Chord progressions make up the backbone of most popular and classical compositions. Without a strong chord progression, tunes can seem lost and aimless. This constant pull between tension and release creates a delicate balance in songwriting. In a nutshell, chords constantly move back to the tonic chord of a song. But composers and songwriters can spice up their progressions and put a twist on this tendency with a handy technique known as “secondary dominants.”

Do we really need such a thing? With so much popular music based in three or four chords, there’s really no end to the scads of songs we can comfortably learn with just a few chords. If you’re familiar with the Roman Numeral system, common chord progressions such as I-IV-V or I-V-vi-IV are everywhere.

However, there’s always that one song with a few extra chords. Where resolution is more complex. Where the chord progression takes you on a roundabout journey back to the tonic, rather than going for the obvious.

Listen to the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”:

As you can see, there’s a bit more going on here than just the standard three chords. At the end of the line “Then you begin to make it better”, a seventh chord appears to contribute a “build” before the chorus. This is a secondary dominant, spotted in the wild!

The secondary dominant adds interest and emotion by resolving to the dominant chord of any chord that is not the tonic. This creates the musical illusion of moving to a new key. It is especially popular in jazz music and was even used in traditional classical music. Songwriters in rock and jazz music today use the secondary dominants to add a little bit of gravity, interest, and nuance to their writing. You can find secondary dominants scattered across popular music.

So what is a secondary dominant, and how does it relate to the dominant? How are secondary dominants used in music, and how can you apply them to create this sought-after tension and release in your own music?

What is Dominant Function?

In music, harmonic function describes the mood that certain chords and chord movements lend to music. Typically, in popular and classical music, the songwriter or composer tries to resolve to the dominant or tonic of a key.

The V chord is called the dominant chord. If you need to brush up on common chord progressions and chords, check out these great resources:

Dominant function refers to the feeling that the dominant chord of a key brings to music – that of instability and a drive to resolve to the tonic. Dominant function keeps the chord train going in one direction – towards the tonic of the key. This brings about a release to the tension created.

This release can be created through a cadence. A cadence is a chord progression ending a section of a piece or a short phrase. We often refer to the term chord progressions, as well.

In popular music, the chord progressions often end in a very simple cadence called the perfect cadence, or more familiarly, a chord progression ending in V-I. Phamox Music provides a fantastic summary of commonly-encountered cadences and how they contribute to resolution.

A chord progression ending in V-I is the easiest way to resolve almost any progression satisfactorily to the listener. Other chords like IV or vi may be used (or their corollaries in minor keys), but in the end the vast majority of music that you hear on the radio will resolve to I. This is basic Western harmony.

For example, in the key of C Major, most chord progressions will resolve in I (the C major chord) or V (the G major chord). You can hear this over and over again in most of your favorite tunes.

In this video you will hear twelve chord progressions common in pop music, classical music, rock, and jazz. Notice how many of these chord progressions resolve tension by moving to I. Even if there are other chords between V and I, tension will be resolved through traditional harmonic function:

Here are twelve very popular chord progressions:

  • I – V – vi – IV
  • vi – V – IV – V
  • I – vi – IV – V
  • I – IV – vi – V
  • I – V – IV – V
  • vi6 – ii – V6 – I
  • I – vi / IV – ii – V
  • vi – IV – I – V
  • i – VI – III – VII
  • I – IV – ii – V
  • vi – V – IV – iii
  • I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

Notice how each will resolve to I (the tonic) or V (the dominant).

The Secondary Dominant

But what if we told you that technically speaking, there is more than one dominant in each key?

Wait, what?!

Um… how?

Well, every scale degree of key has a dominant of its very own… making for a total of seven possible dominants in every major key.

We have a special name for this – it’s called the secondary dominant, and it can be described as the dominant 7th chord of a non-tonic chord in a key.

Songwriting in popular and rock music is all about creating tension and release using dominant function. You create chord progressions that deviate from the tonic in a number of ways to create interest and develop tension for the listener. While you do not always have to resolve to the tonic in a song, the vast majority of songs in jazz, pop, rock, and classical music follow basic Western harmony and resolve back to the tonic by the end of the piece. However, songwriters may use Secondary Dominants, non-chord tones, modulation, and more to create dramatic build-up.

So what is a secondary dominant? And how does it function in a song?

Well, sometimes you want to add a little interest to your music. You can find secondary dominants in almost all musical genres, but you run into them most in jazz music (check out LearnJazzStandards’s podcast episode on secondary dominants in jazz), classical music, and even film music.

Let’s take a moment to listen to “Hey Jude” by the Beatles again:

You can hear the secondary dominant function at the end of the line “Then you begin to make it better.” There is a slight build there that resolves on the first beat of the chorus. Listen to that section a few times and listen for the chord progressions underneath the verse.  

