Chord Progressions Take on a New Life with Borrowed Chords

You know that for most songs, you’ll either be writing in a major key or a minor key. But did you know it’s possible to mix the chords from major and minor keys together? Such chords are called borrowed chords, or modal mixture chords. Here’s how that works:

Chapter 4 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” tells you all about harmonies, and how they’re created in any given key. When you take a C major scale and build chords (triads) above each note of that scale, you get the following chords:

C  Dm  Em  F  G  Am Bdim

If you build triads on top of the notes from a C minor scale, you get these ones:

Cm  Ddim  Eb  Fm  Gm  Ab  Bb

(The minor key chords assume the natural minor scale.)

Normally, when you choose to write in a major key, you use only the chords from that major key. But it creates really interesting colours to “borrow” chords from the minor, or vice versa.

Take, for example, this progression [Listen to sound samples at: “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website

C  Dm/F  G  C

This is a common progression from C major. (The Dm/F means a d minor chord with F as its lowest sounding note.) Now, let’s substitute the second chord, Dm/F, with a chord from the minor side of the key: Ddim/F:

C  Ddim/F  G  C

Changing the Dm to Ddim makes a really interesting break from the kind of chord that was expected, and so it’s a great way to inject some interest into an otherwise common progression.

Here are some other modal mixtures you can try:

C  Fm  G  C

C  Ab  Bb  C

C  Fm  Ab  G7  C

There is no theoretical reason for making this kind of chord substitution… they just sound good. Click on “Post a Comment” below to submit your own borrowed chord progression.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , .

6 Comments

    • Yes, assuming an opening key of B minor (the link you’ve given to the chord chart puts it in Bb minor, but it’s closer to B minor), you could describe the E chords that happen in the verse as modal mixture (major IV-chords). The other way to explain a major IV chord is to say that the song is actually in the dorian mode, but in this case I think it’s easier to think of the E chord as a modal mixture. (Assuming it’s the E you’re talking about. The other major chords (G and A) are simple VI and VII in the key of B minor.)

      -Gary

  1. I would say that there can be a theoretical reason to use borrowed chords, and that would be to ‘tonicize’ a chord other than I. To alter your first example, you could use D major and have a cadence on G, a V/V kind of thing. Also in C, the E major sounds great going to A minor, like C-G-E-Am. So you can use borrowed chords like this for temporary harmonic shifts or full-blown key changes.

    • Thanks for writing, Austen. The only point I would quibble with is that the E chord, the context you mention, is technically not a borrowed chord, but rather a secondary dominant. The difference is that a borrowed chord does not alter the function of the chord it’s replacing, but simply changes the quality. For example, in the progression C F Fm G C, both the F and Fm chords are subdominant chords, and the Fm would be a borrowed chord. In the progression C G E Am, the E chord is replacing what we’d normally expect, which is the mediant chord, Em. Tonicizing the Am chord changes that primary function a secondary function, V/vi.

      Thanks again,
      Gary

  2. Yes, that’s a common one that works really well. The A from the F chord moves by semitone to the Ab of the Fm, then to the note G from the C chord. This chromatic movement is one reason why the progression works so well.

  3. Off the top of my head, what about I, IV, iv progression, for example in C major, you can go from F major to F minor and then resolve? I’m sure it’s used in the Beatles somewhere…

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