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28: Subdominant & Dominant

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Lesson 28: Subdominant & Dominant

This lesson follows Lesson 27: Tonic Function (which you should read first) and explains the other diatonic chord functions. To review again, 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 29: Diatonic Function Analysis.

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

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