• How to add flavor and spice with the power of chord substitutions

    in Chords & Progressions

    I’ve talked a lot about substitutions in the past. We’ve studied tritone substitutions, diminished seventh chord substitutions, ditone substitutions, and more.

    Today, I want to go even further and talk about another popular type of substitution… the tonic substitution.”

    As you may know from past lessons, the first degree of the scale is called the “tonic.” In fact, every degree of the scale has a name.

    It’s just a fancy way to say “home.” The first degree of the scale is basically the key you’re song is in. It’s the first and last tone of the scale. When you’re playing a chord off the first tone of the scale, it has a feeling of “home” and “rest.” It’s at peace. That’s why most songs end on the “1” (or the “tonic”).

    In songs, often times you can substitute other chords for the normal “1-chords.” Composers do this to make the song more interesting. Rather than always going back to the same type of “1-chord,” they put in other stuff to spice things up… to make things less predictable. And if you have any of my GospelKeys courses, you know that unpredictability is key in differentiating yourself from other musicians.

    So when it comes to tonic substitutions, there are two other degrees of the scale that are great candidates to replace the “1.”

    But before I tell you them, let’s consider each degree of the scale:

    C major

    1st degree = C major 7 (C + E + G + B)
    2nd degree = D minor 7 (D + F + A + C)
    3rd degree = E minor 7 (E + G + B + D)
    4th degree = F major 7 (F + A + C + E)
    5th degree = G dominant 7 (G + B + D + F)
    6th degree = A minor 7 (A + C + E + G)
    7th degree = B half-diminished 7 (B + D + F + A)

    In this example, the tonic chord would usually be something based on C major 7. Of course, you can drop the “7” and only play C major triad if you want (C+E+G) or you can expand the 7 and play a major 9th chord (C + E + G + B + D) or even an 11th or 13th chord. But the idea is… usually it’s something “major sounding” and its usually based on the first tone of your scale.

    But when you’re substituting other chords for the tonic, you’re pretty much going to an entirely different tone of the scale instead. We’re not talking about simply changing notes in your chord. I’m talking about playing a totally different chord in its place.

    There are tons of candidates but I’m going to talk about the most popular 2.

    The “6th” degree and the “3rd” degree!

    6th degree

    In other lessons, you’ve learned that the 6th degree is the relative minor of the major key you’re in so there’s no surprise that it can act as a substitute.

    Now that’s another lesson in and of itself and I encourage you to use my search box in the upper right hand corner to search for “relative minor.” But for now, just know that the 6th tone and has very special bond with the 1st tone. They are close relatives! In fact, their scales share the same notes. In this case, “A” is the relative minor of “C major.” If you played the notes of the “A minor” scale, they would be identical to the notes of the “C major scale.” This rule goes for the 6th tone of ANY major scale.

    So basically, whenever a song is supposed to come back “home” to the tonic, many will divert to the 6th degree. In this case, an “A minor 7” chord or some derivative of it.

    And if you really think about it, the notes of the “A minor 7” chord are not that far off from the notes of the “C major 7” chord.

    Let’s compare:

    C major 7

    A minor 7

    They pretty much share all but one note. In fact, the “C major” triad is a part of the “A minor 7” chord.

    In “Amazing Grace,” you can see this tonic substitution at work:

    “A-ma-zing grace* how”
    C major (1st inversion) ~~~
    (E + G + C)

    “Sweet the”
    F major (root inversion) ~~~
    (F + A + C)

    C major (root inversion) ~~~
    (C + E + G)

    E minor (2nd inversion)
    (B + E + G)

    “saved a”
    A minor 7 ~~~
    (E + A + C / A bass)

    “wretch like”
    D major (add 9) ~~~
    (F# + A + E / D bass)

    G major (first inversion) ~~~
    (B + D + G)

    Do you see the tonic substitution at work in this song? The song could have easily gone back to the regular “1-chord” tonic on “saved” but it didn’t. Well, I take back… when people play the basic version of the song, they actually do go back to the regular 1-chord, which is major. But that’s only in very basic arrangements of “Amazing Grace.” 90% of arrangements go to a minor chord on “saved.” That is a tonic substitution! It’s when you don’t have to go there but you do… and when you do, it provides more interest and flavor.

    3rd degree

    Similar to the 6th degree, you can use the 3rd degree of the scale as a tonic substitution.

    So in the key of C major, instead of going back to a C major 7 chord, you’d go to an E minor 7 chord.

    Let’s compare the chords:

    C major 7

    E minor 7

    Lo and behold, these chords share all but one note. It’s basically the OPPOSITE of the notes shared with the first tonic substitution above. Basically, the C major 7 chord has an “E minor” (E+G+B) triad inside it.

    And just like the 6th degree above, this makes the 3rd degree an awesome candidate! Instead of going back to the 1-chord like you’d normally do, use the minor 7 chord on the 3rd degree and it will provide the spice you’re looking for!

    So what’s the moral of the story?

    Looks for chords that are strikingly similar and experiment with substituting one for the other. A lot of it can be systematized like the two I’ve shown you here but many will come about by “trial and error.”

    I’ve interviewed tons of musicians and all of them say the same thing — that their nicest chords came unexpectedly by trial and error. So start paying close attention to chords you already play. Notice which ones share common tones and then start replacing one for the other. Remember other components like the melody and you’ll really be on the right track (that is, if you can find a chord that shares most of the notes WHILE keeping the melody on top, then you’re golden!)

    I hope you enjoyed this lesson!

    Until next time —

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    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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