How to Use a Tritone Substitution in Your Progressions

A tritone substitution is a great way to make a typical I-ii7-V sound more interesting. Here’s how it works.

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Jazz BandThe jazz world has been using the tritone substitution for decades. And true, the chord is typically found in jazz genres, but like all chords you can find a use for it in pretty much any style of music. A tritone substitution usually takes the place of a dominant (V7) chord. So it turns this: C  Dm7  G7  C into this: C  Dm7  Db7  C. The easy explanation for why Db7 (the flat-II) serves as such a good substitute for G7 is that the chords share two notes:  F and B. So first, let’s give a listen to both progressions so that we can actually hear the difference. (The links open a new browser window).

Progression with a dominant chord (G7): C  Dm7  G7  C

Progression with a tritone substitution (Db7): C  Dm7  Db7  C

It’s called a tritone substitution because the root of Db7 is an augmented 4th (nicknamed a tritone) away from G7. The G7 chord uses the notes G-B-D-F. The Db7 uses the notes Db-F-Ab-Cb. In music a Cb note sounds the same as a B. So the two chords share two pitches: F and B.

Those two pitches happen to be crucial parts of what makes a dominant (V) chord want to move to a tonic (I) chord. And since those two pitches exist in Db7, it makes it a great substitute for the dominant chord.

Besides having those two crucial pitches (F and B), a tritone substitution works well because it allows the bass to slide down by semitones from D, through Db, and finally to C. So the tritone substitution works as a great chromatic passing chord.

Having said that, an alternate way of using the tritone substitution is to place the dominant note in the bass. Doing this creates some delicious dissonances: C  Dm7  Db7/G  C. You get the bass note G clashing with an F as well as the Ab of the Db7 chord. You also get that G against the Db, which is an augmented 4th interval that requires resolving. So it’s a triple dissonance, but can sound really great in certain situations.

There are other ways to use this Db7 chord, ways that don’t specifically require it to replace a dominant chord. For example, a Db7 can act as part of a progression that changes key from C major to Eb major, like this: C  Db7  Bb7/D  Eb. That progression uses a chromatically rising bass line.

There is one other chord that is similar to the chord we’ve been discussing, called a Neapolitan chord. The Neapolitan chord takes the flat-II (Db-F-Ab), places the F in the bass, and it takes the place of an F chord that moves to G. So it turns this: C  F  G  C into this: C  Db/F  G  C.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tritone in practice – Authentic Woodshedding

  2. Being the Song Butcher , I thought I was just making a mistake. Seems I’ve been a bit smarter then I thought. Tritone Huh ? I’m a dissonant citizen. Thanks for the support.

    • Chords are generally playable in any genre or style, though some chords show up in one genre more than another. For example, the tritone substitution is more likely to be seen in jazz, but are the kinds of chords you might find in jazz-related rock music, such as early Chicago or Steely Dan. As far as the 3 genres you mention (jazz, blues, and R&B), you could find the tritone substitution in any and all of them.

      When chords sound like they’re clashing, it’s due to the presence of dissonance in the actual chord. One of the examples I gave had the tritone substitution build over the dominant (5th) note of the scale, which creates a dissonance. Depending on the style, that dissonance is either desirable or not, and sometimes revoicing the chord can help reduce the dissonance. Generally, the further apart two dissonant tones are, the less jarring they will seem to be.

      -Gary

  3. Cool, I hadn’t seen the C-Db7-Bb7/D-Eb progression before. Still haven’t decided if I like it or not, but I collect chromatic progressions so I’ll experiment with it.

    Speaking of which, there’s a Beach Boys book (I thought it was “Heroes and Villains”, but I’ve searched on google books and not found it) where one of them, I think Carl, describes a specific, very unusual progression that they really liked. I can’t remember what song it was from or what book. You don’t know, do you?

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