VI7 (V of ii) – A Chord Cycle

Today we continue our discussion of secondary dominants with a look at the VI7 chord. Remember the magnetic tunnel progression? The power of that progression came from the fact that we were moving from the v of V to the V of I to the I (ii-V-I).

That sequence can be extended to the v of ii, which is vi. Try playing vi-ii-V-I to see what I mean (in the Key of C, that’s AmDmGC). It makes sense to think of this as an extended tunnel sequence. Can you feel the smooth and direct motion, and the sense of inevitability when you finally return home?

Today we are going to use this extended tunnel sequence as a jumping-off point in order to introduce our next secondary dominant. Recall that we can journey to another harmonic world by replacing the ii with the II7. II7 is the V of V, and pulls us as forcefully to the V as the V pulls us to the I.

We can achieve a similar effect by bringing in the V of ii. Say you want to emphasize the ii, making it feel like a temporary home in your song. Simply play the VI7 immediately before it (VI7-ii in the Key of C is A7Dm). It will function as a portal to the ii just as the II7 functioned as a portal to the V.

That’s useful on its own, but for today’s exercise I’m going to show how the VI7 can add new life to the vi-ii-V-I.

EXERCISE
Today’s exercise is a bit simpler than usual. That’s because we’re going to be playing a set chord cycle over and over. The purpose of this exercise is to develop a feel for the place secondary dominants can play in your songs.

Start out by playing the following progression and coming up with a corresponding melody: VI7-ii-V-I (in the key of C: A7DmGC).

Once you’ve got this tunnel sequence down, it’s time to add another part. Follow it with this sequence: vi-IV-V-iii (in the key of C: AmFGEm).

Now play the entire sequence through, giving equal time to each chord: VI7-ii-V-I-vi-IV-V-iii (in the key of C: A7-Dm-G-C-Am-F-G-Em).

Try to come up with a melody to match the progression. Treat the first four chords as a question and the second four chords as an answer. Interpret that however you like. Somehow the first four chords should be setting the tone and the second answering or developing it.

“BUT THIS IS YOUR PROGRESSION, NOT MINE!”
Normally, these exercises are designed to help you come up with your own progressions. So why am I giving such rigid instructions this time?

Because this chord cycle illustrates a number of useful ideas:

1. The appearance of the vi chord here is unusually interesting because you’ve already introduced the VI7. It adds character to an otherwise ordinary move (the change from I to vi is a common way to change mood).

2. Switching between the major and minor versions of a chord can generally be an interesting exercise. Experiment with it!

3. The IV-V-iii at the end is a surprising move. IV-V often leads to I. The iii seems all the more colorful if it appears instead.

4. The return from iii-VI7 foreshadows our next installment in this series. That’s because iii is the v of VI.

5. On the last point, what this means is that we’ve extended our tunnel sequence by one more step. Now it’s iii-VI7-ii-V-I.

6. That’s not all: iii feels like the end of the sequence and VI7 the beginning. We’re establishing our home key in an unusually roundabout way! The I only shows up in the middle.

The lesson? Even though I’ve given you a rigid exercise, the ideas it illustrates can form the basis of a great deal of experimentation. Get to it!

Once you’ve developed a song employing the VI7 (whether with the recommended chord cycle or by experimenting with the ideas I’ve outlined), be sure to submit it as an inspiration to the rest of us!

II7 (V of V) – Portal to Another World

Now that we have the V7 under our belt, we’re ready to dive into the world of secondary dominants. We’ve been imagining the harmonic landscape in terms of a home base, a surrounding neighborhood, and a shadowy area immediately beyond. Today we’re going to enter a portal to another world: the world of chords outside the home key.

BACKGROUND
Recall that our home key consists of the following chords:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°

Which particular chords these represent depends, of course, on which key we’re in. The following chart shows some common keys:

I ii iii IV V vi vii°
C C Dm Em F G Am
D D Em F#m G A Bm C#°
E E F#m G#m A B C#m D#°
F F Gm Am B♭ C Dm
G G Am Bm C D Em F#°
A A Bm C#m D E F#m G#°
B B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#°

 

So, the chords in the key of C are:
CDmEmFGAm – B°

At this point, we have covered all but the tricky diminished vii (written as vii°). These make up the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods of our home chord, the I. But as songwriters, we are not limited to this small set of chords.

We are free to be adventurous, free to explore other worlds. Playing with secondary dominants will serve as our first step in that direction.

Notice that each key has a unique V (or dominant) chord. In the key of C, it’s G. In the key of G, it’s D. And so on. And for each key, the V acts as a magnet chord, pulling us back to the I.

Secondary dominants are dominant chords borrowed from foreign keys. Just as the V can be used to emphasize and anticipate the I, so can a secondary dominant be used to emphasize and anticipate other chords in the home key.

