Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”
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Anytime you use a chord that includes a note not normally found in the chosen key of your song, you’re using an altered chord. Every major key has seven chords that normally exist in that key. We say that those chords are “diatonic” to the key. Altered chords include chromaticisms: notes that don’t normally belong to that key. Here’s some advice for making them work for you.
The most common altered chords are secondary dominant chords. These are chords that, temporarily at least, make another chord other than the tonic chord, sound like the tonic. Here are some examples from the key of C major:
1. C D G C
2. C A Dm G C
3. C E Am G7 C
In the first example, the D chord uses the note F#, which does not normally exist in the key of C major. That F# “pulls the ear”, making the G chord sound briefly like the tonic chord. In the second example, it’s the A chord (which includes the note C#) that makes Dm feel like the tonic, and in the third example, it’s the E chord.
To put it simply, any time you take a chord that is usually minor within a certain key, and make it major, you are creating a secondary dominant chord, especially if the chord that comes after it is a 4th higher (or 5th lower)
(If you’d like to read more about secondary dominant chords, why not check out this article.)
But you can take a minor chord, make it major, and do pretty much anything you want with it. Consider this progression:
C D F C
The D chord is that same one from the first chord example above. But instead of going to G (which would have made it a secondary dominant), it moves to an F chord.
Such a chord is sometimes called an “apparent dominant” chord, because it makes the listener think that the next chord is going to be a G chord, but instead, it moves to a different chord.
Here are some other similar “altered chord” progressions from the key of C major that you might want to try in your songs. They all include notes that don’t normally exist in C major:
1. C E Dm G C
2. C D Eb Bb C
3. C F A Bb F G C
4. C Eb F G C
5. C Bb Eb D Gm F G C
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