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27: Subdominant & Dominant

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Lesson 27: Subdominant & Dominant

This lesson teaches the subdominant and dominant chord functions. This is part of understanding how the different diatonic chords "work" in chord progressions.

Before taking this lesson, you should know: the tonic chord function (Lesson 26: Tonic Function).

To review, the common major-key diatonic triads are:

I   IIm   IIIm   IV   V   VIm

This lesson explores IIm, IV, and V.

The Subdominant Chords: IV and IIm

The IV chord. Subdominant is just a name for "scale degree 4", so "the" subdominant chord is the IV chord.

Subdominant function. A subdominant chord feels like you've moved away from the home chord. It's extremely common for the I chord to be followed by a subdominant chord.

The IIm chord. The IIm chord also has subdominant function, meaning that is has a "moved away from home" effect similar to the IV chord. Notice that two of the pitches (namely, scale degrees 2 and 4 of whatever key the song is in) in the IIm and IV chords are the same pitches. In fact, these two chords are pretty interchangeable. Reasons a song might choose one or the other include:
  • To create a desired root motion (bassline);
  • The musical style. In jazz, IIm is more common (except it's usually used in its "jazz version", IIm7); in rock/folk/country (and classical music), IV is more common (or, in blues, IV7).

The Dominant Chord: V

Scale degree 5 is called the dominant; so, the V chord is called the dominant chord.

Dominant function. The dominant chord (the V chord) feels like it want to return to the home chord; it's extremely common for the dominant chord to be followed by the I chord.

The Typical Diatonic-Function Sequence

Since tonic "tends to go to" subdominant, and dominant "tends to go to" tonic, the most typical sequence of diatonic functions is:

Tonic -> Subdominant -> Dominant -> Tonic

This sequence has a conventional "advancing" ("moving forward") feeling. If a chord sequence reverses this order (tonic -> dominant, dominant -> subdominant, subdominant -> tonic), it tends to sound like it's retreating. That's how I describe it, anyway; but these effects are subtle and subjective. You should decide for yourself what you think the effects of different diatonic-function sequences are, by studying the sequences in various songs.

In fact, that's the subject of the next lesson, Lesson 28: Diatonic Function Analysis.

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1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps
7: Whole-Steps
8: Steps Game
9: Scales
10: Major Scale 1-2-3
11: Major 1-2-3 Games
12: Major Scale 1-5
13: Major 1-5 Games
14: Chords: Major Triads
15: Major Triad Games
16: Minor Triads
17: Minor Triad Games
18: Major Scale 1-8
19: Major Scale Games
20: Scales Above 8
21: What Next
22: Keys
23: Roman Numeral Chords
24: Diatonic Triads
25: Using Diatonics
26: Tonic Function
27: Subdominant & Dominant
28: Diatonic Function Analysis
29: 7th Chords
30: 7ths Games
31: Treble Staff
32: Treble Staff Game
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Note Lengths
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Pitch & Frequency

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