I understand that a C7 chord contains a flattened 7th note in the C major scale, but what specifically makes this a dominant 7th chord? To me there is nothing 'dominant' about taking a note out of the major scale and flattening it. Can anyone elaborate on why this is the case?

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    It's a valid and good question. Even I have same question in my mind for so long.
    – Sooraj
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 9:39

11 Answers 11


It is so called because B♭ is the 7th note of the C dominant scale (also known as the Mixolydian scale).

The 5th is known as the dominant, because it is the "most important" interval (among other things, it's the first harmonic other than the octave).

However, try to forget the "English" meaning of the word "dominant" -- otherwise you might expect C to be the "dominant" of C. It's not. In C, C is the "tonic". G, the 5th is the "dominant". Other intervals have names like "subdominant" (4th) and "mediant" (3rd) , which at least don't confuse you by having instinctive meanings.

5th relative to C is G. So since the C major scale is C,D,E,F,G,A,B, then the G dominant scale is G,A,B,C,D,E,F

... and the chord of G dominant 7th is the triad plus the 7th from that scale - G,B,D,F

The C dominant scale contains the same notes as F major, since C is F's 5th:

  • F major: F,G,A,B♭,C,D,E
  • C dominant: C,D,E,F,G,A,B♭.

So the chord of C dominant 7th is C,E,G,B♭.

Since in most Western music, major is the "default" scale, we might expect "C7" to denote C major 7th - C,E,G,B.

However in pop/rock/etc., the major 7th is relatively rare, and dominant 7ths are very common. Hence people organically settled on the convention of using "C7" to denote the dominant 7th and "Cmaj7" to denote a major 7th.

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    Ok but why is G the dominant scale of C?
    – jaffa
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 16:22
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    C=1 D=2 E=3 F=4 G=5. "The 5th is known as the dominant". See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degree_(music)
    – slim
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 16:31
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    @DantheMan no. C major 7th contains a B (7th not of C major). C dominant 7th contains a Bb (7th note of C dominant).
    – slim
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 12:33
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    Couldn't they have just called it major–minor seventh, to put some consistency in the terminology? All these terminology inconsistencies serve as a barrier to entry to people trying to get started on music. It's artificial difficulty. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:23
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    @MihaiDanila - it can be, and sometimes is, called the major-minor seventh chord. It is major, and has a m7. Rather like its opposite - the minor-major seventh, the minor chord with a M7... But, as the most common 'seventh' chord by far, 'dominant' is generally its name - shortened mostly by simply calling it '7'.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 12:03

tl;dr: Early on in common practice music the V7 chord construction was frequently encountered (note I mean the dominant seventh of the current key); over time,the name "dominant seventh" came to be applied to any major triad with a flattened seventh degree, even when you're not dealing with the dominant of the current tonality.

C7 is, in the most literal sense, the dominant triad, with an added seventh, in the key of F major. One of the most common uses of the dominant, fifth (V), chord is in a perfect cadence, V->I. Although this is done with just triads, including the seventh of the dominant chord reinforces the finality of the cadence. Over time, the designation of these "dominant seventh" chords expanded to any (major) chord involving the flattened seventh degree.

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    I think this answer is the most accurate for the question. It really just comes down to historical context of the use of the V in a perfect cadence. The other answers however touch on the fact that human ears like to hear those half steps resolve in certain ways, thus that's why it became the most import chord. Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 20:14

Adding to the above great answers, 'dominant' means powerful, pushy and as such the dominant chord in a series 'pushes' the sequence towards the tonic. Look at any piece of music and there is far more chance of a chord being preceded by its dominant than by any other. E.g. G goes to C; A goes to D; B goes to E, etc. This happens with minors as well. It's thought that the leading note from the dominant chord feels like it needs to resolve on the tonic note, as in the B of (dominant G) moving a semitone to C.When the dominant has the 7th added (in this case F), then the F wants to resolve down to the 3rd (E) of the tonic.

In the key of C, if you play only the B and F notes out of the G7 chord, it sounds 'odd'. It's actually the flat fifth used in Blues. After this, play C and E just next to those notes, and the tension is released.The 'dominant ' bit is in the sound of the first 'chord' pushing to its resolution.

When making basic chords (triads), alternate notes are used, e.g. I-III-V,etc.This gives 7 different chords for each key. Adding the next alternate note, I-III-V-VII gives a tetrachord, 7 of which become available,built off the 7 chords. This progression continues with IX, then XI, etc, to be 9ths and 11ths.Depending on ,in particular, the III and the VII, the chord will be called maj., min., or dominant. Thus C-E-G-B-D becomes maj.9th, whereas C-E-G-Bb-D is dominant 9th.

So, dominant 7th =I-III-V-bVII. Major 7th = I-III-V-VII, and minor 7th = I- bIII- V-bVII. The three 7th chords in general Western use.


For many reasons, I hate using the term "Dominant seventh chord." A more proper term is the "Major-Minor seventh chord" as it more accurately describes the intervals of the chord. The chord is a major triad built on C with a minor seventh appended to the top. Spelled out, this would be "C E G Bb." Why is it "dominant?" In typical tonal harmony, the key of F's dominant counterpart is C. The dominant triad of F is therefore the C major triad, "C E G." However, over the course of musical history, things have been stuck to the tops of triads, so to speak, and it happens first to dominant harmony. Adding this seventh to the dominant triad in a key gives the dominant more weight. So, "C E G Bb" is a Dominant seventh chord because its function in the key of F, where this chordal structure would have originiated, is dominant harmony.

