Practical Chord Progressions: vi (The Relative Minor or “Shadowy Twin”)

By this point, we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with our immediate harmonic neighborhood, starting at home on the I, reinforcing it with the V, and venturing out a little to the IV.  

We’re no longer confined to the house, so to speak, but staying in one’s own neighborhood can also get a little boring. In today’s exercise we’re going to get courageous and explore a whole new environment: the shadowy, mysterious world of the vi.  

Think back to being a kid and heading out past the limits of your neighborhood–the weird trees, growling dogs, suspicious old men, and dark and creaky houses. We can get there now by jumping into what theorists call the “relative minor”.

BACKGROUND

You might have noticed that today’s chord uses a lower case Roman numeral, whereas the others are upper case. This indicates whether a chord is major or minor. The I, IV, and V are all major chords. The vi is minor. Roughly speaking, major chords have a happier, more open sound, whereas minor chords are darker and more claustrophobic.

Every major key has one minor chord that is of particular importance.  This is the relative minor, or vi chord. Again, it’s not my aim on this site to delve too deeply into theory. For our purposes, we just need to think of it as an important destination in our songwriting. It will immediately shift the mood of your song, and is a great chord for starting a chorus.

I’ve used the metaphor of venturing out to a more mysterious realm of the neighborhood. We might also think of it as the chord that casts shadows over our current location, suddenly changing the mood and our relationship to our environment.

To put things yet another way, think of the I and vi as twins, one light, one shadow. This way of thinking will be quite helpful, since it is often the case that you can substitute one for the other in your songs.  

If you don’t believe me, try it out. Take a song you’ve written and put the vi in place of the I. It will almost always work, though it will change the character of the song. In one sense, it will cast shadows over the light.

THE EXERCISE

Sticking with the key of C major, we have C major as our I, G major as our V, and F major as our IV. Today we’ll be adding the vi, which in this case is A minor.

Revisit the last exercise if it’s not fresh in your mind. Begin by establishing our immediate neighborhood again, reinforcing with the V, moving to the IV for a change of location, and ultimately returning to the I (as always, coming up with a melody to sing as you go).

Once you’re feeling comfortable, take heart and journey to the vi.

You’re going to notice a profound change. We’re not in Kansas anymore; we’ve just entered the shadowy side. On the vi, you should find the freedom to come up with a new melody that breaks free from the older one.

What do you do now? Interestingly enough, you do exactly what you would have done from the I. You can harness the magnetic power of the V for good or evil, it turns out. Use the V to reinforce your new, more mysterious location.

You can also jump to the IV to wander around some shadowy side streets. Pay particular attention to the way the vi has become our new base of operations, and how this colors the IV and V in a new way.  This is the transforming power of the vi.

Every time you jump from the V to the vi, you build up magnetic energy, a tension and desire to finally get back home.

Give in: go from V back to I. Isn’t that satisfying? We’ve brought it all back home, where we can rest and reflect on where we’ve been.

This exercise is hopefully starting to get you in touch with the reasons why songs begin and end on a home chord. The further out we go while staying in key, the more powerful the return can be. It’s all about expectation, tension, and release. Explore these ideas and have fun.

AS ALWAYS, I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SUBMIT YOUR RESULTS SO THE REST OF US CAN REST ASSURED YOU SURVIVED YOUR ADVENTURE.

SUMMARY

Into the Shadowy Side (remember: you should be singing a melody as you go!)

  1. Establish a sense of home, starting on the I, reinforcing with the V, and increasing interest by visiting the IV.
  2. Once you’re feeling comfortable, jump to the vi. You’ve entered a new, darker environment.
  3. Treat the vi as a temporary base of operations, reinforcing by harnessing the magnetic power of the V, and exploring the IV with new eyes and ears.
  4. Once you’ve had enough, go to the V and then finally to the I. You’re back home, having survived your journey.

Next: ii (The Magnetic Tunnel Chord)

Published by

John

John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

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