Practical Chord Progressions: V (The Dominant or “Magnet Chord”)

In the second installment of Practical Chord Progressions, we take a look at what is arguably the most fundamental change: the return from the V to the I.

BACKGROUND

If we think of the tonic (I) chord as home, then some chord progressions can be thought of as a journey away from home that ultimately concludes with a satisfying return to our starting point. The most common way to make this return feel “right” is to make use of chords that exhibit a kind of magnetic pull toward the I. In today’s exercise, we’ll be making use of the chord with the strongest magnetic pull home: the V (or dominant chord).

One cannot count the number of songs that establish a sense of home through the movement of V to I. Some music theorists (inspired by Heinrich Schhenker) go so far as to analyze all Western music, no matter how harmonically complex, as an extension of the V-I. Fortunately, we don’t need to settle such questions here. All I want you to pay attention to is the way this change feels, the way you seem to be returning to the harmonic center of your song when you hit the I again.

THE EXERCISE

In our last exercise, we developed a variety of melodies over the I chord alone. Sticking with the key of C major, we are now going to add the V chord, which in this case is G major.

Begin by repeating the last exercise: play the C chord over and over and sing a melody over it. Think of this chord as the home and center of your song.

Once you have a melody worked out, try changing to the V and see what happens. Chances are good that at least one part of your melody will fit with this change.

The purpose of this exercise is not to dwell on the V itself, however. Instead, I want you to explore the way that the V pulls you back toward the I. Pretty soon you will start coming up with melodic phrases that fit this change, and that feel like a reinforcement of your song’s center.

Hopefully, you’re now starting to see what I mean by the magnetic pull between chords.

HELP! I’M STUCK!

Okay, maybe you’re not achieving this result. Here are two tips: First, make sure you’re spending more time on the I. Think of the V as a garnish or accent. Move there only long enough to build a subtle need to return to the I.

Second, you can use the C major scale trick again. Sing up the scale, and then as you’re coming down find a place to switch to the G chord. Before you get to the bottom of the scale, switch back to C. Repeat this over and over until you can start hearing variations. Sculpt the scale into a new melody.

Next: IV (The Neighborhood Chord)