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An altered chord is simply one which doesn’t naturally occur in a given key. Altered chords add musical interest to a song by creating a small harmonic surprise. They work particularly well as accompaniment to melodies that are very predictable and simplistic. But simply throwing chords around that don’t naturally occur in your song’s key can create harmonic chaos. I’ve listed seven progressions below that use altered chords in a way that pull the listener’s ear in a different direction while keeping the original key intact.
All of the examples below are in the key of A major. In each example, the altered chord has been underlined. First, here’s the list. Under that, you’ll see a short description of how each altered chord works:
- A Dm E7 A (“Borrowed Chord”, or “Modal Mixture”)
- A D B7 E7 A (Secondary Dominant Chord)
- A C D E A (The Flat-III Chord)
- A E F G A (Flat-VI – Flat-VII)
- A F#m F7 E A (The “Augmented 6th” Chord)
- A D Eb13 A (The Flat-13 Chord)
- A D Bb7 A (The Tritone Substitution)
1) A Dm E7 A (“Borrowed Chord”, or “Modal Mixture”)
This kind of altered chord borrows an accidental from the minor version of the key. This progression is in A major, but the Dm chord comes from the key of A minor. Modal mixtures are a great way of adding an interesting colour to your progression while leaving your key choice undisturbed.
2) A D B7 E7 A (Secondary Dominant Chord)
A secondary dominant chord makes a note other than the real tonic chord sound, briefly, like a new tonic chord. In the key of A major, a chord based on B would normally be a minor chord. But by making it major, it now sounds like a dominant chord of E. Adding the 7th strengthens that dominant function.
3) A C D E A (The Flat-III Chord)
A flat-III darkens the harmonic flavour of a progression and provides a nice edge. Flat-II chords move smoothly to IV-chords as in the example given, but can also move to flat-VI chords that then move to V.
4) A E F G A (Flat-VI – Vlat-VII)
It makes for an interesting cadence (phrase ending) to insert a flat-VI and flat-VII into the standard V-I cadence. The parallel movement of the tones of these chords also add a starkness to the sound which can work in high-energy songs.
5) A F#m F7 E A (The “Augmented 6th” Chord)
The augmented 6th chord is based on the flat-6th degree of a scale. In our given key of A major, the flat-6th note is F (instead of the normally-found F#). Simply play that note as a root, build a triad and add a minor 7th. Then allow the chord to resolve to the triad a semitone lower (E).
6) A D Eb13 A (The Flat-13 Chord)
Jazz makes use of many altered chords, and they are particularly useful at cadences. The flat-13 is one of a host of altered chords, and it’s worth getting a book of jazz chords if these kind of harmonies interest you. Flat-13 chords are created by counting up 13 notes from the root of the dominant (V) chord, and lowering it a semitone.
7) A D Bb7 A (The Tritone Substitution)
Normally, an E7 chord provides our smoothest transition back to the A chord. But we can substitute that E7 with a Bb7. It works primarily because both E7 and Bb7 use the same tritone in their tone set: G# and D. (In the case of a Bb7, the Ab is equivalent to G#). To create a tritone substitution, replace any dominant-7th chord with a chord that’s one semitone higher than the tonic.
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