• Passing Chords 102: Scale Degree Chords vs Passing Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    scale degree chords

    Today, we’ll be looking at scale degree chords vs passing chords.

    The major scale has seven degrees and the chords formed from these degrees are referred to as “scale degree chords.”

    Considering that the major scale has seven tones invariably means that there are seven scale degree chords.

    • Chord 1
    • Chord 2
    • Chord 3
    • Chord 4
    • Chord 5
    • Chord 6
    • Chord 7

    The use of numbers to distinguish these chords form what we call the number system. The term 2-5-1 chord progression implies a chord movement involving chords 2, 5, and 1.

    In this post, we’ll be drawing a fine line between these scale degree chords and the secondary dominant chords (aka – “passing chords”) introduced in the last lesson of this series.

    Scale Degree Chord Qualities

    The quality of a chord refers to its distinctive attribute in terms of tonality, stability, among many things.

    Chords can have major or minor attribute (aka – “tonality”) depending on the quality of third they’re built with while others can be augmented or diminished because of the quality of fifth they are built with.

    Let’s consider the chord qualities of triads and seventh chords.

    Triads

    A triad is a chord of three notes.

    There are seven scale degree triads. Here are the qualities of the scale degree triads…

    Chord 1:

    …is the C major triad.

    Chord 2:

    …is the D minor triad.

    Chord 3:

    …is the E minor triad.

    Chord 4:

    …is the F major triad.

    Chord 5:

    …is the G major triad.

    Chord 6:

    …is the A minor triad.

    Chord 7:

    …is the B diminished triad.

    Here’s a table of scale degree triads:

    Chord Quality

    Scale Degree

    Major

    1st, 4th, and 5th

    Minor

    2nd, 3rd, and 6th

    Diminished

    7th

    Seventh Chords

    A seventh chord is a chord that [when played in root position] encompasses seven scale degrees.

    There are also seven scale degree seventh chords. Check them out below…

    Chord 1:

    …is the C major seventh chord.

    Chord 2:

    …is the D minor seventh chord.

    Chord 3:

    …is the E minor seventh chord.

    Chord 4:

    …is the F major seventh chord.

    Chord 5:

    …is the G dominant seventh chord.

    Chord 6:

    …is the A minor seventh chord.

    Chord 7:

    …is the B half-diminished seventh chord.

    There are four seventh chord qualities you can find in scale degree seventh chords:

    • Major seventh
    • Minor seventh
    • Dominant seventh
    • Half-diminished

    Here’s how these chord qualities are distributed:

    Chord Quality

    Scale Degree

    Major seventh

    1st and 4th

    Minor seventh

    2nd, 3rd, and 6th

    Dominant seventh

    5th

    Half-diminished seventh

    7th

    Now that you’re familiar with the various chord qualities of scale degree triads and sevenths, let’s look at secondary dominant chords.

    Secondary Dominant Chords

    Chord progressions become more flavorful when we interject passing chords here and there. These passing chords are basically dominant chords.

    The term dominant refers to the fifth degree of the major scale of the key you’re in.

    Further reading: The Dominant Seventh Chord.

    If you’re in the key of C major, the fifth degree is G. Therefore, G is the dominant of C. In other words, the strongest option of what will connect us to C is G.

    In the same vein, every degree of the scale has its corresponding dominant (which is a perfect fifth higher.)

    Attention: I had to review secondary dominant chords just to refresh your mind on it. I really do not intend to go through it all over again. If you’re not very familiar with the concept of secondary dominants, please follow the suggested reading below.

    Suggested reading: Passing Chords 101: What Are Secondary Dominant Chords.

    Here are the secondary dominant chords for the second to the sixth scale degree…

    Chord 2 is the D minor triad:

    …or the D minor seventh chord:

    …while its secondary dominant is the A dominant seventh chord:

    …whose root is a fifth higher than D.

    Chord 3 is the E minor triad:

    …or the E minor seventh chord:

    …while its secondary dominant is the B dominant seventh chord:

    …and this is because B is a fifth higher than E.

    Chord 4 is the F major triad:

    …or the F major seventh chord:

    …while its secondary dominant is the C dominant seventh chord:

    …whose root is a fifth higher than F.