In the key of C, the V is G major. What if we want to emphasize that chord in our song? We can use its own V. Look at the chart: the V of G is D major. But D major is not in the key of C. That’s because the ii of C is Dm. So if we want to play the V of our V chord, we have to play a II chord.

A II chord acts like a portal to another key. It has an unexpectedly bright sound, and noticeably changes the feel of our song. Our environment is suddenly tranformed when we play it. If we use it to emphasize the V, we are using it as a secondary dominant.

It is common in rock and jazz music to play secondary dominants as seventh chords. So in our exercise for today, we are going to play around with the II7.

Remember from last time that the V7 is like a supercharged magnet leading to the I. Well, the II7 is like a supercharged magnet leading to the V. And it will add a whole new color to your songwriting palette.

THE EXERCISE
In order to get a feel for the II7 and the power of secondary dominants, begin by creating a progression that establishes the home key. You can follow any of the methods described in past exercises.

Once you have a progression you like, try ending it with II7-V-I (in the key of C, that would be D7-G-C). Notice how the II7 introduces a bright and unexpected sound into your song. That’s the portal effect.

Now write a melody for your progression. You’ll notice that the II7 will force you to come up with new kinds of melodic ideas. A simple chord change can bring out ideas you’d never have come up with otherwise.

Change things up by replacing II7-V-I with II7-V-V7-I. Notice how the progression from V to V7 sounds very natural here. This is a way of supercharging your magnetic tunnel, building more and more tension and expectation for the I.

SOME VARIATIONS

  1. Write a song using only the home key chords and then replace V chords with II7-V pairs. This is a common technique in jazz.
  2. Try using the II chord instead of the II7 in these exercises. In the key of C, that would be D.
  3. Create surprise by moving from II7 or II to a different chord than the V. This is a trickier technique, so it will take some trial and error. Try II7-IV first.

Once you’ve taken your first steps into another harmonic world, submit your results as a record for those of us who are still stuck in more familiar territory.

Next: VI7 (V of ii): A Chord Cycle

Secondary Dominants: Introducing the Seventh Chord

With the exception of the tricky diminished vii (which I’ll cover later down the line), we’ve now played around with the core major key chords. With these under your belt, you should be able to

  1. establish a sense of home,
  2. explore the immediate neighborhood,
  3. play with tension and release, and
  4. create depth and surprise with shifts between light and shadow.

Not a bad start.

But now it’s time to get even more adventurous. Remember how the V builds a sense of expectation for the I? This is a simple but powerful device. And the exciting thing is, it can be used to emphasize other chords as well.

Say you want to place the emphasis on the V itself. One method for accomplishing this is to begin from what’s called the V-of-V. The V-of-V is not one of the core chords we’ve covered so far. It comes from outside the home key. And it’s known as a “secondary dominant”.

For the next several entries, I’m going to discuss a variety of secondary dominants and provide exercises you can use to integrate them into your songs. But before we can get to that, we should go back to the old familiar V-I progression, since it’s the prototype for the secondary dominant progressions.

In particular, we need to look at a method for making the magnetic pull of the V even stronger. We do this by turning it into a seventh chord.

Since my emphasis here isn’t on the details of music theory, I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty about what makes a chord a seventh chord. For our purposes, what’s important is that it’s a modification of a more familiar chord that gives it a new feel. We’ll be looking at one seventh chord in particular: the V7 (in the key of C, that’s G7).

FIRST EXERCISE
Let’s start simple to introduce the sound of the V7. Get comfortable playing a familiar I-IV-V progression. Come up with a melody and repeat it a few times.

Now, as you round the IV, play a V7 instead of a V. Notice the difference?

Notice how it forces you to change your melody? As you move from the V7 to the I you should feel an even stronger pull than normal. You’ve just tapped into a supercharged magnet.

SECOND EXERCISE
Now that you have a sense for the difference changing V to V7 makes, it’s time to experiment. Try coming up with a song using any of the methods we’ve explored so far. Use the ii-V-I magnetic tunnel to get back to home. But instead of ii-V-I, play ii-V7-I. Hear the difference?

What happens if you change from V-V7 within a phrase? What does ii-V-V7-I sound like?

What about a deceptive cadence from V7-vi instead of V-vi? Or what about ending a shadowy chorus on the V7 in order to supercharge the return to the verse?

The best way to get a feel for the V7 is to try it in as many contexts as you can. It’s not a surefire method. Sometimes it will break the feel of your song. Sometimes it will sound awkward. But with a little practice, you should find a place for it.

Once you’ve got this supercharged magnet up and running, why don’t you submit your results as an example for the rest of us?

Next: II7 (V of V): Portal to Another World