• Do you use secondary dominant chords?

    in Theory

    secondary dominantToday, I want to talk about secondary dominant chords.

    NOT dominant chords, but “secondary” dominant chords.

    Some may have heard of this concept before. For others, this will be a first.

    So let me lay the groundwork.

    The major scale naturally defines chords that correspond with each of its degrees.

    There are 7 degrees in a scale, thus 7 chords that go with each one of those degrees, or tones.

    If you’ve been on my blog, you’ve seen lessons about this.

    The first degree of a scale is associated with the major triad or major seventh chord.

    The second degree of a scale is associated with the minor triad or minor seventh chord.

    The third degree of a scale is associated with the minor triad or minor seventh chord.

    The fourth degree of a scale is associated with the major triad or major seventh chord.

    The fifth degree of a scale is associated with the major triad or dominant seventh chord.

    The sixth degree of a scale is associated with the minor triad or minor seventh chord.

    The seventh degree of a scale is associated with the diminished triad or half-diminished seventh chord.

    (I say “triad” or “seventh” chord because it depends on how many notes you’re playing. If you’re just playing 3-fingered chords up the scale starting at “C+E+G,” then “D+F+A,” then “E+G+B,” then you’re not going to create seventh chords. You’re playing triads. But if you play 4-fingered chords up the scale starting at “C+E+G+B,” then “D+F+A+C,” then “E+G+B+D” and so on, then you’re playing major, minor, and dominant seventh chords as you progress up the scale).

    Recap:

    The 1st and 4th degrees are major

    The 2nd, 3rd, and 6th degrees are minor.

    The 5th degree is a dominant seventh chord.

    The 7th degree is a half-diminished seventh chord.

    Incidentally, these scale degrees have “fancy” names:

    1st degree = Tonic
    2nd degree = Supertonic
    3rd degree = Mediant
    4th degree = Subdominant
    5th degree = Dominant
    6th degree = Submediant
    7th degree = Leading tone

    What I want to focus on for a second is the “dominant” or the chord that’s played on on the 5th tone of the scale.

    It has an extremely strong pull back to the tonic, the 1.

    As you may know, the 1 is always home base. It is most common to begin and end your song. It is also the “key” of your song.

    The dominant usually precedes it because of its strong pull and relationship.

    But there’s another role in music that I want to talk about. It’s called the secondary dominant.

    The secondary dominant is basically the “dominant” of the dominant. I know that sounds funny but let me explain…

    If G major (G+B+D) or G dominant 7 (G+B+D+F) are dominants of “C” (the tonic), then the secondary dominant would be whatever chord is the dominant of G.

    You temporarily have to think in terms of G major. This is called “tonicizing” the G major chord and briefly treating it like the tonic, or home base.

    So let’s go over to the key of G for a little while…

    G major scale:

    G=1
    A=2
    B=3
    C=4
    D=5
    E=6
    F#=7

    The 5 of G major is D.

    So that means D major or D dominant 7 (not minor) is the dominant chord of G.

    It’s a little weird because “dominant” is both a scale degree name AND a chord so don’t mistake playing a D7 chord (or “D dominant 7th” chord) for playing a chord that is the “dominant” of a scale. Those are two different things. D7, when the 5th of G, functions as a “dominant” chord but is also a dominant 7th chord.

    Just think of it like this…

    What if I named my son, “Son?” Yup, what if his name was actually “Son?”

    Son Griggs!

    His role is my son, by blood. But his name is also Son!

    When I’m not around, people still call him Son because that’s his name. But that doesn’t mean he’s their son. His name is “Son” so that’s what they call him! It just so happens that his actual name and his role share the same term.

    But Son is only “my” son just like G is the only dominant in the key of C. But in other keys, yes, you may see a G dominant chord but that doesn’t mean it’s the “dominant” of that key.

    It could be a secondary dominant!

    So again, a secondary dominant is basically the dominant of the dominant.

    Let’s break it down even further:

    G major is the dominant in the key of C.

    So if I played a D major (instead of minor) to get to G major, then D would function as a secondary dominant in the key of C.

    Why?

