Secondary Dominants


In this course one of the main things you have learned is that all songs in every style are based upon pleasing combinations of chords. By I mean that the courts resolve, our return home to the tonic in a way it makes sense to our ears, but more than that we like our music to be interesting as well. The more you know about music theory, the more you will understand the many, many possibilities that exist in composing and arranging and naturally your own music will become much more interesting.

I have heard music call a process of tonicization, that is returning to the tonic. Of course the strongest cadence returning to the tonic is V7 to I, the authentic cadence or for our purposes here G7 to C. The V chord as the strongest pull back home because it contains the leading tone, the B sharp note or seventh degree of the major scale.This means that when you play the I chord you experience a sense of arrival. Wouldn’t it be nice if other words progression produced that same sense of arrival? Well, they can through the use of secondary dominant chords, chords which from another key to harness the power of a V to I cadence at various points during a musical composition.

Five Of Five

The most common one of these secondary dominants is called the “five of five” and is quite literally the dominant chord of the dominant chord. In the case of the key of C the “five of five” is D7 or the dominant seventh chord taken from the key of G, for temporary use in the key of C.


Chord Quality:

I Maj 7
II mi 7
III mi 7
IV Maj 7
V 7
VI mi 7
VII mi7 b5
Key Of C:
Key Of G:

That use, that purpose is only to precede the G7 chord, to produce a greater sense of arrival at the G7 chord. In my ear the “five of five” produces motion away from the time and increases my level of expectancy.

As you listen to the excerpt of the famous folk song Aura Lee, ( which you may recognize as Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender) you can hear the pull that the V of V or the dominant of the dominant immediately exerts in this progression. Musicians used to think of this chord as a “transient modulation” are as a brief and temporary departure from the key.

This brief but powerful modulation, almost a song within a song is practically indispensable in rock and popular songwriting where it has found a special home. The example below is a verse chorus rock anthem type of song which uses a common knowledge chord progression similar to the ones found in Another Saturday Night by Sam Cooke and Cat Stevens and Why Don’t You Get A Job by the Offspring. I am happy to include it here in this lesson because it makes one of my main points of the course: that there is literally no end to the interesting music that can be written using basic diatonic harmony, chord patterns and standard cadences.

This is essentially a I – IV – V song with a common knowledge chord progression, one that employs the IV for the verse, also standard common knowledge practice. The whole song is basically made interesting and fresh by that lonely little D7 chord, the dominant of the dominant, providing its special left and departure from the key before our ear arrives back home at the tonic.

theory121Extended Dominant Chords

While it is certainly true that the strongest and probably most frequently occurring cadence in music is V7 to I and it is also true that the most frequently occurring secondary dominant cadence is the V of V that is only part of the story. All of the chords in a particular key have a secondary dominant chord as is illustrated in the table below. As you are studying this exercise refer to the circle of fifths as you see to your right. Notice that all of the secondary dominant chords are located to the immediate right of their target chord, to chord in the key.The interactive illustration below is one of the all-time cool thingsfor a guitarist who is studying music theory, the guitar itself is sort of like a harmonic laboratory where just about all things are possible!

Playing through the courts in the basic diatonic harmony, called a step progression as you know, almost is passable as a song or musical composition. It is quite interesting to play this step progression by preceding each one of the cords in the key with its own secondary dominant as I have done in the exercise below. Although this exercise is simply me strumming my good old electric guitar, the power the secondary dominant chords have to affect chord to chord movement is clearly evident.

The point here is that every chord has its own secondary dominant chord, in fact the secondary dominant chords themselves can be preceded by their own dominants. This this concept is often used to create a string of dominant chords each one resolving to the next and finally, at some point arriving back at the tonic. Since all dominant chords are located five steps away from their target chords, a series our string of dominant chords will have names that coincide with the circle of fifths, in the correct order. This type of chord to chord movement is also called cycle five root motion. Below is an example I have written for you to learn the sound of cycle five root motion and become comfortable with that concept of extended dominant chords.

There are several interesting compositional techniques employed in the example above, the first of which being a string of dominant seventh chords also called a series of extended dominants. In bars one through four you see a series of extended dominant chords that is to say B7 is the fifth of E, E7 is the fifth of A, A7 is the fifth of the and so on as we have established cycle five root motion. Measure four ends with G7, the actual dominant chord of the key. Bars five through eight employed the same cycle five root motion only ending with C7, accord not in the key of C major therefore it is a secondary dominant, the dominant of the four chord.

In measure nine the bridge or B section of the song begins with the IV chord, a common knowledge compositional technique but quite effective nonetheless especially when followed by IV minor, as is often the case. Bars 11 and 12 use a simple step progression, similar to the ones we have studied in this course. Measures 13 through 16 repeat theIV to IV minor pattern and then progress to the always reliableV of V then to V and ultimately of course back home to the tonic. Although I consider C major homebase in this song, measure 24 has the song ending on C7 which is another interesting and common knowledge compositional technique.


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