• A Breakdown Of The Dominant Chord

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory

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    Today we will doing a study on the dominant chord.

    The dominant chord is one of the best things that happened to harmony in music. In the past 500 years, music has been based on the dominant-tonic relationship and tonality. Tonality cannot be established without the dominant-tonic relationship.

    I won’t go into the history of tonality in this lesson because we have a lot to learn in this post. So, permit me to give you an overview on the concept of tonality.

    An Overview On The Concept Of Tonality

    The concept of “key” replaces the neutrality of having twelve tones:

    …with the concept of tonality, which is the establishment of a particular tone as the principal tone (aka – “tonic”) and having other notes revolving around it. The tonality is a key environment where there’s an attraction towards the tonic (more on this later).

    Making E:

    …the tonal center [or the key center] means that E is the the principal tone (aka – “tonic”) and other tones are revolving around it.

    There are two distinct tonalities in music – the major key and the minor key and irrespective of the tonality, there must be a strong connection between the dominant and the tonic (aka – “tonic-dominant relationship”.)

    At this point, defining the terms tonic and dominant is necessary.

    The tonic is the scale degree name (aka – “technical name”) of the first tone in a major or minor key.

    The dominant is the scale degree name (aka – “technical name”) of the fifth tone in a major or minor key.

    Tonality is established by the strong attraction between the fifth and first tones in any key – whether major or minor. Now that you’re familiar with the tonic as the principal tone of the tonality, let’s talk about the dominant.

    The Dominant

    The dominant is the fifth degree of the major or minor scale and has the strongest pull in music towards the first degree (aka – “tonic”).

    The tonic chord establishes a stable environment while the dominant chord creates an attraction to it. Chords built on the dominant have a level of activity or tendency that resolves to a chord of the tonic.

    For instance, the fifth degree in the key of C major:

    …is G:

    Consequently, chords that are formed on G:

    …(which is the fifth degree of the C major scale), are known as dominant chords.

    They are referred to as dominant chords because there are various classes of chords that can be formed on the dominant, ranging from triads, like G major:

    …to seventh chords – the G dominant seventh chord:

    …to ninth chords – the G dominant ninth chord:

    …and other extended chords. The term dominant chord  is a generic term that refers to all chords that are formed on the fifth degree in any key you’re in [whether major or minor].

    However, we’ll be limiting our scope to the dominant triad. To learn more about the extended dominant chord, check out this post on the harmonic value of the dominant ninth chord.

    In the next segment, I’ll be showing you the harmonic constituents of the dominant triad that makes it vital.

    The Harmonic Constituents Of The Dominant Triad

    The dominant triad is a major triad, however, it’s called a dominant triad because it is built on the fifth degree of the scale (aka – “the dominant”). Although it’s a major chord structurally, it is functionally a dominant triad because it’s rooted on the fifth degree of the scale.

    The G major triad:

    …in the key of C:

    …is a dominant triad.

    Take note that the dominant triad consists of the fifth, seventh, and the second tones of the major scale. In the case of the G major triad:

    …which is the dominant triad in the key of C, its tones – G, B, and D:

    …are the fifth:


    …and second:

    …tones of the C major scale:

    “Let’s take a closer look at these tones…”

    The Fifth Tone

    The fifth tone of the scale is technically known as the dominant. Its attraction towards the tonic has been proven scientifically, acoustically, and musically.

    Remember that we established earlier that it is the relationship between the dominant and the tonic that reinforces tonality.

    The Seventh Tone

    The leading note is the next. The leading note has a high affinity for the tonic.

    When you are playing the C major scale:

    …in ascending fashion, and you stop on the seventh tone (B):

    …you’ll notice a sort of unrest or a tendency to move on to the eighth tone (C):

    …and that is why the major scale is played with the eighth note, because the leading note has a strong tendency to resolve to the tonic – which is a half step above it, whether in the major or in the minor key.

    The Second Tone

    The last tone of the dominant triad is second tone of the major scale. While playing the C major scale:

    …in a descending fashion, the second tone (D):

    …has the tendency to resolve to the first tone of the scale (C):

    …the same way the leading tone resolves to the eighth degree (aka – “the octave”).

    In a nutshell, nothing can be more satisfying like resolving the second tone of the scale downward to the first tone of the scale.

    So, the G dominant triad contains the fifth, seventh, and second tones:

    …of the C major scale:

    …which resolve to the tonic triad:

    Feel free to expand the dominant triad to a seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. Kindly check out this post on the dominant seventh chord and how to expand the dominant seventh chord.

    Final Words

    This is the much we can cover today on the dominant triad, but before we call it a day, let’s take a look at the function of the dominant chord.

    The dominant chord functions as the strongest [and mostly preferred] harmonic force that pulls you to the tonic. But beyond that, it can be used in tonicization.

    Tonicization is the contradiction of a key (aka – “tonality“) and the establishment of a new key temporarily.

    Here’s how it works…

    While in the key of C Major:

    …we can contradict the key of C major and establish the key of E minor:


    To achieve this, we’ll need to prepare the ground for the tonic triad in the key of E minor. Preparing the ground here means playing a chord that will contradict the key of C major:

    …and establish the key of E minor:

    Taking advantage of the dominant-tonic relationship that reinforces tonality, we can go ahead to prepare the grounds for the E minor triad:

    …the tonic triad in the key of E minor:

    …with its dominant.

    Considering that the dominant (aka – “the fifth tone”) of the E [harmonic] minor scale:

    …is B, we can use the B major triad:

    …to tonicize E minor.

    The B major triad:

    …contains D# and F#:

    …which are foreign to the key of C major:

    …and that’s the idea – playing something that contradicts the key of C major and establishes the key of E minor. We’ll talk more on tonicization in subsequent posts.

    The concept of secondary dominant chords is another powerful application of dominant chords in harmony that features the use of dominant chords as passing chords to scale degree chords.

    Suggested reading: Introduction To Secondary Dominant Chords.

    I appreciate you for the time invested in reading this post. See you next time!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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


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