    Because as we established earlier, the 2nd tone of the scale (in this case, “D”) is usually minor. When it’s flipped to major (or a dominant 7th chord), that’s when it functions as a secondary dominant in this key.

    So why would we do that?

    Why use a major or dominant 7th chord on a tone that’s suppose to be minor?

    Simply because of the strong pull dominants (“5” chords) have to their tonics (“1” chords).

    So when you put a D major (or D7) before a G major (or G7), the pull is much stronger than using a D minor to a G major chord.

    But it goes further…

    The “5th” tone of the scale is not the only tone that getstonicized(…recall that “tonicization” is when a tone is temporarily treated like the tonic, or home base). Every tone of the scale has an accompanying dominant chord that leads to it. When this happens, these chords function as secondary dominants in the key they are being used in.

    Let’s look at the chords of a scale again.

    C Major:

    1st tone: C major
    2nd tone: D minor
    3rd tone: E minor
    4th tone: F major
    5th tone: G major
    6th tone: A minor
    7th tone: B diminished

    Now let’s add the secondary dominant we already know.

    C Major:

    1st tone: C major
    2nd tone: D minor
    3rd tone: E minor
    4th tone: F major

    D major (dominant of G)

    5th tone: G major
    6th tone: A minor
    7th tone: B diminished

    Note: D major is the dominant of G. Since G is not the tonic in this key but only temporarily taking on the role, that means D major is functioning as a secondary dominant in the key of C.

    Let’s find out what the other secondary dominants of the key of ‘C’ are.

    First up… D minor.

    Its dominant is A major or A7 (“A” dominant 7 chord).

    The pull from A major to D minor is very strong.

    What about the… E minor.

    Its dominant is B major or B7.

    What about… F major.

    Its dominant is actually the first chord of the scale, “C major.” However, it’s more common to see this as a C7 chord leading to the F major chord in music.

    We already know G major. Its dominant is D major or D7.

    Next up… A minor.

    Its dominant is E major.

    That’s it!

    (In case you’re wondering, we won’t deal with the last chord of the scale which is usually a diminished triad or half-diminished seventh chord, depending on whether you’re playing 3 notes or 4 notes).

    Ok, for my last point…

    There is a way to notate secondary dominants.

    You can say:

    V of ii

    (which means the dominant of the 2 chord).

    You can also say:

    V/ii

    (shorter way of saying it).

    So what if you see V/vi? What does that mean?

    You should have answered the “dominant of the 6 chord.”

    Note: When using the shorter version, the first letter will always be “V,” signifying the dominant of _____something_____. The second letter will give you the last piece of the puzzle (the “_____something_____”).

    So, here’s a list that summarizes everything.

    C major:

    I = major chord
    i = minor chord
    V/x = dominant (V) of x

    I degree = C major

    V/ii = A major

    ii degree = D minor

    V/iii = B major

    iii degree = E minor

    V/IV = C major (but more commonly C7 when playing 4-toned chords)

    IV degree = F major

    V/V = D major

    V degree = G major

    V/vi = E major

    vi degree = A minor

    vii degree = B diminished

    So how can you use it?

    Well, if you had a 1-6-2-5-1 progression in C, that would normally mean these chords:

    C major — A minor — D minor — Gmajor — C major

    You could either substitute all dominants for these regular minor chords or you could be picky and substitute certain ones.

    C major — A major (V/ii) — D minor — G major — C major

    Note: “A major” is functioning as a secondary dominant in this C major progression.

    OR…

    C major — A minor — D major (V/V) — G major — C major

    Note: D major is functioning as a secondary dominant in this C major progression.

    OR…

    C major — A major (V/ii) — D major (V/V) — G major — C major

    Note: Both “A major” and “D major” are functioning as secondary dominants in this C major progression.

    There you have it! A detailed introduction to secondary dominant chords!

    Now, go out there and use them in real songs!

    Do you get it? Let me know via comments below.

    Until next time!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 60 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 peter

    awesome post. very detailed and you have a knack for taking something complicated and making it simple.

    Like when you used the example of Son and “son.” Awesome man!

