Altered chords can help add a bit of creativity to an otherwise mundane progression. Here’s how.
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An altered chord is one that doesn’t naturally exist in your chosen key. If your song is in C major, the chords that naturally exist are: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim. That’s because the roots of those chords (i.e., the letter names) are the ones that come from a C major scale.
You can add tones to those chords to enhance those ones (G7, for example), but even with added tones, they are still considered to be the naturally-occurring ones. Any other chord is considered to be an altered chord.
You can write a lot of music using just the naturally-occurring ones, but it’s quite common to mix in a few altered chords. The questions are: 1) Are there any rules about when you might use those altered chords, and 2) How do you use them?
Altered chords are best used to either pull progressions momentarily out of a strong sense of key, or to provide interesting colour to an otherwise mundane progression.
Here’s an example of an altered chord that achieves the first circumstance: pulling the progression away from a key. (The altered chords are in bold):
EX 1: C F D7 G Am Bb C.
The D7 is an altered chord — a type of secondary dominant — because the kind of chord that normally uses D as a root in this key is Dm. The Bb is an altered chord because the note Bb does not naturally occur in the key of C major.
Here’s an example of a progression that achieves the second circumstance: adding interesting colour to the progression:
EX 2: C F Fm C/G G C
The Fm is a type of modal mixture chord, which simply means that it normally belongs to the key of C minor.
How to Use Altered Chords
If you find it confusing when to consider using altered chords, think about what your progression would actually be if you used the naturally-occurring (i.e., diatonic) version of the chord. In the Example 1 progression, it may not have occurred to you to use D7. Perhaps your original thought was to use Dm. And Bb may not have occurred to you; you may have originally thought that a simple G chord was going to be your choice to move easily back to C.
There are lots of situations that might easily allow for altered chords. Here’s a short list of the three most common situations, and how to add them in:
- Considering modal mixture chords. The most common modal mixture chord is changing the major IV-chord to a minor one (i.e., changing F to Fm). But you can also change a minor ii-chord to a diminished ii (Dm to Ddim), or a major I-chord to a minor i (C to Cm). Examples: C F Ddim G C; or C Dm Cm/Eb Dm C.
- Considering a secondary dominant chord. For this type, try changing a minor chord to a major one (Dm to D or D7). This works especially well if the chord that follows it has a root that’s 4 notes higher. So changing Dm to D7 works well if the next chord is based on G. Examples: C G E7 Am G C; or C F Dm A7 D7 C.
- Considering a Flat-III, Flat-VI, or Flat-VII. These chords are actually types of modal mixtures, but they sound quite different because the notes they’re based on don’t actually exist in the chosen key. Like a secondary dominant, they often work well to pull the music in a slightly different direction regarding key. Examples: C Eb F G C; or C G Ab Eb F G C.
As with all alterations you might consider for your music, keep in mind that spicing up chord progressions should always be done carefully, realizing that changing the kinds of chords you use can have a very strong impact on how your music is perceived. Always let your ears (and personal taste) be your guide.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)