Bob Dylan

The Colour Attributes of a Flat-VII Chord

Most of the time when you create chord progressions for your songs, you’re using chords that all come from a particular key. Often we combine chords even without knowing what key they come from.

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Every key has a list of chords that occur naturally within that key. So if your song is in G major, for example, the ones that exist naturally are:

  • G
  • Am
  • Bm
  • C
  • D
  • Em
  • F#dim

You can write quite successfully by using only the chords that come from your chosen key, and that’s the case with many songs. So if your song is in G major, these progressions all work very well:

  1. G  C  Am  D7  G
  2. G  Am  C  D  Em
  3. Em  D7  G  C  G
  4. G  Dm  G/B  C  G
  5. G  Em  Am  D7  G

Using chords that don’t exist within your chosen key can add beautiful colours to your music, in much the same way that an artist benefits by having more colours on their palette. These so-called non-diatonic chords help by pushing the mood of your music in interesting directions.

One kind of non-diatonic chord that you may want to experiment with is the flat-VII chord (“flat-seven”, shown in Roman numerals as “bVII”), and the examples I’m giving in this example all come from the key of G major. It’s formed by going to the seventh note of the scale (F#), lowering that note by a half-step (F), and then building a chord on that note (F-A-C).

The biggest challenge in using any non-diatonic chord is determining how to work it into your progression. You need a smooth way to get it into your progressions because it temporarily sounds like it’s pulling your key in a new direction, and then you need a musically coherent way to get back to your “regular” chord choices.

As with most things in songwriting, experimenting will probably eventually give you the progressions that sound great. Here are some examples of flat-VII chords in the key of G major, but as with all progressions, they’re easily transposed into whatever key you’ve chosen:

  1. G  Am  F  Em  C  D  G (I  ii  bVII  vi  IV  V  I). In this case, the flat-VII is approached by leaping down from a ii-chord, and then it slides easily back into the diatonic chords of G major by “stepping down” to Em.
  2. G D  Em  F  G (I  V  vi  bVII  I). In using the flat-VII this way, it becomes part of an ascending line of chords that makes a powerful rising bass line.
  3. G  D/F#  F  C  G (I  V6  bVII  IV  I). In this progression, the flat-VII is part of a descending bass line.
  4. G  Bm  F  Am (I  iii  bVII  ii). You’ll recognize this progression from Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay“, and it’s used to an almost hypnotic effect in that song. It’s so recognizable that it might be one of those rare times when a chord progression might be considered protected by copyright, depending on its use. But I put it here to show what it sounds like when you leap to that chord from a considerable distance (iii to bVII), and then leap again (bVII to ii).
  5. G  C  Am  D  Fadd9  G (I  IV  ii  V  bVIIadd9  I). In this case, the bVII has an added tone — a 9th — which in the key of G major is the tonic note. To play an Fadd9, simply play the F chord, and find a way to work the note G into that chord. You can hear this treatment of the VII chord in Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration” (Peter Ceterea, David Foster) from Chicago 17, right at the end of the chorus. In this way of using it, it adds something interesting to what would otherwise be a pretty standard IV-V-I ending, turning it into IV-V-bVII-I.

As with practically everything in music, the best results often come about by improvising and experimenting, but hopefully those five distinctive ways to use the flat-VII will give you some ideas that you can modify for your own songs. You’ll like the suddenly darker, contemplative mood that comes with this chord.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
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