    Reply

    2 samatha

    I have to agree, great post Jermaine

    Reply

    3 marcus

    Hey Jermaine,

    What up? Man, you zoomin’ me and I don’t know what is going on. I need to sit down and practice day in and day out. That is the problem, things have just been so tough for me having to struggle with finances, not to say that others don’t face these difficulties too,but practice has become a thing of the past for me. Blog me man, and keep me up on things and hopefully I will be back to practicing soon.

    Marcus

    Reply

    4 Ruthy

    Gregg,
    I want to learn how to play music so bad I can taste it. But I just don’t understand how to make my finger play all of the note. Is there some way I need the baby steps this is to advance for me. I know very little. Help

    Reply

    5 Ruthy

    Sorry type wrong name it should be Jermaine

    Reply

    6 celine

    great and very helpful as always.
    thanks alot

    Reply

    7 musallio

    Awesome..
    I look forwrd to more of this..

    Reply

    8 Brian

    greetings Jermaine,
    love all you do, I am a long time subscriber….I am a bit confused…I followed you up until “Let’s find out what the secondary dominants of the other keys are. First up… D minor.” you mentioned A7 is the secondary dom. of D…I thought that A7 would be the dom. 5th and B7 would be the secondary dominant of D minor…not the first time I have had trouble following directions
    thanks again for all you do

    Reply

    9 Dale

    Great explanations Jermaine. I get it now. Thanks, Dale

    Reply

    10 Jermaine

    @Brian: You are right, I needed to clarify this more. I didn’t mean the secondary dominants of these non-tonic tones. I meant the dominants of these keys, which in effect, make these “dominants of dominants” secondary chords in the key of C.

    Please re-read (if you get a moment) and tell me if all is well. :). Thanks for your feedback.

    All the best,
    JG

    Reply

    11 RMJLIFE

    I actually have a cousin named Son. Still I followed the upper half pretty well but got a lot confused toward the end. I got my, “The Secrets to Playing Piano By Ear!” book, and tried to find the info the way you put it. After looking quickly I didn’t see a section dealing with the secondary dominant. However, I love music theory and will read this article over and over until I fully understand it.

    Reply

    12 Jermaine

    @brian and @RMJLIFE:

    Please let me know what you’re not understanding and I will do a follow up post to clarify. This could have easily been 3 or 4 posts I tried to fit into one… and I tried to be conservative! Could have easily been a 10-pg post, lol :)

    All the best,
    JG

    Reply

    13 Edwin

    Thanks for your note, you have really help me to get back to my skills.

    Reply

    14 Douglas Bamlett

    Hey that’s pretty cool. Kind of modal — somewhat like playing a pentatonic minor scale that begins on the 5th degree of of the key being played. EG: Jamming over D minor pentatonic scale when the band is playing in the key of “G Major”.

    When I was reading this — I was thinking that you were going to suggest using the secondary dominant chord (of the next chord in the progression) to pull you to that chord. I think I like your substitution idea better but after reading this I’m going to experiment with both. Thanks for the post that got the juices flowing!

    Douglas

    Reply

    15 Kouassi Theodore

    Thank you for this last. For me it is the first time I hear this. So I will you use it like a exercice to know well. Words are not suffisant to qualify that you do for me. May our Lord rend it to you.
    M Kouassi Theodore in Ivory Coast
    Phone: +225 06 74 14 49.

    Reply

    16 Jermaine

    @Douglas: Also observation. You know, you could do a dominant of a dominant of a dominant. This is where people use the “7-3-6” progression:

    C major, B7, E7, A minor.

    B7 is the dominant or E, E7 is the dominant of A.

    *** This progression would have normally just went from Cmaj to Aminor… but then someone decided to add a secondary dominant. So they added the dominant of A, which is E. Then someone decided to take it a step further and add another secondary dominant… the dominant of E, which is B.

    I saw on another forum where someone asked if the B was a tertiary dominant since it’s the dominant of a dominant of a dominant… but those don’t really exist.

    Keep the comments coming :)!

    Reply

    17 Nicholas

    Once again Jermaine, very good job. I am a new member and i have been playing for about 6 months, never heard of sub dominant before. I understand the lesson quit well and i am now trying to use this while practising.

