• Here’s An Easier Way To Master Secondary Dominant Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    secondary dominant chords

    There’s finally an easier way to master secondary dominant chords.

    In a previous post, we did a study on secondary dominant chords. We covered their harmonic function as passing chords that resolve to scale degree chords.

    Considering that beyond understanding what secondary dominant chords are, we ought to have them on our fingertips, we’ll be going deeper into today’s post by looking at two easier approaches to determining the secondary dominant of a scale degree chord.

    You may want to know more about secondary dominant chords before we proceed.

    Review Of Secondary Dominant Chords

    The term dominant refers to the “fifth degree” of a major scale.

    Chords built on the fifth degree or chord 5 (aka – “dominant [seventh] chords”) are the strongest chords in terms of resolution to chord 1 and this is because of a variety of reasons we can’t delve into right now.

    By the way, considering that the end of a song has to have a sense of finality, most songs end by a chord progression from chord 5 to chord 1. This happens a lot of the time because there’s no better way to give a sense of finality outside the use of chord 5 (aka – “the dominant seventh chord”) to chord 1.

    The concept of secondary dominant chords bothers on imitating this chord 5 to chord 1 relationship.

    The same way the chord of the fifth degree (the dominant chord) resolves to chord 1, secondary dominant chords have their fifth relationship respectively with other scale degrees.

    Take a look at these illustrations…

    The second tone of key C major:

    …is D:

    …and music scholars refer to scale degree chords that are formed on this tone as chord 2.

    Although we’re not in the key of D, however, the concept of secondary dominant has to do with imitating (or reproducing) the chord 5 to chord 1 (aka – “fifth”) relationship in the second tone of the scale. To do this, we’ll be using a chord formed on the dominant or fifth degree of the D major scale to resolve to chord 2.

    To learn more about dominant seventh chords, check out this post on an in-depth study of the dominant seventh chord.

    In a nutshell, secondary dominant chords are passing chords that take us to scale degree chords. These passing chords are a perfect fifth above the root of their respective scale degree chords.

    In sync with their respective functions, secondary dominant seventh chords are named in respect to the scale degree chord they resolve to…

    The secondary dominant of chord 2 is known as five of chord 2.

    The secondary dominant of chord 6 is known as five of chord 6.

    Further reading: Passing Chords 101: Introduction to Secondary Dominant Chords.

    Beyond this point, I’ll assume that you’re already acquainted with the concept of secondary dominant chords. If you think my assumption is wrong, then I suggest you follow the reading suggestion.

    “How Do I Know The Secondary Dominant Of A Given Scale Degree?”

    Beyond the challenges of the knowing secondary dominant chords lies the challenge of knowing the secondary dominant chord of all scale degrees in all twelve keys.

    In this segment, we’ll be exploring two techniques that can help anyone learn the secondary dominant of any given scale degree.

    Technique #1 – Using Major or Minor Triads

    You can determine the secondary dominant of a given scale degree if you know the major or minor triad of that scale degree.

    This is simple and practical. Here’s a background knowledge on this technique…

    The triad consists of a root, third, and fifth tone. The C major triad:

    …has C:

    …as its root, E:

    …as its third, and G:

    …as its fifth.

    The fifth tone of the C major triad is G:

    …and that’s pretty much the dominant we’re looking for.

    Right?

    Now we’ve determined that the dominant of C is G, we’ll go ahead and form a dominant seventh chord in the key of G – the G dominant seventh chord:

    The same thing is obtainable using the C minor triad:

    …and this is because G is equally its fifth tone.

    So, feel free to use either the major or minor triad to determine the secondary dominant of any scale degree.

    In a nutshell, using the C major triad:

    …(or minor triad), you can determine the secondary dominant of any C scale degree chord irrespective of the key. Check out these two examples…

    In the key of C:

    …where C is the first tone, and the C major ninth chord:

    …is chord 1, the secondary dominant chord would be the G dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 1 in the key of C.

    In the key of Eb:

    …where C is the sixth tone, and the C minor ninth chord:

    …is chord 6, the secondary dominant would still be the G dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 2 in the key of Bb.

    “How Do I Know The Secondary Dominant Of D Scale Degree Chords?”

    The same thing is obtainable for D scale degree triads.

    The D major:

    …and D minor triads:

    …have the A note:

    …as their fifth tone respectively. That means that A is the secondary dominant of the D scale degree chords.

    Therefore, it doesn’t matter the key we’re in, provided that D is a scale degree chord, we can use the A dominant seventh chord as a passing chord to the D scale degree chord. I’m sure you know how we got the A dominant seventh chord.

