• Passing Chords 101: Introduction to Secondary Dominant Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    secondary dominant chords

    If you’re interested in learning passing chords, then this lesson is for you.

    Chord progressions get more exciting when we connect two chords or more with passing chords. For example, connecting a chord progression in key C from chord 1:

    …to chord 6:

    …can sound better if we interject a passing chord in between. If you don’t believe me, wait until we get into this lesson.

    Trusting that you are already familiar with the dominant seventh chord, we’ll go ahead and explore secondary dominant chords which is another way of putting the dominant seventh chord to work.

    A very good way to start this is to do a short review on dominant [seventh] chords.

    “What Is A Dominant [Seventh] Chord?”

    The term dominant refers to the fifth degree of the major scale. Therefore, a dominant chord is simply the chord of the fifth degree of the major or minor scale.

    IMPORTANT: Throughout this lesson, five and dominant are used in such a way that they are synonymous.

    If you are in the key of C major:

    …the fifth degree of the C major scale is G:

    Therefore the chord formed from G in relationship to C major is the dominant chord.

    Attention: Music scholars have technical names for every degree of the major or minor scale. While the first degree is known as the tonic, the fifth degree is known as the dominant.

    “So, back to the key of C major where G is the fifth degree…”

    Formation of the dominant chord is easy if you’re familiar with the HearandPlay pick-skip technique. Here’s how it’s done…

    Pick G:

    …skip A and pick B:

    …skip C and pick D:

    …and that’s a dominant triad.

    If we go ahead to skip E and pick F:

    …this would produce a dominant seventh chord – so called because it spans an interval of seven scale degrees from G to F:

    Choice is all yours to make whether you want to form a triad or a seventh chord. Any chord formed on the fifth degree of the major/minor scale remains a dominant chord.

    Further reading: Dominant Seventh Chord.

    Function of the Dominant Chord

    If someone should ask you how dominant chords are applied, here’s what you should answer…

    The dominant chord has the strongest pull towards the tonic in chord progressions. It is the best option that can pull you back to the tonic of the key that you are in.

    In the key of C major, where the C major triad:

    …is chord 1, the chord that has the strongest pull to the C major triad, is the G dominant chord.

    Now you know its a G dominant chord, you can either use a G major triad:

    …or the G dominant seventh chord:

    The same thing is obtainable in the minor key…

    Let’s use the key of A minor:

    …as a reference.

    The chord that has the strongest pull to the A minor triad:

    …which is chord 1 in the key of A minor is the E dominant chord.

    Feel free to either use an E major triad:

    …or the E dominant seventh chord:

    …to resolve to the A minor triad.
    Attention: Even though you’re at liberty to use either a major triad or a dominant seventh chord as your dominant chord, you need to be aware that the dominant seventh chord is dissonant while the major triad sounds consonant. It’s usually better to use the dominant seventh chord (a discord) since we’re resolving to the tonic chord (which is a concord.)

    Now that we have an understanding of the dominant chord and most importantly its function, let’s proceed to secondary dominant chords.

    Secondary Dominant Chords

    Let’s look at the concept of secondary dominant chords. “So, what are secondary dominant chords?”

    Secondary dominant chords are dominant chords that resolve to other degrees of the scale other than the tonic.

    The same way the dominant seventh chord of the 5th degree resolves to chord 1, there are other dominant seventh triads that resolve to other degrees of the scale – the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh degrees.

    They are called secondary dominant chords.

    Therefore, the secondary dominant of any degree of the scale is simply the dominant seventh chord in the key of that scale degree.

    Let’s do four exercises that would help us determine secondary dominant chords.

    Exercise #1 – What is the secondary dominant of Chord 3?

    Chord 3 in the key of C is the E minor triad. So, what’s the corresponding dominant in the key of E minor?

    In the E harmonic minor scale:

    …the fifth tone (aka – “dominant”) is B:

    Therefore, we can form a dominant seventh chord in B:

    …which would function as the secondary dominant of the E minor triad.

    Considering that the E minor triad is chord 3 in the key of C major, its dominant (B dominant seventh) is called five of chord 3.

    Five of chord 3 literally means dominant of chord 3. Always remember that the relationship between the dominant and five.

    So, the B dominant seventh chord:

    …is a secondary dominant chord in the key of C major, functioning as five of chord 3.

    Here’s the resolution from five of chord 3:

    …to chord 3:

    Exercise #2 – What is the secondary dominant of Chord 6?

    Chord 6 in the key of C is the A minor triad. So, what’s the corresponding dominant in the key of A minor?

    In the A harmonic minor scale:

    …the fifth tone (aka – “dominant”) is E:

    Therefore, we can form a dominant seventh chord in E:

    …which would function as the secondary dominant of the A minor triad.

    Considering that the A minor triad is chord 6 in the key of C major, its dominant (E dominant seventh) is called five of chord 6.

    So, the E dominant seventh chord:

    …is a secondary dominant chord in the key of C major, functioning as five of chord 6.

    Here’s the resolution from five of chord 6:

    …to chord 6:

    Check out the remaining exercises…


    Exercise #3 – What is the secondary dominant of Chord 2?

    Chord 2 in the key of C is the D minor triad. So, what’s the corresponding dominant in the key of D minor?

    In the D harmonic minor scale:

    …the fifth tone (aka – “dominant”) is A:

    Therefore, we can form a dominant seventh chord in A:

    …which would function as the secondary dominant of the D minor triad.

    Considering that the D minor triad is chord 2 in the key of C major, its dominant (A dominant seventh) is called five of chord 2.