    Thanks you. Looking for more great stuff

    Nicholas

    P.S: I am getting better by the day

    Reply

    18 Nicholas

    Secondary Dominant not Sub Dominant

    Reply

    19 samuel patrick

    please sir i want you to send me free songs indicating the chord or minor because i dont know how to listen and apply the neccessary keys at the right position when a song is being raise in the church

    Reply

    20 samuel patrick

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for the opportunity you’ve given me to be among yours student, I said that the lord should continue bless you
    Sir my problem againg is that i dont what the called mixing chord in piano or when playing the keyboaard so please narrate to me what it means by mixing chord
    thank from samuel patrick

    Reply

    21 jayagopi jagadeesan

    Absolutely marvelous way of explaining secondary dominants and why they are useful. This also gave me a tip for creating my own useful chord progressions.
    You have a way of making music theory not only sound simple and interesting, but also practical and useful.
    Keep up the good work and looking forward to more of this type of lessons.
    Thanks.

    cheers,
    jay

    Reply

    22 Russell Jackson

    You are a great Teacher Germaine. May the riches from heaven be bestowed upon you so you can continue to share your gifts of music with others. All of your teachings have been understandable, enlightening and a joy to learn. If anyone
    seeks knowledge about music you are the chosen one. You are the Man.
    Continue to do good works and may God continue to Bless You and Yours in
    all that you do.

    Russell Jackson
    Plaquemine, Louisiana

    Reply

    23 Douglas Bamlett

    Wow Germaine I was jamming this week with a friend and we played around with the secondary dominants somewhat and had an awesome time. After listening to the way they seem to pull you out of the key and back in I realized what a great tool this is for creating a bridge when songwriting — or for highlighting hooks in the lyrics.

    Also the melodic freedom for lyrical expression while using secondary dominants is really rich. I’ve seen this used in music lots but never knew what it was. I have sometimes been confused when I thought I was hearing a key change but when the song returned to the key without resolving to what seemed like the new root I’d just wonder how they came up with that chord choice and made it work.

    Also this added a new look at the “circle of 5ths” theory which was kind of blind to me before except as a memorization tool. Now the circle of 5ths makes sense in ways I’d never twigged to.

    Douglas.

    PS please delete previous post — this one has typo corrections and grammatical corrections that make sense.

    Reply

    24 Jermaine

    @douglas: Thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right when you talk about movements that seem to be going to another key but soon return. The usage of secondary dominants is vast. also search for circle of fifths in the searchbox. We have some other articles on the concept.

    Take care,
    Jermaine

    Reply

    25 samsonvemo

    i never knew something hot like this is in here keep up the good work

    Reply

    26 MS

    Jermaine,

    Was a bit confused, but now have a better understanding of the secondary dominant chord formation. RMJLIFE could check out from page 154 to 162 in the book, but your explanation has made it a lot clearer. Thanks for your support system! Best wishes.

    Reply

    27 Jermaine

    @MS Thanks for comment and the reference to the page numbers for RMJLIFE.

    Reply

    28 sharon

    thank you so much! i have a quiz tomorrow, and this subject didn’t make sense until I read your post. : )

    Reply

    29 Ike

    Hey Jermaine,

    Great job in your explanation of secondary dominants. You’ve made it very simple. It’s the V of something going to that something. A good way for aspiring musicians to think of it is: It will, most likely have a Major triad w/ a minor 7th or flat 7th scale tone, going to the Dominant of the key, then to the Tonic of the key. For example: in a ii-V-I chord progression (key of C), to obtain the secondary dominant, make the “D” chord major instead of minor and then play the “G”chord (the V) and then the “C” chord (the I). As in II-V-I instead of ii-V-I.
    Having already taken some courses in Music theory, I was wondering if you can help me with some AVANCED Jazz chord progressions whether common or uncommon. I’m doing a lot of experiments with building songs in a uinque way. Your teachings have always helped me and I continue to be encouraged by your knowledge and style.
    Thanks,
    Ike

    Reply

    30 r gambel

    So if I have a traditional progression C Am F G7. Or I change the Am to Em and the F to Dm and so forth; where are secondary dominants likely to go?

