• A Diatonic Perspective To Scale Degree and Passing Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    passing chords

    Today, we’re taking a closer look at scale degree and passing chords.

    This lesson is a sequel to previous lessons we’ve done like Introduction to Secondary Dominant Chords and Scale Degree Chords vs Passing Chords. However, considering that we’re far from exhausting this topic, we’ll be doing another in-depth study.

    In this lesson, we’ll correlate both chord classes and highlighting the distinct differences between both chords in terms of quality, function, and resolution.

    Let’s get started with a short review.

    Review On Scale Degree Chords

    Every key [whether major or minor] has its major or minor scale. The tones of this major [or minor] scale are known as scale degrees.

    Considering that the major scale has seven scale tones, there are also seven degrees of the major scale. The C major scale:

    …has the following scale degrees:

    1st tone – C

    2nd tone – D

    3rd tone – E

    4th tone – F

    5th tone – G

    6th tone – A

    7th tone – B

    Chords formed on any of these scale degrees [using only scale tones] are known as scale degree chords.

    Starting from any degree of the scale, you can form a scale degree chord by putting notes together in intervals of thirds (aka – “tertian harmony“.) However, only the tones of the scale can be put together.

    Here’s how it works…

    In the key of C, we can form scale degree chords using the notes of the C major scale:

    It’s as simple as starting from a given note of the scale, let’s say C:

    …and add other notes in thirds that are in the scale.

    A third from C is E:

    …from E is G:

    …Put together, we have C, E, and G:

    …a scale degree triad that can be extended to a seventh chord:

    …a ninth chord:

    …an eleventh chord:

    …and a thirteenth chord:

    Further reading: Scale Degree Chords.

    Here are the respective chord qualities of scale degree triads:

    Scale Degree Triads

    Chord Quality

    Chord 1

    Major

    Chord 2

    Minor

    Chord 3

    Minor

    Chord 4

    Major

    Chord 5

    Major

    Chord 6

    Minor

    Chord 7

    Diminished

    …and seventh chords:

    Scale Degree Triads

    Chord Quality

    Chord 1

    Major seventh

    Chord 2

    Minor seventh

    Chord 3

    Minor seventh

    Chord 4

    Major seventh

    Chord 5

    Dominant seventh

    Chord 6

    Minor seventh

    Chord 7

    Half-diminished

    Review On Passing Chords

    Passing chords are chords that are used to resolve to scale degree chords.

    There are other classes of passing chords in music, however our use of passing chords in this lesson refers to secondary dominant chords.

    “What are secondary dominant chords?”

    The term dominant is used in music to refer to the fifth degree of the major scale.

    While dominant chords refer to chords that are formed on the fifth degree of the major scale, secondary dominant chords refer to the dominant seventh chords that are a perfect “fifth” above that given scale degree.

    The same way the dominant seventh chord has the strongest resolution and pull towards the chord of the first scale degree, secondary dominants function as the dominant seventh chords that have the strongest pull towards other scale degree chords.

    In the C major scale:

    …D is the second degree. The scale degree seventh chord formed on D is the D minor seventh chord:

    The passing chord that would resolve to the D minor seventh chord is its secondary dominant, which is a fifth above its root.

    A fifth above D is A:

    Therefore, the A dominant seventh chord is the passing chord that takes us to chord 2 – the D minor seventh chord.

    Due to the fact that the A dominant seventh chord functions as a passing chord to chord 2, it is known to music scholars as the “five of [chord] 2”, which literally means the dominant of chord 2.

    Attention: The term dominant should always be associated with the number 5.

    “On The 1st Tone…”

    Possible scale degree chords that you can form on the first degree of the C major scale include [but it’s not limited to]:

    The C major triad:

    …the C major seventh:

    …the C major ninth:

    …and several other voicings of the major chord. These chords are called scale degree chords because they are built entirely of scale tones.

