Welcome to “Beyond the Veil“! In this feature, its name (partially) taken from the Gods of Eden track, we’re going to delve into some theoretical aspect of the music we love in an effort to elucidate the behind-the-scenes workings at play, but in a largely jargon-free manner intended to be accessible to those who don’t necessarily have a music theory background.
After covering quite a few different scales here on Beyond the Veil, we’re going to shift gears a tad into the world of chord theory. Today’s topic, the major seventh chord, is something that is absolutely littered across all sorts of music, with its unique tonality making it a particularly effective tool for a musician.
We’ve previously talked at length about intervals, which describe the distances between notes, such that the interplay between two notes in a given interval has a distinct sound or feeling to it. Intervals are used to guide the building up of chords, which are multiple notes played at the same time. Chords are often named for the intervals they’re composed of, and the major seventh chord, which relies heavily on the major seventh interval, is no exception to that.
A major seventh chord contains, as all chords do, a given root note, and its respective major third. This refers to a certain note that is a major third (4 semitones) away from the root. But that’s not too important: the takeaway here is that these two notes together constitute a major (or ‘happy’) sound — hence the name. The major third is an almost ubiquitous building block, and forms the basis of basically all major chords in existence.
The major seventh chord also contains a major seventh, as one would expect from the name. But this inclusion is a little less straightforward. To demonstrate, here’s The Dillinger Escape Plan‘s “43% Burnt”, the shrill opening chords of which are essentially what a given root note sounds like when paired with nothing but its major seventh.
Not exactly ‘happy’, eh? More horrifically dissonant than anything else. The major seventh interval is one of the most dissonant intervals out there, since it’s just one semitone away from the root note itself. (A longer and more detailed explanation of why that matters can be found here.)
And yet when we put these ingredients — the root, the major third, and the major seventh — all together in a single chord, this is the result:
Sounds pretty ethereal, right? Ethereal and even a little dreamy. (And also probably very familiar if you’ve listened to literally any jazz. Those jazz fellows are somehow always ahead of the curve.)
It turns out that despite the significant differences in the major third’s and major seventh’s relations to the root note, the notes are actually a perfect fifth apart — the perfect fifth being the most consonant, or pleasant-sounding interval. This interesting combination results in a particularly versatile chord: it can sound dreamy when played through a clean channel, as seen above; yet it can also come across as angular and slightly ‘off’ when distorted.
Perhaps predictably, we begin today’s examples with instrumental progressive metal outfit Animals as Leaders. Of course, this is far from the first time they’ve made an appearance on BtV, but that only speaks to the boundless abilities of Tosin Abasi and co. to make fantastically eclectic prog that leaves no musical stone unturned. Indeed, on “Tooth and Claw” from third album The Joy of Motion, Abasi and second guitarist Javier Reyes use the major seventh chord for an angular (yes, there really is no other word I can think of to describe it) and instantly memorable riff.
In the intro riff, which is quickly established as the main motif of the song, the guitars alternate between two low notes and an immediately recognizable, reverberating major seventh chord. The off-kilter sound it provides gels well with the similarly odd rhythmic aspect of the riff, making for an interesting end result out of comparatively few ingredients.
On the brilliant “Celestial Nature” from their latest offering A Maze of Recycled Creeds, tech death masters Gorod take the formula demonstrated in the AAL example above even further, making for a rapid-fire jazz riff in the intro that works almost exclusively with major seventh chords.
Apart from the quick licks between the chords, which are themselves notable for their rather interesting phrasing and note choices, guitarists Mathieu Pascal and Nicolas Alberny stick almost exclusively to moving the major seventh chord up and down for the purposes of the riff. What’s even more notable is how the interplay of several major seventh chords with different root notes played in quick succession somehow only intensifies the brilliantly lopsided feel of the riff.
But that’s not to say that distorted, angular riffs are the only thing major seventh chords make possible. Progressive death metal torchbearers Opeth are known for blending monstrously heavy music with the graceful acoustic parts, and at least part of their effortless mastery of the latter owes itself to Mikael Akerfeldt’s knack for picking just the right chord at the exact right time. Take for example “Dirge for November”, from their seminal 2001 record Blackwater Park, which passes through all sorts of musical movements before concluding on a beautiful segment dominated by ambience and clean channel guitar playing. Predictably enough, it begins with a stark major seventh chord piercing through the aftermath from the preceding heavy part:
Put simply, this is the major seventh chord’s dreamy and ethereal side used to maximum effect. Something about the placement of that chord immediately cuts through the last few ringing tones of the distorted riff that came right before it, and sets the stage perfectly for the ambient clean playing to come, making for a near-seamless transition.
That concludes today’s piece — happy searching for major seventh chords in the music you come across! (Remember: they’re everywhere)