    C Am F Bb G7? or C Am Bb Dm G7. Are there guidelines as to where the 4 of 4 and others are most likely to occur? Does the 4of 4 go before or after the 4? Obviously not a music student.

    Reply

    31 tal

    well,it seems that im all alone here on this post but the main thing is :
    1-6-2-5-1 progression , like your example above,on the C scale ,you wrote the basic chords : C major — A minor — D minor — Gmajor — C major .
    then you switched the D minor to D Major,(and you wrote V/V).
    now,if the D minor is the second degree and like u said V/iii , so the answer should be : B major or B7 ,isnt it? ? ?
    im kind of confused .
    :)

    Reply

    32 Wan

    Very clear explaination. It would be clearer if shown on video clip.

    Reply

    33 robert skyers

    GOD BLESS YOU BROTHER JERMAINE,

    keep on doing what your do, teaching…! it is the sick who need’s the doctor,
    if i need healing i will keep on coming to you,
    sometimes my problem is….! one visit won’t do,
    i have to keep coming for my med……!
    keep on unscrambling this puzzle that is so much a part of us,
    reading and listening to your work tell me how much you want to unscramble for us

    THANKS GODBROTHER,KEEP UP YOUR WORK,

    Reply

    34 Daniel Abakah

    Great post as always Jermaine. Thanks to you my music theory is far ahead of my playing. I love it that way because it always gives me enough reason to work more on the keyboard. God bless you.

    Reply

    35 tony hall

    Hi Jermaine,
    thank you for the transformational concepts that God gave you for us. I have now started to practice rather than rehearse, I am a sheet player for 15 years.

    Just to share something I have discovered, the relative minor of any major key is 3 steps down from the major keynote, I am finding it easier to do this rather than to memorise all the major, minor relationships. I have also discovered that the third of any minor scale is the major scale’s keynote. thanks again the number system is working for me.
    tony

    Reply

    36 David Rice

    These jazz theory lessons are brilliant! Ive tried to learn alot of these concepts a few times before but these lessons definately help make it sink in. Thanks alot :)
    Dave

    Reply

    37 Over There

    This is a treasure buried for me here…what joy!!!

    Is this a ploy(tool) used in reharmonization of a song or piece?

    Thanks.

    Bless.

    Reply

    38 simeon

    this is new and exciting . Thanks jermaine

    Reply

    39 freedom

    wow this is great. Imagine the kind of chords i am holding. Thanks. I appreciate it

    Reply

    40 Ian

    Thanks for this, its fantastic. Only thing I don’t understand is why is A or A7 the secondary dominant of D minor. Why isn’t it Am7?

    Reply

    41 Tony

    Has anyone asked “How do you know when to play a secondary dominant chord? Knowing that D7 is the secondary dominant in the key of C does not tell me what it is about the song that would cause me to play a D7 chord.

    Reply

    42 JG

    It’s there… believe me, it’s all there.

    Reply

    43 Pkodja

    A new comer!
    Just to say thanks to you for this lesson. I was using Dm to resume to G in C key and never think to raise D chord’s third (F#) to get DMaj which is the real dominant of G in G key.
    So thanks a lot for sheding light on this.
    Regards

    Reply

    44 Carlos

    Thanks a lot Jermaine. The explanation was clear and easy to understand. Could you explain about extended dominants, is that the dominant of the secondary dominant? How can we use it?
    Thanks in advance for the answer, you keep our minds straight to the point, thanks again…
    Carlos
    Lima Perú

    Reply

    45 kissogram glasgow

    I appreciate your rich blog. great information. I hope you release others. I will continue reading

    Reply

    46 Sam

    I came across a Beatles song that used a major in the ii position and didn’t know where that would have come from. I Googled “use a major chord in 2nd degree” and came to your explanation. I think this Internet thing and search engines are really gonna catch on!

    I had read once about secondary dominants so I had an idea of what they are, but had forgotten about them. Your explanation took me all the way. Great job ! Thanks a lot ! I like your teaching style and plan to read more of your stuff.

