Piano - songwriting

How to Use Chords You Don’t Normally Find In a Key

I did a post recently dealing with categorizing chords to make them easier to use. We know that in any key, the I, IV and V-chords comprise what we call primary chords, and they are the most common ones you’ll find in most pop songs.

Beyond those three, the ii, iii, vi and vii-chords are categorized as secondary chords, with that vii-chord itself probably being the least-used of the seven naturally-occurring chords in any major key.

You can write a lot of wonderful music using just those chords. But sometimes you want to branch out and throw in something that might surprise your listeners: chords that don’t naturally exist in a key.

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The problem with using chords that are foreign to a key is that if they’re just thrown in for interest’s sake, they can sound a bit confusing and can negatively impact a listener’s experience.

Here’s a short list of chords that don’t normally exist within a song’s key, but are commonly used, and can make a powerful impact on the sound of your progressions:


A flat-VII chord is a major chord built on the flattened 7th note of a key. If your song is in C major, a flat-VII will be a major chord built on Bb, giving you these notes: Bb-D-F.

It’s a great chord to use either as a replacement for a V-chord:

C  F  Am  Bb  C

…or it is a good way to get from a I-chord to a IV-chord:

C  Bb  F  G  C


In the key of C major, a flat-III is an Eb chord, using the notes Eb-G-Bb. It moves nicely up from a I-chord, and connects easily to the IV-chord:

C  Eb  F  G  C

It also works well in combination with the flat-VII chord:

C  Eb  F  Bb  C

Secondary Dominant

A secondary dominant chord requires a lengthy description, but here’s a shorthand way to describe one possible type: if, in your progression, you use a ii-chord (Dm) which is followed by a V-chord (G), that Dm chord can be changed from minor to major, becoming a secondary dominant chord in the process:

C  Am  D  G  C

You can change any minor chord that is followed by a major or minor chord 4 notes higher, and you’ll get different forms of secondary dominants. Here are a few progressions that use secondary dominant chords (shown in italics):

C  Am  Dm  E  Am

C  F  A  D  G  C

C  Eb  D7  G  C

C  B7  E7  A7  D7  G  C

Augmented Sixth Chord

Here’s the quick way to form an augmented sixth chord: Let’s say you’re in the key of C major. Find the 6th note (A), lower it by a semitone (Ab), build a major triad on that note (Ab-C-Eb), and then add a minor 7th at the top (Ab-C-Eb-Gb), giving you Ab7. An augmented sixth chord usually resolves by moving to a major chord whose root is a semitone lower. So Ab7 will resolve to G.

The augmented sixth is used in the bridge of Lennon & McCartney’s “Oh! Darling“, and also uses a secondary dominant:

Bridge of “Oh! Darling”: D  F7  A B7  E7  F7  E7. The B7 is the secondary dominant, and the F7 is the augmented sixth.

Some other progressions in C major that use the augmented sixth:

C  Am  Ab7  G  C

C  F  E7  Am  Ab7  G  C

Dm  Em  Am  Ab7  C/G  G  C

Advice on Chord Choice

I’ve always felt that songwriters spend a lot of time worrying about a chord progression that sounds “boring”, when in fact the main worry is a chord progression that simply doesn’t work.

Having said that, however, it can add a shot of creativity to music if you add in chords that don’t normally belong to a key. But those chords need to be used sensibly, not simply tossed in without thought. Curry can make chicken taste great, but you wouldn’t likely add it to coconut cream pie!

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Pingback: The Beatles’ chromatic trifecta | Music Theory Bridges

  2. Thank you! My theory is limited to two semesters of college theory, 30 years ago. Only getting back into music now. Your blog is so helpful! The Flat VII really helped one of my songs and gave it the sound I wanted. Used it between vi to V, leading into the chorus.

    So helpful!

  3. I do enjoy reading your thoughts on chords and melody especially (although i really enjoyed your observation about the appeal of unpolished singers recently as well). You convinced me that melody is essentially king and i disagreed…and have realized that yes, i think chords chosen to support a good melody seem to be much better for writing than finding melodies that work with chosen chords. although some gifted writers can craft amazing melodies (plural) with only the guide of a few cycling chords.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Charlie. I think that many songwriters, (and certainly classical composers) conceive of melody and chords at more-or-less the same time. So if I ever speak of “melody-first” writing, I think it’s more that they place a great deal of importance on getting the melody that they want, always aware of what chords might support it.

      Thanks again, Charlie.

  4. I recently have been using vocal loops (apple loops for example) that feature a melodic vocal phrase. And i found a pretty one in Dmaj. somehow, i came up with a chord progression Dadd9-Fmaj-F#min-Cmaj. And i just works. A lovely accident made possible partially out of ignorance. Funny how i never would have found those chords without the melody. Are they even close to a major or minor key or the circle of fifths? do you think the chords alone sound…at all appealing or promising?

  5. An example using the above would be in key C Major

    C CMaj7/B Dm7 G7

    An example in the key of A Major would be

    A A Maj7/B Bm7 Dm E7

  6. Hi Gary , One chord that can make your song a winner

    in the key of C major is the C Major Seventh or C Major 7 th

    It is a real Major seventh added to the Tonic C as you state the

    C 7 is a flatted 7th note added to the C Triad Whereas as the

    C Major 7th is a C triad with an added B note

    Just thought I would mention it as I did not see any reference to

    it in your Blogg

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