Finding Your Way Home

If you understand that chord progressions essentially are just trying to get back to the tonic of the chord, much like an Uber driver trying to find your house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, then you can understand the concept of Secondary Dominants.

A secondary dominant is like the Uber driver that makes a couple of stops before eventually finding your house. Like going to a different house on the same street. So they are close, but not quite there. Then they eventually find the right address – and voila! – they are at your door, or rather, the tonic.

For example, in the key of C, the G Major Chord is the Dominant Chord. Listen to this example. You will hear the C Scale, then the chord progression C-G-C-G-C. Listen to how G resolves to C, creating balance and resolution.

G resolving to C
Building up from there, we find out that we can use the D7 chord as a Secondary Dominant built on G. The D7 is built: D-F#-A-C.

In this example, you will hear C-G-D7-D7 (Arpeggiated)-D7. Listen for the intervals and distinct sound of the D7 in this context. Notice how it creates tension and is unresolved.

C-G-D7-D7-D7 progressionIf you notice, the F# and the C create an augmented fourth. This is called a tritone.  Listen to the D7 Chord, then the tritone. Notice how the tritone creates harmonic tension:

Secondary dominant tritoneThe tritone naturally wants to resolve. The F# of the secondary dominant D7 chord resolves up to the G in the dominant chord. The C of the secondary dominant D7 chord resolves down to the B in the dominant chord, landing on the G Major Chord in C Major. Listen to the resolution of the tritone. First you will hear the tritone resolve, then you will hear D7 resolve to G:

Tritone resolutionNow we are temporarily in G. At this point we can modulate (or change keys) into the key of G, or move back to C Major for the final resolution. For more info, The Jazz Piano Site details the concept of modulation and shows you simple ways to modulate.

Using the Circle of Fifths to Find Secondary Dominants

Things can get a little bit confusing when you’re dealing with dominants of dominants, so a great tool to have is a visual aid.

We can understand secondary dominants by using the Circle of Fifths. The Circle of Fifths is a tool that is essentially built up by starting on C, then moving up progressively by fifths until you end up back at the beginning at C again. The key signatures are made into a wheel. This is an incredibly valuable tool for musicians:

You can use the Circle of Fifths to find Secondary Dominants. Just travel around the circle to find the dominant of a note. For example, following the progression above, you know that E is the dominant of A, which is the dominant of D. This means that E7 can be a Secondary Dominant in the key of D Major. The E7 will resolve to A, which is the dominant chord in the key of D Major. Let’s practice using the Circle of Fifths.

Circle of Fifths Exercise

Looking at the Circle of Fifths, answer the questions below.

1. What is the dominant Chord in the key of A?

2. What is the dominant Chord in the key of G Flat?

3. What note is a fifth above G?

4. What note is a fifth below A Flat?

Show answer

Answer Key:

1. E 2. Db 3. D 4. Db

The Secondary Dominant in Music

Once you open your ears to secondary dominants, they emerge in many corners of music. We will first listen to a secondary dominant chord progression in isolation, then examine it in the context of some popular songs, and then try our hand at identifying them within pieces of music.

Hearing Secondary Dominants

Let’s start off by listening to some basic chord progressions using secondary dominants. Try to listen to how the chord progressions provide some release from the tension created. Listen for augmented chords (tritones), and how they resolve to the dominant.

Example 1: C-E7-Am

Listen to the resolution of this Secondary Dominant chord.

C-E7-Am progressionExample 2: C-C7-F

Listen to this common chord progression using the Secondary Dominant.

C-C7-F chord progressionExample 3: C-Am-B7-C

Notice the different use of the Secondary Dominant in this chord progression. Notice the unique musical color of this resolution.

C-Am-B7-C chord progressionHearing Secondary Dominants in Music

Listening for the Secondary Dominant seems difficult because it has a somewhat familiar function to other popular chord progressions. However, there are a few key things to listen for to help you truly hear the secondary dominant.

1. Listen for a buildup of tension in a song

2. Listen for 7th chords

3. Did you hear a tritone resolving?

4. When the buildup releases, does it land on the tonic or on another note?

5. After the release, does the song seem to have modulated to a new key or sounds like it has landed on a new tonic temporarily?

6. Does the resolution seem less satisfying?

7. Does the song return to the original key?

An important term to know is tonicization. What is tonicization? It is creating the sound of a new tonic within a song. The new chord functions as the new tonic in the scale. For example, if the original song is in the key of F but ends up sounding like it moved to the key of C temporarily, that is tonicization. C is not the tonic of the song. The tonic is F. But because of the chord progressions, possibly the use of a secondary dominant, the song temporarily sounds like it has moved to a new key.

You will find secondary dominants in the music of the Beatles, Queen, Billy Joel, Bruno Mars, and Leonard Cohen.