    Reply

    47 Meguiars

    I pondered sending this pingback excellent feature

    Reply

    48 Mike Crutcher

    How does this fit into “Take The A Train”, with it’s D7#11 chord, which seems to resolve to G7? Looks like a secondary dominant, but the melody is #11. Where does the G# come from?

    Reply

    49 mobile pc repair chesterfield

    Hello, i think that i saw you visited my site thus i came to “return the favor”.I am attempting to in finding issues to improve my web site!I guess its adequate to use some of your ideas!!

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    50 Jennifer Pins

    I have a question, if I have a song that normally goes like this: I, I, V7, V7 {F, F, C7, C7}
    And I change it to I, vi, iii, VI, ii, V7 {F, Dm, Am, D7, Gm, C7}
    Would the Major VI be a Secondary Dominant? I’m looking at a chart, and it looks like the V/vi but in the key of Bb??
    And if so, why does it sound good to have it Major?
    Why do we change these diatonic chords to Secondary Dominants?
    Thanks SO much:)

    Reply

    51 Tor Marquis

    question. the song “What the World needs now” in the verse. “Lord we don’t need another mountain” in 6 minor 7 (am7 in the key of c) and goes to gm ( at the mountains word of “there are mountains” which I believe is now the key of F, and in fact resolves to F. Can you give me your take on whats happening there.

    Reply

    52 Ansley W

    I have been using secondary dominant chords in my song writing and didn’t even know it. I could tell they sounded good though. until know I had given little thought as to why. think my mind has just been blown again. this seems to be a common theme when learning music theory.

    Reply

    53 Matt

    Great post but I am confused of one thing. The diminished chord is always disregarded understandably because it sounds discordant. Why can’t we just make the diminished chord a major or dominant 7 chord? According to your post the dominant chord of iii is always going to be the same seventh degree note of the scale (diminished). Why isn’t it just taught then to always play the diminished chord as major or dominant 7 since it is the dominant of the iii chord?

    Your knowledge and website are an amazing help! I am so glad I found it! Thanks!

    Reply

    54 D. Turner

    Mr. Griggs,
    You explained the secondary dominant so well until I understood in one sitting.I
    Take music theory and it can be pretty challenging at times. I got the concept within minutes of reading it. I know that It shouldn’t take for ever to learn it. of course it depends on the individual. I’m glad I found your site. I will be back.
    Thanks a million. D. Turner

    Reply

    55 Velshera Johnson

    Thank you SO much for this explanation. I am currently enrolled in an Analytical Techniques course to fulfill a requirement in the Master’s Program in Music and Worship. This was BY FAR the best explanation I’ve seen so far and really cleared some things up for me.

    I could really use a good tutor to make it through this class! UGH

    Velshera Johnson

    Reply

    56 Dammy

    Sir, you are blessing to this generation.!! I do hear people play this but i never knew that its this secondary dominants you just taught us.! You taught us as if we were right in the class. You make all your explanation easy for us, and i really appreciate your effort sir. God bless you sir. Dammy from Nigeria

    Reply

    57 Damilola

    Sir, you are blessing to this generation.!! I do hear people play this but i never knew that its this secondary dominants you just taught us.! You taught us as if we were right in the class. You make all your explanation easy for us, and i really appreciate your effort sir. God bless you sir. Damilola from Nigeria

    Reply

    58 Dude99

    Hi Jermaine, I have something to add. Let’s say I’m working in Gb minor. I rarely describe anything using sharps so indulge me for a second on that. So here I am in Gb minor, doing my thing, and of course that’s the vi of A. So I’ve effectively tonicized the vi and everything is rooted in that Gb minor. The time comes for a chorus then a turnaround so I use the V of the vi, which is Db7. This makes the ear want the Gb minor to resolve things. See ya, thanks for posting on this topic.

    Reply

    59 Deborah

    OUT OF ALL THE WEBSITES I LISTENED TO ABOUT THIS TOPIC YOURS WAS THE EASIEST TO UNDERSTAND. THANK YOU KINDLY.

    Reply

    60 Wekesir

    God bless you!

    Reply

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