How to Add a Secondary Dominant to Your Chord Progressions

Most songs are said to be “in a key.” If the key is C major, that C major chord is said to be the tonic chord. A dominant chord is one that is built on the 5th degree of a scale. Dominant chords like to move to tonic chords. That’s why G7-C (V7-I) is so satisfying to our ears. The individual notes of the dominant chord move effortlessly to the notes of the tonic chord.

You will find that the dominant-tonic chord pattern features prominently in most common chord progression formulas:

C  F  G7  C
I  IV V7  I

C  Am  Dm  G7  C
I  vi  ii  V7  I

Am  Em  F  G  C
vi  iii IV V  I

Dominant Chord Characteristics

There are two important characteristics of a dominant chord:

  1. It’s major chord; and
  2. It is followed by a chord whose root is 4 notes higher or 5 notes lower (i.e., it’s followed by a tonic chord).

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Secondary Dominant Chords

You may have heard the term secondary dominant chord. A secondary dominant can add interesting colour and flavour to your song’s chord progression. The topic of secondary dominants can take up considerable study in music courses, but here’s a simple way for songwriters to understand and use them:

  1. Take any chord that is usually minor in your chosen key.
  2. Change it to major.
  3. Follow it with a chord whose root is 4 notes higher or 5 notes lower.

For example, let’s say that you’ve been playing around with this progression:

C  Am  Dm  G7  C

Take a look at the Am chord. You can see that the 3rd point above is already fulfilled: it’s followed by a Dm, the root of which (D) is 4 notes higher than A.

So all that remains is to apply the second point above: change it to major. That gives you this progression:

C  A  Dm  G7  C

That A chord is now a secondary dominant. As you play through the modified progression, you’ll notice that the A chord has a stronger “desire” to move to the Dm, and that’s one thing that a secondary dominant does. It also adds an interesting colour to the progression.

Because the vi-chord (Am) has been changed to be major, it’s acting more as a kind of dominant chord. But not the real dominant; it’s a dominant of the ii-chord, the Dm. That makes it a secondary dominant. In Roman numerals, the original progression was: I  vi  ii  V7  I. Now, with the change to the vi-chord, we change that vi to be this: V/ii, and we say “Five-of-two.”

I  V/ii  ii  V7  I

V/ii means that it’s pretending to be a dominant chord of the ii-chord.

It’s possible to do the same thing to the Dm chord, because it’s followed by a chord whose root is 4 notes higher: G7. If you make that change, you get this progression:

C   A   D   G7   C
I  V/ii  V/V V7  I

Just as you can add 7ths to dominant chords (that’s why G7 works so well), you can add 7ths to your newly-created secondary dominant chords, giving you this:

C    A7    D7    G7    C
I  V7/ii   V7/V   V7   I

How to Add Secondary Dominants to Your Songs

If you’re working out your song by starting with an interesting chord progression, that’s the stage during which it can be interesting to add secondary dominants. Once you’ve created a working progression, find spots that have minor chords followed by any chord whose root is a 4th higher or 5th lower. Change that minor chord to a major one, and you’ve just created a secondary dominant.

Secondary Dominant Examples

In the following three progressions, the underlined minor chord is changed to be a secondary dominant:

C  Dm  Em  Am  F  G  C becomes C  Dm  E  Am  F  G  C

C  F  Dm  G7  C becomes C  F  D  G7  C

C  Bb  F  Am  Dm  G  C becomes C  Bb  F  A  Dm  G  C or C  Bb  F  A  D  G7  C

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  4. I’ve used this technique before without knowing what to call it. I just considered the raised third to nicely lead into the root of the next chord without considering it a “dominant chord”.

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