• # Do you use secondary dominant chords?

in Theory

Today, 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!

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#### Jermaine Griggs

Founder at HearandPlay.com
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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