SkooveLearn PianoDownload on the App Store
Install Now

Secondary dominant chords in music

Secondary dominant chords

Dominant chords play a pivotal role in the realm of music, acting as the cornerstone of many compositions. At its core, a dominant chord is the fifth chord in a diatonic scale, often symbolized as the V chord. It possesses a unique tension, yearning to be resolved, which is why it’s frequently followed by the tonic or the I chord in a progression.
The importance of dominant chords in music cannot be overstated. They introduce a sense of anticipation and drama, guiding listeners through a musical journey. When played on a piano, the dominant chord’s resonance can evoke powerful emotions, making it a favorite tool for composers and musicians alike. This tension and release mechanism is fundamental in music theory, and understanding it is crucial for anyone delving into the intricacies of compositions.
As we delve deeper into the world of chords, we’ll encounter the concept of secondary dominants. These chords, while derived from the primary dominant, offer a fresh layer of complexity and richness to music.

Diving deeper: secondary dominant chords

While dominant chords hold a significant place in music, there’s another layer of depth to explore: secondary dominant chords. These piano chords, as the name suggests, act as dominants to chords other than the tonic. In essence, they are the dominant chords of dominant chords.

To distinguish between primary and secondary dominants, consider this: primary dominants directly resolve to the tonic, while secondary dominants resolve to another chord, often another dominant. This chain of resolutions adds layers of tension and release, enriching the musical experience.

For a clearer understanding, let’s delve into some examples:

  1. In the key of C major, the primary dominant is the G7 chord, which typically resolves to the C major chord.
  2. A secondary dominant in the same key could be the D7 chord, which acts as the dominant of the G major chord. So, instead of resolving directly to C, the D7 would first resolve to G or G7, which would then resolve to C.

The purpose behind secondary dominants

Music, at its heart, is a language of emotions, and chords are its vocabulary. Among these, secondary dominant chords stand out as powerful tools for composers and musicians. But what purpose do they serve in the grand tapestry of music?

Start free trial

Enhancing musical drama and tension

Every chord progression tells a story, and like any good story, it thrives on tension and release. The secondary dominant acts as a plot twist, introducing unexpected tension that heightens the drama.

When a secondary dominant resolves, it doesn’t go straight to the tonic, as a primary dominant would. Instead, it takes a detour, resolving to another chord first. This detour creates an added layer of suspense, making the eventual resolution to the tonic even more satisfying.

Adding richness to chord progressions

Beyond drama, secondary dominants add a layer of sophistication to chord progressions. They introduce non-diatonic notes, which are notes not naturally found in the scale. This inclusion breaks the monotony of standard progressions, adding color and depth.

For instance, in a typical C major progression, introducing a secondary dominant chord progression like D7 adds the note F♯, which isn’t part of the C major scale. This unexpected note can catch the listener’s ear, making the music more memorable.

Constructing secondary dominant chords

The beauty of music lies in its structure, and chords are the building blocks that give it form. While we’ve delved into the purpose and application of secondary dominant chords, it’s equally crucial to understand their construction. Crafting these chords requires a methodical approach. With a bit of practice, they can become second nature.

Step-by-step guide to building secondary dominants

  1. Identify the target chord: Before constructing a secondary dominant, determine the chord you wish to target. This chord is the one that the secondary dominant will resolve to.
  2. Determine the dominant: For the target chord, identify its primary dominant. This is typically the fifth note of its scale.
  3. Add the seventh: To transform this dominant into a dominant seventh chord, simply add the piano note that’s a minor seventh above the root of the dominant.
  4. Your secondary dominant: This dominant seventh chord, when used in a different key than its original, becomes a secondary dominant.

For instance, if you’re in the key of C major and want to target the D minor chord, its dominant is A. Add the seventh (G) to get A7. In the context of C major, A7 becomes a secondary dominant chord leading to D minor.

Common secondary dominant chord structures

While there are myriad secondary dominant possibilities, some are more common in music, especially in certain genres. Here are a few common secondary dominant moves:

  • V7/V: This is the dominant of the dominant. In the key of C major, this would be the D7 chord resolving to G or G7.
  • V7/ii: The dominant of the ii chord. In C major, this would be the A7 chord resolving to Dm.
  • V7/vi: The dominant of the vi chord. In C major, this would be the E7 chord resolving to Am.

Implementing secondary dominants in compositions

The art of composition is akin to painting on a canvas, where each chord adds a unique hue and texture. Secondary dominant chords are like those vibrant strokes that make the artwork pop. But knowing how to construct them is just half the battle; the real magic lies in their thoughtful implementation.

Ideal places to introduce secondary dominants in songs

  1. Before a chorus: Introducing a secondary dominant right before the chorus can amplify the emotional impact, making the transition more dramatic and memorable.
  2. During bridges: Bridges often serve as a departure from the main theme of the song. Using secondary dominants here can add an element of surprise and keep the listener engaged.
  3. In modulations: If you’re changing keys within a song, secondary dominants can smooth out the transition, making it sound more natural.
  4. Endings: To give a song a strong and unexpected conclusion, consider using a secondary dominant before the final chord.

Analyzing music with secondary dominants

When it comes to dissecting pieces with secondary dominant chords, the process can be both enlightening and challenging. These chords, with their unique tension and resolution patterns, add layers of complexity to a piece. So, how does one go about identifying and understanding them?

Tools and techniques for identification

  1. Listen for tension and release: One of the hallmarks of secondary dominants is the tension they introduce, which is then resolved by the subsequent chord. By training your ear to detect these moments of heightened tension, you can pinpoint potential secondary dominants.
  2. Analyze the chord progression: Look for chords that don’t naturally belong to the key but resolve to chords that do. These “outsiders” are often secondary dominants.
  3. Study sheet music: For those comfortable with reading music, examining the sheet music can provide clear visual cues. Look for accidentals (sharps or flats) that hint at non-diatonic chords.

Charts and visual aids for analysis

Visual aids can be invaluable in breaking down complex musical concepts. For secondary dominants, consider the following:

  1. Secondary dominant flowcharts: These charts map out the progression from secondary dominants to their resolutions, providing a clear visual representation of the flow.
  2. Chord diagrams: Especially useful for piano players, these diagrams show the exact notes that make up secondary dominants, helping in their identification and play.
  3. Resolution tables: These tables list out common secondary dominants and their typical resolutions, serving as a quick reference guide.

The resonance of secondary dominants

The world of music is vast and intricate, with countless elements coming together to create the melodies and harmonies that touch our souls. Among these elements, secondary dominant chords stand out as powerful tools that can elevate a composition from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

To recap, secondary dominants introduce unexpected tension and drama into music, acting as a bridge between chords and adding layers of depth and sophistication. Their unique ability to resolve to chords other than the tonic makes them invaluable in crafting memorable and dynamic chord progressions.

But understanding the theory behind secondary dominants is just the beginning. The true magic lies in their application. Whether you’re a budding composer or an experienced musician, experimenting with these chords can open up a world of creative possibilities. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the confines of traditional progressions. Introduce a secondary dominant where least expected, play with its resolution, and let it guide your piece in new and exciting directions.

For those using Skoove’s piano learning app, the journey into the realm of secondary dominants is made even more enriching. With interactive online piano lessons and analysis tools, you’re equipped to not only understand but also master the art of incorporating secondary dominants into your compositions.

Start free trial

Author of this blog post:

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

Share this article

Share this article

Unlock all piano lessons

7 day free learning

Don’t leave empty-handed

Get a 7 day trial of Skoove Premium piano lessons