    If you do compare these scale degree chords side by side with these other C chords:

    The C dominant seventh:

    …the C dominant ninth:

    …the C dominant thirteenth [sharp eleventh]:

    …and other dominant chord voicings, you’ll notice other tones that are foreign to the key that we’re in (C major), like the Bb and F# tones.

    Due to the first scale degree is associated with the major chord quality, the major chords without foreign tones (whether sevenths, ninths, elevenths, or thirteenths) are scale degree chords while the other dominant seventh chords are considered to be the secondary dominant chords of another degree of the scale.

    Dominant seventh chords resolve downwards by a fifth and C dominant chords are no exception. The C dominant chord resolves downwards to F major chords – whether triads, sevenths, et al.

    Function

    Let’s look at the function of both chords – major and dominant.

    The major chord functions as the scale degree chord while the dominant chord functions as a passing chord that resolves to chord 4.

    The major chord is chord 1 while the dominant chord is the five of chord 4.

    In a nutshell, you can have two classes of chords on the first tone – the scale degree chord and the passing chord. The latter takes you to chord 4.

    If you’re asked to play chord 1 in the key of C, you know its scale degree chords you should play versus when you need chords that would take you to chord 4 (when you’ll need dominant chords.)

    Not all C chords in the key of C fit into what is called chord 1.

    Attention: The same thing applies to the fourth tone of the scale.

    “On The 2nd Tone…”

    You can form the following scale degree chords on the second degree of the C major scale:

    The D minor triad:

    …the D minor seventh:

    …the D minor ninth:

    …and more.

    If you do compare these scale degree chords side by side with these other D chords:

    The D dominant seventh:

    …the D dominant ninth:

    …the D dominant thirteenth [sharp eleventh]:

    …and other dominant chord voicings, you’ll notice other tones that are foreign to the key that we’re in (C major), like the F# and G# tones

    As you know, the second degree of the major scale is associated with the minor chord quality. Therefore minor chords without foreign tones (whether sevenths, ninths, elevenths, or thirteenths) are scale degree chords while the other dominant seventh chords are considered to be the secondary dominant chords that resolve to another scale degree.

    Dominant seventh chords resolve downwards by a fifth and D dominant chords are no exception. The D dominant chord resolves downwards to chord 5.

    Function

    Let’s look at the function of both chords – minor and dominant.

    The minor chord functions as the scale degree chord while the dominant chord functions as a passing chord that resolves to chord 5.

    The minor chord is chord 2 while the dominant chord is the five of chord 5.

    In a nutshell, you can have two classes of chords on the second tone – the scale degree chord and the passing chord. The latter takes you to chord 5.

    If you’re asked to play chord 2 in the key of C, it’s either you play its scale degree chords or you play its passing chords that would take you to chord 5.

    Not all D chords in the key of C fit into what is called chord 2. some function as passing chords or secondary dominant chords that resolve to chord 5.

    Attention: The same thing applies to the third and sixth tones of the scale.

    Final Words

    That a chord’s root note is the 1st tone of the scale doesn’t necessarily mean its chord 1.

    Chords formed on the first tone can either be scale degree or passing chords. Passing chords especially the secondary dominant chords are easy to identify because of their dominant seventh chord quality.

    Considering that the scale degree chords formed on the second, third, and sixth degrees of the chord are usually minor whether played as triads or seventh chords, when the dominant seventh chord is played in any of these degrees (second et al), that should tell you that it’s a secondary dominant chord (aka – “passing chord”.)

    Root Note

    Scale Degree Chord

    Passing Chord

    1st Tone

    Chord 1

    Five of Chord 4

    2nd Tone

    Chord 2

    Five of Chord 5

    3rd Tone

    Chord 3

    Five of Chord 6

    4th Tone

    Chord 4

    ***

    5th Tone

    Chord 5

    Five of Chord 1

    6th Tone

    Chord 6

    Five of Chord 2

    7th Tone

    Chord 7

    Five of Chord 3

    The following two tabs change content below.
    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 the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




    songtutor600x314jpg

    gospelnewbanner3jpg

    { 0 comments… add one now }

    Leave a Comment

    Previous post:

    Next post: