Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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A borrowed chord is a simple concept: you know that for any major key, there are 7 chords that naturally occur built on each of the notes of the scale. We say that they “naturally” occur because they don’t use sharps or flats from outside the key. For every major key, there is a “parallel” minor. Parallel minor simply means a minor key that uses the same tonic note. So C major is “parallel” to C minor. Because the key signature for C minor differs from C major (3 flats for minor, no accidentals for major), the 7-chord set for C minor will be different:
MAJOR: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
MINOR Cm Ddim Eb Fm G* Ab Bb
(*Note that in traditional harmony, the chord based on the 5th note of the minor key is often made major, but in many popular styles the minor quality is kept. So you’ll often see Gm as the 5th chord.)
Chords can be “borrowed” from the minor key and used in its parallel major key. It happens all the time in rock music, especially, the flat-VII and flat-III:
C Eb F C
C Bb C F C
Beyond those two common examples, the borrowing of the iv-chord from the minor for use in major keys is also a favourite:
C Fm G C
C G Am F G Fm C
Borrowing the minor iv-chord creates a somewhat melancholy mood. It’s distinctive, so be careful that you don’t use it too often.
One other type of borrowed chord that’s got great possibilities, but doesn’t seem to be used as often is the borrowed ii-chord. The ii-chord in major keys is a minor chord, while in minor keys it’s a diminished chord:
C F Ddim G C
C Ddim C/E F Gsus G C
These chords are also called “modal mixtures”, for obvious reasons. The beauty of borrowed chords is that they don’t pull you out of the key you’re in. It’s merely a brief visitation to the minor side of the key, but doesn’t stay there long enough to make you feel that you’ve actually changed keys.
Here are some more chord progressions that use borrowed chords for you to try:
C F Fm C/E Ddim G C
C Bb C F Eb F C
C G F G Ab Bb C
C Am F Fm C/G G C
C Fm Ddim G Am Bb C
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