    In the key of C:

    …where D is the second tone, and the D minor seventh chord:

    …is chord 2, the secondary dominant would be the A dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 2 in the key of C.

    In the key of Bb:

    …where D is the third tone, and the D minor seventh chord:

    …is chord 3, the secondary dominant would still be the A dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 3 in the key of Bb.

    The same thing is obtainable for other scale degree triads…

    E scale degree chords

    The E major triad:

    …has B as its fifth, therefore the B dominant seventh chord:

    …is the secondary dominant chord of all E scale degree chords.

    Still in the key of C:

    …where E is the third tone, and the E minor seventh chord:

    …is chord 3, the secondary dominant would be the B dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 3 in the key of C.

    F scale degree chords

    The F major triad:

    …has C as its fifth, therefore the C dominant seventh chord:

    …is the secondary dominant chord of all F scale degree chords.

    In the key of C:

    …where F is the fourth tone, and the F major seventh chord:

    …is chord 4, the secondary dominant would be the C dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 4 in the key of C.

    G scale degree chords

    The G major triad:

    …has D as its fifth, therefore the D dominant seventh chord:

    …is the secondary dominant chord of all G scale degree chords.

    In the key of C:

    …where G is the fifth tone, and the G dominant seventh chord:

    …is chord 5, the secondary dominant would be the D dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 5 in the key of C.

    A scale degree chords

    The A major triad:

    …has E as its fifth, therefore the E dominant seventh chord:

    …is the secondary dominant chord of all A scale degree chords.

    In the key of C:

    …where A is the sixth tone, and the A minor seventh chord:

    …is chord 6, the secondary dominant would be the E dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 6 in the key of C.

    B scale degree chords

    The B major triad:

    …has F# as its fifth, therefore the F# dominant seventh chord:

    …is the secondary dominant chord of all B scale degree chords.

    In the key of C:

    …where B is the seventh tone, and the B half-diminished seventh chord:

    …is chord 7, the secondary dominant would be the F# dominant seventh chord:

    …which is functioning as five of chord 7 in the key of C.

    Technique #2 – Using The Musical Clock

    We can hardly conclude discussions on subjects like this without bringing the circle of fifths and fourths chart:circleoffiths1…into the picture.

    In this chart, notes are arranged in fifths in such a way that the chord 1 and chord 5 relationship is seen between two adjacent sectors in this circle in a clock-wise direction.

    For example, G by virtue of its adjacent position to C in the clockwise direction (at the 1 o’clock position) is the secondary dominant of C.

    It’s that simple – it doesn’t get any easier than that! Here are practical questions this technique can help you answer.

    “What’s the secondary dominant of a D scale degree triad?”

    Answer: In the clockwise direction, A is adjacent to D. Therefore the A dominant seventh chord is the secondary dominant of all D scale degree triads.

    “What’s the secondary dominant of an Ab scale degree triad?”

    Answer: In the clockwise direction, Eb is adjacent to Ab. Therefore the Eb dominant seventh chord is the secondary dominant of all Ab scale degree triads.

    Now that we’ve covered the techniques, let’s look at an easy way to form secondary dominant seventh chords.

    Formation of Secondary Dominant Chords

    All secondary dominant chords are basically dominant seventh chords. There is no chord quality known as the secondary dominant.

    There are so many ways to form the dominant seventh chord and we’ve covered a few of them in a previous lesson. But before we end this lesson, let’s look at one easy way to form secondary dominant chords (which are dominant seventh chords in actuality.)

    Using any known major triad, you can form the dominant seventh chord using these three simple steps…

    Step #1

    Determine the root of the dominant seventh chord you want to form and form its major triad.

    Step #2

    Turn the major triad into a four note triad by duplicating its root.

    Step #3

    Lower the duplicate note by a whole step.

    Here’s how to form the Eb dominant seventh chord using these three simple steps.

    Step #1

    The root of the Eb dominant seventh chord is Eb:

    …and here’s its major triad:

    Step #2

    Duplicating the root of the Eb major triad would produce the Eb four note triad:

    …with two Eb tones that are an octave apart:

    Step #3

    Lowering the duplicate note here (the higher Eb note):

    …by a whole step to Db:

    …would produce the Eb dominant seventh chord:

    If you follow the three steps, you’ll practically form the dominant seventh chord in any key.

    Final Words

    We’ve already covered a lot today that I dare not go into practical applications of secondary dominant chords.

    Make the most out of what we’ve covered so far while I get back at you with another exciting lesson on secondary dominant chords.

    All the best!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku 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.




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