♭VII Chords are a type of borrowed chord (a.k.a. modal mixture) that falls under a larger umbrella of chromatic harmony. Chromatic harmony refers to any chords that are outside the key you’re in, so when you use a ♭VII, you’re using a chord that isn’t already in the key you’re in.
Finding the ♭VII Chord
Roman numerals refer to chords that are built on specific scale steps for the scale you’re using. In the key of C major, the chord is I.
Capitalization usually refers to major or minor where major chords are capitalized (I, IV, V, etc), and minor chords or lowercase (ii, iii, vi, etc.). Diminished and augmented add a symbol to those: diminished are lowercase with a degree symbol (vii°), and augmented are capitalized with a plus (V+).
Learn more about Roman numerals in music analysis here.
Usually in a major key, the chord built on the 7th scale step is a diminished chord: vii°. But in a minor chord, the chord built from the 7th scale step is major: VII.
That means when you’re in a major key, you can borrow the minor version’s chord that’s built on the 7th scale step to add more color to your music.
In the key of C major, all of the notes are “naturals:” C D E F G A B C. To find the ♭VII, we count up to B and then lower it by a half step to become B♭. B♭ major is the ♭VII in the key of C major instead of the diatonic (in the key) chord of B diminished.
“Peace of Mind” by Boston Uses a ♭VII Chord
An example that uses a ♭VII chord is the song “Peace of Mind” by Boston.
It’s in the key of E major, so counting up to scale step 7 gives us: E = 1, F♯ = 2, G ♯ = 3, A = 4, B = 5, C♯ = 6, and D♯ = 7.
Now we just have to lower D♯ to become D♮, which gives us a major chord: D major.
You’ll see that the 4th measure has a D♮ major chord in it. That’s the ♭VII!
When you listen to this part of the song, you may experience the ♭VII as feeling slightly sunken, somewhat surprising, surprisingly not tense (since it would diatonically be a diminished chord, but because we lowered the D♯, it sounds less tense)
What’s your experience listening to this chord?
How to Use ♭VIIs in Your Music
♭VII chords, like most chromatic chords, have a tendency to serve pre-dominant functions. This means they typically come before and lead really well into V chords.
If you’re not sure where to put one in your music, you can start with a simple progression just going back and forth from I to V and then adding ♭VII between them: I ♭VII V.
After that, you can get fancier and add another pre-dominant, like a IV, like how Boston does in “Peace of Mind:” I ♭VII IV I. (Notice there’s no V here). You can also do this progression with a V in it: I ♭VII IV V I.
There’s 3 chord progressions you can play around with right now to get used to the feel of the ♭VII
Where Can You Learn About Other Borrowed Chords?
There are tons of other borrowed chords and other types of chromatic harmony that you can use to add color and drama to your music. Even the way you change keys has a huge impact on the way your music feels.
To learn more about borrowed chords and other chromatic harmony in a way that will help you create the exact music you want to create, Chromatic Harmony: Advanced Chord Progressions is a great resource:
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What do you think? How does the ♭VII chord sound to you?