Add Sizzle With Secondary Dominant Chords

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In our continuing exploration of music theory and songwriting, we dive deep into secondary dominant chords, with examples from popular hits.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

In “Use borrowed chords to add drama, depth, and variety to your music,” I looked into the world of borrowed chords, which is the practice of using chords from a key’s parallel modes. But there is a class of chords that are perhaps the most common kinds of “borrowed” chords, known as secondary dominants.

Secondary dominant chords pull your listeners through what might otherwise be a drab chord progression. And best of all, they’re easy to understand and use.

What is a dominant chord?

To understand how to use a secondary dominant, you first need to understand what a dominant chord is.

A dominant chord is a chord built on the fifth degree of the diatonic scale. This chord will naturally want to resolve to the tonic. (In the key of C major, the dominant chord is G major, which will want to resolve to C, the tonic.)

Leading tone

The reason for this pull is that the third of the dominant chord contains the leading tone (the seventh note in the diatonic scale). In other words, a G major chord contains the notes G-B-D. That B is the leading tone of C major, which naturally wants to resolve up to C. So, in order for a chord to be considered dominant, it must contain that leading tone.

Dominant sevenths

To make this pull back to the tonic even stronger, you can turn your dominant chord into a dominant seventh (G7 in the key of C). These chords all contain a tritone, which is inherently unstable, but furthermore, that seventh note will want to resolve down to the middle note in our tonic.

I know that’s confusing, so let’s use the notes in G7 to spell it out: G-B-D-F

The B (our leading tone) wants to resolve up to C (our tonic), while the F wants to resolve down to E, the middle note in C major (C-E-G)

Extended and altered dominants

You can even use extended chords like ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths as dominant chords (e.g., G9, G11, G13). And you don’t have to stop there. As long as your chord contains a flat-seventh note, it will function as a dominant chord. So you can use altered variations of these extended chords, like G7#9, G7b9, and G9#11 as dominants.

Not major sevenths!

Major-seventh chords are not dominant chords, as they do not exert any need to resolve towards the tonic. So, for example, Gmaj7 contains an F# instead of an F. This chord does not contain a tritone, so it’s not as unstable as a G7, nor does that F# want to pull down to the E in a C major. The same is true for extended chords built on major sevenths, like Gmaj9, Gmaj11, and Gmaj13.

Notation

Dominants are usually notated as V chords (using the Roman numeral for 5), and extended chords are notated as V7, V9, V7b9, etc. This will be important when we delve into secondary dominants below.

Finding the dominant

You can use the circle of fifths to quickly find the dominant for any key. Simply locate your key in the circle: the note immediately clockwise of your key is the dominant.

Circle of Fifths

Dominant chords in minor keys

In minor keys, the chord built on the fifth scale degree is also minor. In the key of A minor, for example, the fifth chord is an E minor. E minor contains the notes E-G-B. Since that G note is not the leading tone of A minor (which is G#), E minor is therefore not a dominant chord.

Never fear, though, this is why the harmonic minor scale was created, which simply swaps out that natural seventh scale degree for a sharp-seventh.

So, even in a minor scale, your dominant chord will be a major chord.

What is a secondary dominant?

With all of that out of the way, we can focus on secondary dominants, which are simply dominant chords that are used to resolve to a chord other than the tonic.

So let’s take C major and find the secondary dominants for each chord.

Chord I ii iii IV V vi viiº
In C C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
2nd Dominant G7 A7 B7 C7 D7 E7 – –

Just as G7 pulls us towards C, A7 pulls us towards D minor, B7 pulls us towards E minor, and so on. So we can use secondary dominant chords to pull us through an otherwise drab progression.

(Note: That Bdim is highlighted because it’s the only diatonic chord that doesn’t have a secondary dominant. This is because you can’t really resolve a chord to a diminished chord.)

Using secondary dominants

Let’s take a standard ii-V-I progression (Dm-G-C). That G major is going to pull us to C, but we can create even more tension by pulling us to that G chord. How do we do this? By swapping out that D minor with the secondary dominant of G: D major.

So now our progression is D-G-C.

(By the way, the notation for that D chord is V-of-V or simply: V/V)

If we want this progression to be even stronger, we can use D7-G7-C, which has the nice added benefit of creating a chromatic line cliché. D7 has an F#, which resolves down to the F natural in G7, which again resolves down to the E in C major.

One example of the V/V chord can be found in the chorus of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” The song is in F# major.

The chorus features a nice IV-V/V-V progression (you can hear it at 0:43):

    B
Workin’ 9 to 5 — what a way to make a livin’

    F#
Barely gettin’ by — it’s all takin’ and no givin’

    B
They just use your mind — and they never give you credit

    G# (V/V)    C#
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it

Chaining secondary dominant chords

“Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes offers an interesting use of secondary dominants resolving to other secondary dominants. This is known as chaining them together.

I’ve highlighted the secondary dominants in red below. That first one, G#7, is the V/vi chord, meaning it wants to resolve to the vi chord, which is C# minor in the key of E. But instead, we get a C#7 which itself is a secondary dominant (the V/ii), which pulls us to yet another switcheroo, as instead of an F#m, we get an F#7, aka the V/V chord.

This chain creates an extended bit of tension so that when we finally resolve to the I chord, we really feel like we’ve arrived.

    E    F#m    B
The night we met I knew I needed you so

    E    F#m    B
And if I had the chance I’d never let you go

    G#7
So won’t you say you love me

    C#7 (V/ii)
I’ll make you so proud of me

    F#7 (V/V)
We’ll make ’em turn their heads

    B
Every place we go…

Deceptive cadences

Secondary dominants don’t have to resolve to the “right” chord, just as a dominant chord doesn’t have to resolve to the I.

“Eight Days a Week” offers up a nice example of deceptive cadences for both the V/V and the V chords.

In the verse, the V/V chord keeps resolving to the IV chord instead of the V. And listen to how great that final A chord sounds in the song.

    D    E7 (V/V)
Ooh I need your love babe

    G (IV)    D
Guess you know it’s true

So why does this work? I would argue it’s due to the chromatic line cliché. You have an A in the D chord moving down to the G# in E to the G in G major and then down again to the F# in D.

In the bridge, we have the V chord (A major) deceptively resolving to the vi chord. (This is very common, usually found in the “four chord” progression of I-V-vi-IV.)

We have a return of the V/V chord, once again teasing us that we’ll get a V chord and once again deceptively resolving to the IV chord. Except that this IV chord is then followed by a triumphant V chord.

    A
Eight days a week

    Bm
I love you

    E (V/V)
Eight days a week

    G    A7
Is not enough to show I care


Scott McCormick is the author the Audible bestselling Rivals! series and the hit fantasy novel The Dragon Squisher. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com.

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About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick is a musician and the author the Audible bestselling Rivals! series and the hit fantasy novel The Dragon Squisher. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com.

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