flavour only with a C on the bottom C – E – G – Bb

We still call it C7.

They could also play C – E – G – B so they needed some way of distinguishing between this 4 note seventh chord and their C7 which has the Bb on top instead of the B.

The seventh interval from C – B is BIGGER than the seventh interval from C – Bb They called C to B, the BIGGER seventh, a MAJOR seventh to distinguish between it and C – Bb

We still use this convention today. If you see C7 it means C – E – G – Bb. If you want C – E – G – B you call it C maj7.

The major in C maj7 refers to the major 7th, not the fact that C is a major chord.

You can have Cm maj7. This is “C minor major 7th””

It means a C minor chord with a major 7th on top.

C – Eb – G - B

If you listen to the chord at the end of the opening credits of a Bond film, you’ll hear a minor major seventh chord.