While the mediant (iii chord) isn’t as structurally integral as the tonic, dominant, or subdominant, employing its major variation can provide an unexpected surprise that will make listeners’ ears perk up every time.
Poor little mediant; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Of all the diatonic chords, only the diminished vii chord gets less love from songwriters. The mediant (iii chord) isn’t as structurally integral as the tonic (I chord), dominant (V chord), or subdominant (IV chord). It’s not one of the “four-chord song” chords, like the submediant (vi chord). And it’s not a powerful predominant chord like the supertonic (ii chord).
The mediant is just a chord that sounds nice but is a little too similar to the tonic to warrant much use. (A recent analysis of the most-used chords in pop music reveal that the mediant chord is only used in 17% of popular songs.) And yet, with one little tiny tweak, that mediant chord can suddenly provide an unexpected surprise that will make listeners’ ears perk up every time. So let’s explore the major mediant chord.
First, let’s get our nomenclature straightened out. The mediant chord is simply a chord built on the third scale degree of our tonic. In other words, in the key of C major, the mediant chord is E minor. If you compare a C major and E minor chord, you’ll see how similar they are, sharing two common tones:
C major = C-E-G
E minor = E-G-B
A chord progression that goes from C major to E minor (I to iii) is a perfectly fine, if not terribly strong progression. (Think of the first two chords of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”)
But let’s turn that minor iii into a major III:
C major = C-E-G
E major = E-G#-B
Whereas iii and I have two common tones, III and I share only one. Now if we go from a tonic to a major mediant, we have something that’s sure to startle.
Let’s check out one of the more famous uses of this chord: “Creep” by Radiohead.
Here is the chord progression, note the major mediant is the second chord.
It’s such a strong progression the band never deviates from it throughout the entire song. But why does it work so well?
If we analyze the notes in each chord, we can see strong chromatic movement (highlighted in red) between the chords.
G#: G#-B# (or C)-D#
Am: A-C (or B#)-E
When we move from E major to G# major, we feel that B# note pulling us up to C#, which is what makes the song yearn to move to A major. When the band uses an A minor chord, suddenly that C (or B#) note is pulling us back down to B, which is why returning to E major feels so satisfying.
Because of this chromatic movement, the chord that most often follows a major mediant is the IV, or subdominant chord.
We have a similar progression in the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” although here it’s I-vi-III-IV:
And we hear it again in the chorus of the Jayhawks’ “Blue.” You can hear the chord on the second half of the word “blue,” at 0:53 in the video. (Chords: I-III-IV-V) That leap from the I to the III makes this chorus absolutely sparkle.
John Lennon features a nice use of the major-mediant’s tendency to pull us up to the IV chord in “Imagine.” We hear it over the “You may say I’m a dreamer,” section. The song is in C, but this part begins on F. The III chord is E major and it works as a turnaround to bring us back from C to F:
F G C Cmaj7 E E7
You may say I’m a dreamer
F G C Cmaj7 E E7
But I’m not the only one
F G C Cmaj7 E E7
I hope someday you’ll join us
F G C
And the world will be as one
You can hear it at 2:10 in the video.
Another classic use of the III chord is to think of it as a secondary dominant chord for the submediant, or the V-of-vi. This is the trick used in “Georgia on My Mind.” The first three chords for that opening chorus are: I-III-vi.
You can also use the dominant seventh version of III to modulate to VI. Let’s look at an example of this, using another song called “Blue,” this one written by Bill Mack in 1958 and later popularized by LeAnn Rimes.
Here are the chords for the chorus, which we hear in the intro.
Note what’s happening here. Mack is using the dominant seventh form of that C# to lead us to a temporary modulation to F#. And from there he simply follows the circle of fourths back to A major.
This brings me to my favorite use of the III chord, which can be found in “Sleepless Nights,” written by the great Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and made famous by the Every Brothers. Here, the Bryants get to the III chord by way of the flat-seventh, which is a tritone apart. It’s one of the most startling progressions I’ve ever heard, especially since that III is followed by an unusual chromatic descent from D#m to D to C# (vi-bVI-V).
You first hear it on the word “who” in the phrase “and wonder who is kissing you” at 0:15 in the video.
Here are the chords:
Mess around with the major mediant and see if you can come up with your own unique ways to employ it.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at email@example.com.
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