A unique combination of education, trans-cultural research and worldwide network

Keyboard Harmony Tutorials

The tutorials shown here were designed for the Professional Training Program developed by the Global Music Academy in Berlin for use in Music Academies in Africa. The videos were made possible through a grant from the Erasmus + Programme of the European Union and the Goethe-Institut who funded the East African Global Music Campus (EAGMC) which took place in 2017/18 in Addis Abeba in Ethiopia with participants from Music Schools and Academies in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. These tutorials form part of the 1st year module of the Keyboard Harmony program.

An Introduction to Keyboard Harmony

Course designed by William Ramsay and Martin Lillich

Keyboard is a very useful tool for understanding harmony, both from the point of view of which notes are needed to express the sound quality of a particular chord as well as how to voice lead when moving from one chord to another. It is not necessary to be a pianist to develop these essential skills. In fact all musicians, whatever instrument they play, can and should learn to do this if they wish to write and arrange music using more than one chord. With a little practice you will be able to achieve spectacular results.

In order to work with these tutorials a little background information is necessary.

Seventh chords are chords constructed using alternating Major and minor thirds starting on the root, then the 3rd, the 5th and finally the 7th. We use the numbers 1 3 5 and 7 to describe these notes.

The three most common seventh chords occurring in African music and music of the Diaspora are the Major 7th, the Minor 7th and the 7th chord or Dominant 7th. These chords employ different combinations of Major and minor 3rds (or b3) and Major and minor 7ths (or b7).

  • The Dominant seventh chord has this structure: 1 – 3 – 5 – b7
  • The Major seventh chord has this structure: 1 – 3 – 5 – 7
  • The Minor seventh chord has this structure: 1 – b3 – 5 – b7

Minimal Voicings

This system reduces the chords to the essential notes which express their particular sound quality. As the 5th occurs unchanged in all three chords, it tell us nothing about the quality of the sound. It can therefore be left out.

So we are left with 3 note chords. The root (1) is essential as it tells us what note the particular chord  is built on. The 3rd and 7th in different combinations will tell us whether the chord is a dominant, major or minor seventh.

Voice leading

Good voice leading is important when playing harmonic progressions as it allows you to play with moving your hands excessively on the keyboard. This exercises help you to practice voice leading using minimal movement for ease of playing. The progressions also sound much better as a result.

These chords can be played two ways, either in the open position: 1 – 3 – 7, or inverted in the closed position: 1 – 7 – 3.

The open and closed positions are important because they allow you to play the progression smoothly using good voice leading by alternating the open and closed positions. Otherwise you would have to move your hand quite a bit to play the next chord. At the same time by alternating open and closed positions you are able to move in whole steps or half steps to the next chord. This is a good way to practice smooth voice leading.

So 1 – 3 – 7 would be followed by 1 – 7 – 3 and then 1 – 3 – 7 again continuing through the progression to the end. Similarly if you start on 1 – 7 – 3 you would move to 1 – 3 – 7 and then to 1 – 7 – 3 again continuing through the progression to the end.

Another important point is that the 7th is always followed by the 3rd which becomes a 7th as you progress. Similarly the 3rd is always followed by a 7th and then a 3rd as you move through the progression.

The Dominant Seventh Chord Chain

The first progression we will look at is the dominant seventh chord chain. The dominant seventh is the chord with the most possible variations in functional harmony. It has a rich sound because of the interval between the 3 and the 7 which is a diminished 5th or augmented 4th. This interval was called the “diabolus in musica” (the devil in music) by the mediaeval church and it was avoided for a long time because it was regarded as dissonant. It is a very versatile interval which plays a crucial role in establishing tonality and one of the key intervals in modern harmony these days.

In the 1 – 3 – 7 position the interval between the 3 and the 7 is a diminished 5th

In C7 the notes from the third would be:

E         F          G         A         Bb
1          2          3          4          b5

In the 1 – 7 – 3 position the interval between the 7 and the 3 is an augmented 4th.

Bb       C         D         E
1          2          3          +4

The dominant seventh chain allows you to practice playing in descending half steps. Each new pair of interval as you move downwards creates a new tritone.

TIP: When practicing these exercises always start with the bass line first. It is the hardest to play. Once you have mastered it practice the right hand until you have mastered it. Finally play both hands together. It is a good idea to use a metronome set at a slow speed. These exercises are not about speed but accuracy. You should concentrate on seeing the chords and memorizing the hand shapes. If you are making mistakes slow the speed down until you can play it correctly.