    Chord 5 is the G major triad:

    …or the G dominant seventh chord:

    …while its secondary dominant is the D dominant seventh chord:

    …whose root is a fifth higher than G.

    Chord 6 is the A minor triad:

    …or the A minor seventh chord:

    …while its secondary dominant is the E dominant seventh chord:

    …whose root is a fifth higher than A.

    Scale Degree Chords vs Passing Chords

    Let’s look at the difference between scale degree chords and passing chords (secondary dominant chords) and also at two characteristic differences between both chord classes – quality and function.

    Difference in Quality

    A knowledge of chord quality can help you distinguish between a scale degree chord and a passing chord.

    The quality of scale degree chords can vary from major, to minor, to diminished for triads while that of seventh chords can vary from major seventh, to minor seventh, to dominant seventh, and half-diminished seventh.

    Let’s take two examples.

    Example #1 – C major seventh vs C dominant seventh

    In the key of C major, if you are given these two chords…

     

    C major seventh:

    C dominant seventh:

    …which of these is a scale degree chord and which is a passing chord? Why?

    Answer: The C major seventh is a scale degree chord while the C dominant seventh chord is passing chord.

    Explanation: C is the 1st tone of the C major scale and the seventh chord quality for the first scale degree is the major seventh chord. Therefore, C major seventh is chord 1 in the key of C while C dominant seventh is a passing chord.

    Example #2 – E dominant seventh vs E minor seventh

    If you’re given these two chords…

    E dominant seventh:

    E minor seventh:
    …in the key of C major. Can you distinguish the scale degree chord from the passing chord? What’s your reason?

    Answer: The E minor seventh is a scale degree chord while the E dominant seventh chord is passing chord.

    Explanation: E is the third tone of the C major scale and the seventh chord quality for the third scale degree is the minor seventh chord. Therefore, the E minor seventh is chord 3 in the key of C while the E dominant seventh is a passing chord.

    Difference in Function

    Passing chords differ from scale degree chords in harmonic function.

    Scale degree chords are stable (except for the chord of the seventh degree) while passing chords are unstable. When passing chords are played, the goal is for them to resolve to scale degree chords.

    Attention: Our use of the term passing chords here refers to secondary dominant chords, which resolve down a fifth.

    Check out these two progressions from C to F in the key of C…

     

    Take #1

    Oh! Happy:

    Day:

    In this take, we have a chord progression from the C major seventh chord to the F major triad.

    Take #2

    Oh! Happy:

    Day:

    This is a chord progression from the C dominant seventh chord to the F major triad.

    The C major seventh chord in take 1 is chord 1 while the C dominant seventh chord in take 2 isn’t (based on harmonic function.)

    “Can I Tell You Why The C Dominant Seventh Chord Isn’t Chord 1 In The Key Of C?”

    The function of the C dominant seventh chord in the key of C is as a secondary dominant chord that will resolve to the F major triad (chord 4).

    Due to its specific harmonic function, the C dominant seventh chord is instead called “five of four” which means the dominant of chord four and that’s its harmonic function – to take us to chord 4.

    Final Words

    All that we’ve covered has shown you the difference between a scale degree chord and a passing chord in terms of quality and harmonic function.

    In a subsequent post in this “passing chords” series, I hope to share with you a diatonic perspective to passing chords that will open your eyes forever.

    See you then.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 David Brakes

    Thank you sir
    I’m looking forward to the diatonic perspective.

    Reply

    2 Brad

    Why is it not simply that scale degree chords consist of notes within the scale, and passing chords are those built from notes in the scale, but with dominant tones when not in the scale. For example, in the key of C major, E dominant 7 is a passing chord because G# is city on the C major scale, whereas all the tones of the E minor 7 chord are within the C major scale.

    Reply

    3 reafblack

    Interesting. So you have Secondary dominant at your disposal, big deal. Where and how are they used is the question.

    Reply

    4 Kismet

    I’m a beginner to intermediate level on piano; great facts I never knew. But now I don’t know why I would play for example a CMajor seventh instead of C triad and…maybe firstly as first chord to start a song. And also what are your suggestions. Thank you

    Reply

    5 Noah Taylor

    Great info. I’m going to have a lot of fun transposing this knowledge to the guitar :)

    Reply

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