Here is an example of the Secondary Dominant in the “Easy Come, Easy Go” segment from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at [0:32]:

Follow the Chords in “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen to hear the use of the secondary dominant. Can you hear the tension and release created by the progression G-E7-Am? Listen to this section a few times to really intone the unique sound of the Secondary Dominant:

Identifying Secondary Dominants

Before you start working on these exercises, take the time to play out some of the secondary dominant chord progressions from earlier in this article on an instrument. Learn how to really hear the unique chord quality created by the tritone, the 7th, and the resolution of the chord. By listening for this chord function over and over again and playing it on an instrument, you will find it much easier to really hear the secondary dominant in the examples below.

Exercise 1: Identify the Secondary Dominant

Below are some simple chord progressions. Listen to each example carefully, then decide which example has the secondary dominant. Be sure to listen for how the chord progressions resolve in terms of tension, release, and tonicization.

Show answer

Answer: C (Chord progression: C-C7-F)

Exercise 2: Listen for Secondary Dominants in Music

Now it’s time to see if you can recognize the secondary dominant in a musical example. Below is a short musical example with rhythm section. Listen to the chord progressions carefully. Did you hear the secondary dominant? Where was it?

Show answer

Answer: You can hear the Secondary Dominant at 0:14

(Chord Progression: C-F-G-Am-F-G-E7-Am-Am-C)

Exercise 3: Jam Time with Secondary Dominants

Pull out your instrument and take a moment to jam out with this old-time Charleston backing track that uses secondary dominants. If you are a singer, then vocalize with the track. Can you hear how the 7th chords function as secondary dominants?

How to Use Secondary Dominants in Songwriting

When songwriting, composing, or jamming with your band, use secondary dominants to add a little bit of tension in a uniquely colorful way. Need to modulate to a new key? Use a secondary dominant to help you get there using the dominant function.

Need to create some tension? Use a secondary dominant for an intriguing buildup. Secondary dominants are a popular feature in dramatic soundtracks in film.

In this example, the soundtrack starts with simple movement between V and I, or Em and Am. Then, it moves into a more complex chord progression using the secondary dominant. Notice that while the section using Em and Am resolves, it is very repetitive and boring, almost like it’s standing in place.

Give it a listen. A simple breakdown of the track is below.

Breakdown:

00:00 Synth Intro
00:02 Em-Am-Em-Am
00:14 Em-A7-Am-D7-G7-Em
00:32 Em-A-Em-A
00:41 Em-A7-Am-D7-G7-Em
00:54 Em Outro

Many film scores, classical music composition, jazz tunes, and rock music uses the Secondary Dominant. Songwriters from the mid-20th century were also known for using the Secondary Dominant in their pop and rock music. Today you are more likely to encounter the Secondary Dominant chord progressions in film music, classical music, and jazz, where experimentation with harmony and modulation is more common. This does not mean that you will not hear it in popular music, but that you are less likely to encounter complex harmonic functions with Top 40 music tunes.

Songwriting Practice

In this exercise, you will experiment with the secondary dominant chord. You can write an instrumental section or write for vocals using a lead sheet. If you aren’t great at writing out music, just jot down the chords while sitting at a piano or using a guitar. The point isn’t writing out sheet music, but to learn how to use the Secondary Dominant in your songwriting.

1. Write a short 16-measure tune in a pop or rock style using only the I, ii, IV, V, and vi chords in a major scale (lyrics are optional!)

2. Play through the tune several times

3. Listen for natural tension and release in the harmony

4. Now replace at least two chords with a secondary dominant chord progression in that key (these can be at the end of a phrase or verse, or as a transition)

5. Play through your new chord progression

6. Experiment with moving the secondary dominant throughout the song

7. Now replace four to eight chords with a secondary dominant chord progression

Bonus: If you feel like you are getting the hang of writing with secondary dominants, try to modulate to a new key using the secondary dominant. Instead of moving back to the original tonic of your tune, stay in the newly established key. If you want to add even more flavour to your creation, try experimenting with altering dominant 7th chords, as described by Davide Pannozzo.

Once you are comfortable adding in secondary dominants into your writing, share your new creations with your friends and jam through them. Practice improvising and experimenting with harmony.

Further Exploration of the Secondary Dominant

Now that you’re acquainted with the secondary dominant, you can practice hearing and using this harmonic function in music. Don’t worry if it takes a few times listening to the examples in this article to truly “hear” the function and tone color of the Secondary Dominant.

To learn more about secondary dominants and the music theory behind them, check out these great resources:

To best internalize Secondary Dominants and unlock their power, keep your ears out for them in the music you listen to – chances are, there are more than a handful of your favourite hits that use them. If you’re a songwriter, experiment with using it in your writing. Enjoy a little bit of dramatic musical tension!

Once you get the hang of hearing secondary dominants and incorporating them into your music, explore modulation – where the secondary dominant becomes your new tonic – and see what direction the song takes you!

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