Using a Minor I-Chord in a Major Key Song

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Songwriter working at a piano keyboardA modal mixture chord (also called a borrowed chord) is a chord that normally belongs to the opposite mode. For example,  if your song is in C major and you use an Fm in a progression, you’ve just used a modal mixture. That’s because the form of F chord that you normally use in the key of C major is F. Fm belongs to the key of C minor.

Modal mixtures are very useful so-called “colour chords.” A modal mixture chord will usually have the same function (purpose) as the native chord that it is replacing. For example, you might take this progression: C  F  G  C [LISTEN], and replace the F with an Fm, giving you this: C  Fm  G  C [LISTEN]. The Fm serves the same purpose as F, simply adding a bit of moody colour to the progression. They’re fun to experiment with.

One of the trickier modal mixtures to use is a minor I-chord. Because the I-chord so strongly defines our song as being in a major or minor key, it can be a startling substitution to try:

C  F  G  Cm [LISTEN]
I  IV  V  i

Here’s a more interesting and musically satisfying way to use a minor I-chord. In the progression, an uppercase ‘I’ refers to a major version of the I-chord, and a lowercase ‘i’ refers to a minor version (i):

C  F  C/E  Cm/Eb  Dm  G  C [LISTEN]
I  IV I6   i6     ii  V  I

First, an explanation of the Roman numerals. An inverted chord with the 3rd in the bass — like C/E — is shown by placing a number 6 after the Roman numeral. So C/E is notated as I6. The fourth chord of that progression is the minor i-chord, also inverted: Cm/Eb (i6).

When you listen to the second progression, you’ll notice that the Cm/Eb chord sounds more natural and less startling than the Cm in the previous progression. It’s the bass line that makes it easier on the ears.

The bass jumps up from C to F when you play the first two chords. Then, as the progression moves from F to C/E, to Cm/Eb and then to Dm, the bass line is: F-E-Eb-D. That chromatic line is very easy for the ear to follow, and makes the progression easier to understand.

Normally, a minor i-chord in a major key sounds odd, as if you’re trying to pull the entire song into a minor key. But by inverting the minor i, and then placing it in the middle of a progression rather than using it as an endpoint, the minor i-chord can be a very useful passing chord that adds some interesting flavour to an otherwise rather ordinary progression.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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