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25: Subdominant & Dominant

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Lesson 25: 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 24: 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

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 IV chord. "Subdominant" is just a name for "scale degree 4", so "the" subdominant chord is the IV 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 the IIm and IV chords share two of the same pitches (namely, scale degrees 4 and 6 of the song's key). 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 wants 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 26: Diatonic Function Analysis.


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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