    So, the A dominant seventh chord:

    …is a secondary dominant chord in the key of C major, functioning as five of chord 2.

    Here’s the resolution from five of chord 2:

    …to chord 2:

    Exercise #4 – What is the secondary dominant of Chord 5?

    Knowing that chord 5 in the key of C is the G major triad, So, what’s the corresponding dominant in the key of G major?

    In the G major scale:

    …the fifth tone (aka – “dominant”) is D:

    Therefore, we can form a dominant seventh chord in D:

    …which would function as the secondary dominant of the G major triad.

    Considering that the G major triad is chord 5 in the key of C major, its dominant (D dominant seventh) is called five of chord 5.

    So, the D dominant seventh chord:

    …is a secondary dominant chord in the key of G major, functioning as five of chord 5.

    Here’s the resolution from five of chord 5:

    …to chord 5:

    Here’s a table of scale degree chords and their secondary dominant chords respectively:

    Scale degree chord

    Secondary dominant

    Chord 2 – D minor

    Five of two – A dominant seventh

    Chord 3 – E minor

    Five of three – B dominant seventh

    Chord 4 – F major

    Five of four – C dominant seventh

    Chord 5 – G major

    Five of five – D dominant seventh

    Chord 6 – A minor

    Five of three – E dominant seventh

    At this 101 stage, we’re not covering chord seven and its secondary dominant.

    Start working on connecting scale degree chords and secondary dominant seventh chords before I return with another exciting post on passing chords and secondary dominants.

    Final Words

    Every scale degree has its secondary dominant that has the strongest pull to it.

    These secondary dominant chords pretty much function as what we call passing chords in music because you can pass through them to get through to scale degree chords.

    I suppose you know that…

    Five of Chord 1 functions as a passing chord to chord 1

    Five of Chord 2 functions as a passing chord to chord 2

    Five of Chord 3 functions as a passing chord to chord 3

    In the same vein…

    Five of Chord 4 takes you to chord 4

    Five of Chord 5 takes you to chord 5

    Five of Chord 6 takes you to chord 6

    This is where we’ll draw the curtains in today’s post. See you some other time.

     

    P.S.

    I learned secondary dominants in a much more easier way form our GospelKeys 202 – Mastering Worship Chords course where our president took me by the hand and showed me how to apply all what we covered here an more in everyday worship songs.

    If you want to take a decision that will help you solve the need for passing chords forever, click the link below.

    Yes! I want to bypass the longer route of learning about “secondary dominants” the hard way.

    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.




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    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 jayagopi jagadeesan

    Hi Jermaine,
    Excellent article on secondary dominant chords.
    I’m sure you have another article on how to use them to form great chord progressions.
    Please let me know, if you have such an article.
    Thanks for your excellent, but also concise, simple, inspiring and great presentation.
    I love every article of yours man.
    Thanks.
    cheers,
    jay

    Reply

    2 zino

    nice

    Reply

    3 jack

    iv’e really enjoyed the lesson on secondary dominants.It’s something that has foxed me for a time.Even though I come across it a lot in jazz I’ve never tried to analyse it before.Whenever I hear jazz musicians talk about the dom7 I always thought they were showing off,perhaps wrongly of me.
    However your explanation of it,dom7, was crystal clear and I thank you for it.
    jack.

    Reply

    4 Harry

    Hi Chuck. Great post on secondary dominants. I never stopped to think about the importance of them and how I use them in my everyday playing but this article helped me put it in perspective how I can further use this info. to be more efficient in my ear training or even when I teach my students. Gonna keep an eye out for more quality posts!

    Reply

    5 Harry

    *Chuku

    Reply

    6 Chuku Onyemachi

    Thanks so much Harry. I’m glad you appreciate.

    Reply

    7 Hannah

    This is the first thing on Hear and Play I haven’t understood. But I’ve looked it up on other websites and they’re not help either. Secondary dominant is the fifth of any diatonic tone of a scale. I get that. The rest though is incomprehensible. Maybe go slower?

    Reply

    8 Jermaine Griggs

    Hannah – What the author is saying is that…

    1) Secondary dominant is a dominant chord leading to any tone of the scale other than the tonic (the root, the 1).

    2) In this method, it involves “tonicizing” the other tones of the scale (that is, thinking of them as being the key you’re in temporarily). For example, if a secondary dominant chord is leading to A minor, you must think temporarily in the key of A harmonic minor. If the secondary dominant chord is leading to F major, you’d think temporarily in the key of F major.

    3) In the temporary key, what is the dominant chord on the 5th degree? Well, in A minor, the 5th degree is E. Forming an E dominant chord in the key of A harmonic minor (using every other tone of THAT scale starting on E), would give you E + G# + B + D. If you already know your dominant chords (because you’ve been following our 16 week free chord program), even better! In F major, the 5th tone is C. Forming a dominant chord using every other note of the F major scale starting on C would give you C + E + G + Bb.

    4) A C dominant 7 (C E G Bb) going to F major in the key of C would be a secondary dominant chord. An E dominant 7 (E G# B D) going to A minor 7 in the key of C would also be a secondary dominant chord.

    Besides that, I don’t think the blog post goes any further. Perhaps it was just the construction of the dominant 7th chords in the respective keys that confused you? Hopefully, this helps a little bit.

    Thanks,
    JG

    Reply

    9 Taiwo David

    Excellent article on secondary dominant chords.
    I’m sure you have another article on how to use them to form great chord progressions.
    Please let me know, if you have such an article.
    Thanks for your excellent,……Sir i will love you to do a lesson right hand melody and right left hand chord that go with them.

    Thank you so much sir and God bless you

    Reply

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