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Victoria Williams

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Harmony & Chords

Harmony

Before you begin studying for the Grade 7 music theory exam, you should already know:

  • how to identify the basic triads/chords found in diatonic keys – major, minor and diminished
  • how to use the extended Roman numeral system to name chords and their positions (e.g. IVa, ivc etc.)
  • how to identify key, including change of key

In order to correctly identify chords at Grade 7, you need to start by making sure you know the precise sounding pitches of each note in the chord – so read the chapter on “Intervals and Pitch” before beginning this chapter.

 

Key and the Dominant (7th) Chord

In tonal music, the tonic and dominant chords work together to “fix” a key. Within a melody, most of the notes falling on the stronger beats of the bar will be notes belonging to that key, and any chromatic (alien) notes are more likely to fall in between the beats.

So, in order to work out the prevailing key (i.e. the key of a piece of music at any point), look at the melody notes and work out which scale(s) they belong to, then look at the harmony and try to find chord V moving to chord I (or vice versa). When a piece of music is changing key, chord V7 is often used in place of the simpler chord V, so look out for that too. Usually when a piece changes key, accidentals will be introduced (or there could even be a change of key signature). An exception is when the music moves from a minor key to the relative major, e.g. Am modulates to C major.

In this extract which begins in the home key of F minor, the music has modulated to Bb minor by bar 13:

dominant 7th

 

The E natural in bar 11 is part of the key of F minor (it’s the leading note from the harmonic minor scale). The circled B natural in bar 12 is an example of a “chromatic auxiliary note” – it is not part of the key (F minor).

At the end of bar 12, A natural is introduced, and the chord notes here are F-A-C-Eb (always stack the chord notes in thirds to find the correct chord name) so the chord is F major with an added 7th. In bar 13, the first chord is Bb minor (don’t forget the Db in the key signature!) So at this point, the music has modulated to Bb minor, using V7-i.

If you are asked to locate a place in the music where a modulation takes place, begin by scanning for added accidentals. When you find accidentals, see which chords are formed, and whether they fit the particular modulation you are looking for.

The most common modulations are to the dominant, subdominant and relative major/minor key. You may see the term “passing through” – this is used for a very brief change of key which does not settle.

 

The Neapolitan 6th Chord

A fairly common chromatic chord, which you may well be asked to name or find, is the Neapolitan 6th.

This is a major chord, which is formed on the flattened supertonic, most often in a minor key music.

For example, in the key of A minor, the supertonic note (second degree of the scale) is B. Flatten this to Bb, then make the major chord: Bb major. Most (but not all) of the time it’s found in first inversion, which is why it’s called a “6th” chord (as in figured bass, where first inversion chords are labelled “6”). The name “Neapolitan” comes from “Naples” in Italy, where it first became popular.

To write this out using the Roman numeral system, use capital letters (because it’s major), and write a flat sign preceding the number: II, (because it’s a flattened supertonic). Then add the inversion letter after the chord number: IIb. Alternatively, you may prefer the easier method, which is to write “N6”. Don’t forget to include the inversion if you have been asked to!

Here is an example of a Neapolitan 6th from a Beethoven piano sonata. The key is D minor, so the N6 chord is a chord of Eb major. Here, it’s in root position. Typically, the N6 chord is followed by a dominant chord.

neapolitan 6th n6 grade 7 music theory

 

The Diminished 7th Chord

Another common chromatic chord is the diminished 7th. This is a chord built solely of minor thirds, such as C-Eb-Gb-Bbb. As with all chords, stack the chord notes in thirds to find its root. For example here, from the bass upwards, we have the notes E-C#-G-Bb.

diminished 7th

To find the root of the chord, we stack these in thirds to get C#-E-G-Bb, so this is a diminished 7th on C#.

Since the key is D minor, this chord is built on the 7th degree of the scale (vii). (We use lower case letters for chords which contain a minor third from the root). Add a small circle ° which means “diminished”, and add the number “7” to show that there is an added 7th, so the chord is written as vii°7. Add the inversion (first inversion in this case), to get vii°7b.

In a minor key, chord ii° is also diminished, and so you may also come across diminished chords built on the second degree of the scale (ii°7).

In a major key piece, a diminished 7th chord built on vii° will also have an added accidental, for example in F major here, the diminished 7th chord is E-G-Bb-Db. This should be written as vii°7, (with a “7”),to show that the 7th has been lowered. Or you can simply write “dim. 7th”!

dim 7th viib7 grade 7 music theory

 

General Advice About Chords

Although the vast majority of chords you are asked to find are dominant 7ths, diminished 7ths or Neapolitan 6ths, you can expect any “normal” chord to come up, including added 7th chords on any scale degree.

Chord iv7 is quite common, for example, or you may be asked to find an augmented triad, or a progression such as Ic-Va-Ia, in any stated key.

If you are asked to find a specific chord within a score, the wording is often something like “find a dominant 7th chord in the relative major key”.

  • The first thing you need to do, is work out the key. For example, if the extract begins in Bb minor, first work out the “relative major key” part – it will be in Db major.
  • Then work out what the dominant 7th in Db major is: Ab-C-Eb-Gb. These are the notes you are looking for.
  • Now look at the bass line of the music – this is the easiest way to scan quickly for the information you need. Glue your eye to the part of the stave where Ab lives, and scan quickly looking for a note written in that place. As soon as you see an Ab, stop and check the rest of the chord. (Using this method works well, because you only have to concentrate on one part of the score, plus you are looking for something specific, rather than trying to analyse every chord you see!)
  • If you fail to find it, repeat the process with the next chord note (C), to see if the chord is in first inversion (you might be told which inversion to search for, in any case).

 

If you are asked to find an augmented chord, scan the extract for accidentals. There are no augmented triads which can occur without accidentals. An augmented chord contains a major third above the root, and an augmented 5th above the root, e.g. C-E-G#. Remember to stack the chord notes in thirds, to find out what the root is.

If you are asked to find a Ic-Va progression, it is easier if you know the key, but still pretty easy if you don’t. Let’s say you are asked to find the progression in the key of B major.

  • Ic is B major with F# in the bass, and
  • Va is F# major with F# in the bass.

 

You need to scan the bass line of the score, looking for two consecutive F#s. They may be in different octaves though, so look carefully.

If you don’t know the key, you still need to scan the bass line looking for two repeated notes. If you fail to find two repeated notes, repeat the process but look for an octave leap. Then check that the chords fit.

You may be asked to say whether a given chord is an enharmonic equivalent of another chord. For example, is it true that this chord is an enharmonic equivalent of the dominant 7th in F major? The answer is yes! V7 in F major is C-E-G-Bb. This chord uses the same notes, with Bb spelled as A#.

enharmonic chord grade 7 theory

 

 

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