  • It's called "dominant" because it is the diatonic seventh chord rooted on the dominant scale degree, one of the three primary chords in the major/minor system. If the harmonic context is not diatonic/functional, "major minor seventh chord" and "non-functional dominant seventh chords" are terms I've heard used. Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 12:41

To quote Wikipedia :

The name comes from the fact that the flat seventh occurs naturally in the chord built upon the dominant

So for example, if you take the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), G is the dominant degree of C.

We then can build a seventh chord for G based on C's major scale, starting with G, which give us G, B, D, F. F is thus the "dominant 7th" of G, but also the minor 7th.

  • F is actually the 7th of the dominant chord, rather that the dominant 7th itself- it's just the (min.) 7th note, that works rather well with the dominant chord.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 8:08
  • Does that mean that the note preceding the dominant is the "sub-dominant"? Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:28
  • Eg F is the sub-dominant in C major. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:29

Another, perhaps easier way of thinking of this, is to just recognise that with a diatonic set of notes, such as the notes in C major, there are 7 scales you can play.

In the list below, I include the degree as a roman numeral, the name of the mode starting on that note, the name of the scale degree, the notes if played using C major notes, the interval of each step (T=tone, S=semitone)

I   - C ionian     - tonic       - CDEFGABC - TTsTTTs
II  - D dorian     - supertonic  - DEFGABCD - TsTTTsT
III - E phrygian   - mediant     - EFGABCDE - sTTTsTT
IV  - F lydian     - subdominant - FGABCDEF - TTTsTTs
V   - G mixolydian - dominant    - GABCDEFG - TTsTTsT
VI  - A aeolian    - submediant  - ABCDEFGA - TsTTsTT
VII - B locrian    - subtonic    - BCDEFGAB - sTTsTTT 

"G dominant 7th" is the triad plus the 7th note of the G dominant, aka G mixolodian scale.

Now, if the notes of C Ionian (the white notes on a piano) are the notes of G Dominant, what Ionian scale corresponds to C Dominant? It's the same interval. To go down from G to C is 7 semitones. Down 7 semitones from C is F, and F Ionian contains Bb.

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    Ionian mode = major scale, Aeolian mode = natural minor scale. All others are generally known as modes ( using the same notes as their parent scale, but with a different centre and a different 'feel' ).
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 7:22
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    while interesting, this does not address OP question
    – Eric O
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 21:07
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    @EricO yes it does, in the very last sentence. It's called a dominant seventh chord because it's the triad and the 7th of the Dominant scale.
    – slim
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 8:25
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    Somewhat confusing because OP refers to key of C (and Bb is the dom7 note). Sure G is the dominant of C but G's 7th note is F#, and in mixolydian, F. Where is the Bb?
    – Eric O
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 18:56
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    So does that mean that G mixolydian has the same notes as C major? As does D Dorian etc? What is it, then, that determines a mode if they are all the same notes? Please try and keep it as simple as possible, I don't know all the jargon and really only need to know the very basic stuff for what I want to do. No information overload please :) Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:31

For the sake of just just defining a dominant seventh chord, the chord is not created by using a flat on B in the key of C major.

C7 is the diatonic seventh chord built on a root which is the dominant scale degree of F major.

The chord is named for the scale degree of its root within a diatonic major scale.

If the scenario is music in C major, then introducing a B flat to make a C7 chord, that chord would be called a secondary dominant, and depending on details, the music may be modulating, changing key to F major. But, again, that specific scenario is not the one used to define a dominant chord.

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    And the reason for the downvote? Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 23:24

Because it's 'in key' (no accidentals) when rooted on the dominant of the key..... ie. In the key of C (all white notes) G7 uses all white notes..... C7 and F7 both have the seventh as an accidental (black note in C). So to stay in key you have major sevenths built on the first and fouth chords (root and subdominant), and dominant seventh on the 5th chord (dominant)...


Because it's a Major+minor+minor you get a tri-tone between the 3 and 7 (six semitones). A tri-tone is the 'devil's interval' because it's the most dissonant.

In Cmajor the G7 (V7) chord is GBDF ... B to F is a tritone... strongest pull to resolve, hence it's 'dominant'.


I think it's far simpler than most of these answers, though many allude to it. First, you have to understand modes. In the mixolydian, or "dominant", mode of any diatonic scale, the seventh is flat, hence, any chord featuring a flattened 7th is referred to as a "dominant" 7th. So, basically, what slim and many other folks said, but made simple, and without trying to explain the concept of "modes" in a paragraph.


Actually, I know C7 as a seventh chord, period. Now a seventh chord in a regular cadenza occurs on the dominant (which is a fifth above the tonic). C7 is the dominant seventh chord for an F major tonic, used in an F major cadenza.

Calling it a dominant seventh chord outside of its harmonic relation to a tonic is not actually correct or useful.

But a lot things not actually correct or useful have become sort of common or even customary. Particularly if they roll off the tongue as nicely as "dominant seventh".

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    First off, I think you mean cadence, not cadenza. Secondly, there is a commonly used function called a secondary dominant, which temporarily tonicizes another tonal center. The term Dominant preceded the use of the 7; the V chord within a key. The 7 was later added for increased dissonance and therefore resolution. Once music moved beyond strictly Classical theory, such as Blues, this chord (maj with b7) began to be used for more than a dominant function. At this point it is still called a dom 7 to distinguish between other types of 7 chords and is derived from its original use. Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 16:54
  • Actually, it may not be correct but I've found it very useful. Musicians I've played with understand what I mean when I take the approach that you're critical of in your comment. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:36
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    And from a structural perspective, quite often what comes to be seen as "correct" results not from analytic definition, but from custom and use. This is true for language (see Wittgenstein, L "Philosophical Investigations" 1951) as it is for music, which is a language. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:39
  • I think Basstickler nailed it. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 3:40

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