• Who Else Wants To Figure Out How Passing Chords Are Derived?

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    If you’re interested in learning how passing chords are derived, then this lesson is for you.

    Chord progressions would not be interesting without passing chords especially in music styles like jazz and gospel because of the activity, motion, anticipation, and energy they add to basic progressions to make them spicier.

    Right before we go further, let’s refresh our minds on the concept of chord progressions.

    A Short Note On Chord Progressions

    In every key (be it a major or minor key), there are seven unique tones. For example, in the key of C major:

    C is the first

    D is the second

    E is the third

    F is the fourth

    G is the fifth

    A is the sixth

    B is the seventh

    The movement of chords from one of these tones to another creates a chord progression. For example, the movement from the C major seventh chord (of the first tone):

    …to the A minor seventh chord (of the sixth tone):

    …can be described as a chord progression.

    “What Are Passing Chords?”

    Any chord that is used to connect two or more scale tone chords is a passing chord. However, it’s important to note that passing chords are foreign to the key (aka – “chromatic”) and also sound unstable.

    Passing chords, when played, have the tendency of moving to scale tone chords that are more stable.

    For example, the chord progression from the first tone of the scale to the sixth tone of the scale in the key of C major:

    …progresses from the C major ninth chord:

    …to the A minor ninth chord:

    A passing chord can be added in between both chords to add more energy and activity to the chord progression.

    If the E dominant seventh [sharp nine, sharp five] chord:

    …is applied as a passing chord to the A minor ninth chord:

    …this adds anticipation, motion, activity, energy, etc., in the chord progression.

    “Check It Out…”

    Using first line of the regular gospel song Thank You Lord, here’s how the passing chord can be applied:

    Thank (C major ninth):

    You (E dominant seventh [sharp nine, sharp five]):

    Lord (A minor ninth):

    “Here’s How The Same Line Sounds Without The Passing Chord…”

    Thank You (C major ninth):

    Lord (A minor ninth):

    At this point, I believe you can see the difference passing chords make in chord progressions and songs. Therefore, let’s proceed into learning how they are formed.

    Here’s How Passing Chords Are Derived

    Passing chords can easily be easily derived on any key irrespective of the tone of the scale it is and that’s our focus in this segment.

    Attention: Although there are various passing chord types, we’ll be limiting our use of the term passing chords to dominant chords.

    The Magic Number That Unlocks Passing Chords

    For every serious musician who wants to know the secret behind passing chords, the magic number is 5. It’s that simple.

    If you can recall the number 5, then you can derive the corresponding passing chord for any tone of the scale in any key.

    Given the D minor ninth chord:

    …as the chord of the sixth tone in the key of F major:

    …the corresponding passing chord can be derived using the magic number.

    “Check This Out…”

    The passing chord to the D minor ninth chord is a fifth above the root of the D minor ninth chord.

    So, what note is a fifth above D?:

    …and the answer is A:

    Having derived A as the answer, it’s safe to say that A dominant chords (triad, seventh, and extended) can be played as passing chords to the D minor ninth chord.

    “Check It Out…”

    Although the options are inexhaustible, check out these common options to the D minor ninth chord:

    Option #1

    A dominant triad:

    …to the D minor ninth chord:

    Option #2

    A dominant seventh chord:

    …to the D minor ninth chord:

    Option #3

    A dominant seventh [flat ninth] chord:

    …to the D minor ninth chord:

    “In A Nutshell…”

    Going up a fifth above the root o a given chord, you can derive its corresponding passing chord — which can be any class of dominant chord ranging from the dominant triad to the dominant seventh chord, or even extended dominant chords.

    Final Words

    Using the knowledge of what you’ve learned about passing chords and how they can be derived, I’m doubly sure that you can voluntarily spice up regular chord progressions with passing chords.

    Believe it or not, these passing chords will add more activity and drama to your accompaniment.

    See you in the next lesson!

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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.


    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Courage

    Thanks for the lesson on passing chords I appreciate
    My question is why are passing chords built on 5th degrees and not on other degree of the scale of the particular key


    2 Vera Drew

    I read the lesson, but I’m still lost.


    3 Chuku Onyemachi

    You may want to ask questions.


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