Video 1: The Dominant 7th Chord Chain starting on C7 using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

In this exercise we start on C7 in the 1 – 3 – 7 position and move in half steps through all 12 chords before landing on C7 at the end. As you can see the 3rds and 7ths alternate as we descend.

Video 2: The Dominant 7th Chord Chain starting on C7 using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

By starting in the 1 – 7 – 3 the order is reversed

Video 3: The Dominant 7th Chord Chain starting on B7 using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

Starting on B7 you can repeat the progression starting in the 1 – 3 – 7 position.

Video 4: The Dominant 7th Chord Chain starting on B7 using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

Finally you can start on B7 in the 1 – 7 – 3 position to complete the exercise.

The Major Seventh Chord Chain

The Major 7th chord is often, but not always, used as a I chord in functional harmony. It consists of a Major 3rd and a Major 7th. The most common symbol used when writing the chord is a ∆ as in C∆. You can also write it as CM7.

In the 1 – 3 – 7 position the interval between 3 and 7 is a perfect 5th (P5)

In Cm7 the notes from the Major third would be:

E         F          G         A         B
1          2          3           4           P5

In the 1 – 7 – 3 position the interval between the 7 and the 3 is a perfect 4th (P4).

B         C         D         E
1          2          3           P4

In this progression the movement in the right hand in whole steps. In this case the Major 7 always moves a whole step to become a 3rd in the next chord. The 3rd always remains the same and turns into a Major 7 in the next chord. This means that you repeat one of the notes each time as you move down. Note that on F#∆ the Major 7th is enharmonized from F to E#.

TIP: When practicing these exercises always start with the bass line first. It is the hardest to play. Once you have mastered it practice the right hand until you have mastered it. Finally play both hands together. It is a good idea to use a metronome set at a slow speed. These exercises are not about speed but accuracy. You should concentrate on seeing the chords and memorizing the hand shapes. If you are making mistakes slow the speed down until you can play it correctly.

Video 5: The Major 7th Chord Chain starting on C∆ using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

In this exercise we start on C∆ in the 1 – 3 – 7 position and move in whole steps through all 12 chords before landing on C∆ at the end.

Video 6: The Major 7th Chord Chain starting on C∆ using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

By starting in the 1 – 7 – 3 the order is reversed

Video 7: The Major 7th Chord Chain starting on B∆ using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

Starting on B∆ you can repeat the progression starting in the 1 – 3 – 7 position.

Video 8: The Major 7th Chord Chain starting on B∆ using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

Finally you can start on B∆ in the 1 – 7 – 3 position to complete the exercise.

The Minor Seventh Chord Chain

The Minor 7th chord is often, but not always, used as a II chord in functional harmony. It consists of a Minor 3rd (b3) and a minor 7th (b7). The minor 7 chord is written with a small m and a 7 as in Cm7.

In the 1 – 3 – 7 position the interval between 3 and 7 is a perfect 5th (P5)

In Cm7 the notes from the Major third would be:

Eb       F         G        A        Bb
1          2         3          4         P5

In the 1 – 7 – 3 position the interval between the 7 and the 3 is a perfect 4th (P4).

Bb       C        D        Eb
1          2          3         P4

The interval between the minor 3rd and the minor 7th is a perfect fifth or P5. Just as with the Major 7th chain the movement in the right hand in whole steps. In this case the minor or b7 always moves a whole step to become a minor or b3 in the next chord. The minor or b3 always remains the same and turns into a minor or b7 in the next chord. This means that you repeat one of the notes each time as you move down. Note that on C#m7 the minor 7th is enharmonized from Cb to B.

TIP: When practicing these exercises always start with the bass line first. It is the hardest to play. Once you have mastered it practice the right hand until you have mastered it. Finally play both hands together. It is a good idea to use a metronome set at a slow speed. These exercises are not about speed but accuracy. You should concentrate on seeing the chords and memorizing the hand shapes. If you are making mistakes slow the speed down until you can play it correctly.

Video 9: The Minor 7th Chord Chain starting on Cm7 using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

In this exercise we start on Cm7 in the 1 – 3 – 7 position and move in whole steps through all 12 chords before landing on Cm7 at the end.

Video 10: The Minor 7th Chord Chain starting on Cm7 using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

By starting in the 1 – 7 – 3 position the order is reversed

Video 11: The Minor 7th Chord Chain starting on Bm7 using the 1 – 3 – 7 position:

Starting on Bm7 you can repeat the progression starting in the 1 – 3 – 7 position.

Video 12: The Minor 7th Chord Chain starting on Bm7 using the 1 – 7 – 3 position:

Finally you can start on Bm7 in the 1 – 7 – 3 position to complete the exercise.