First, a Bit of Basic Theory…
For any given major key, there are 7 chords that occur naturally, one built on each note of the scale. In the key of C major, that gives you these chords:
According to the very popular HookTheory website, the 3 most commonly used chords in that list are, in order, G (V), F (IV), and C (I). When you hear about the standard 3-chord song, those are the chords you’ll most often find being used.
Beyond those 3, the next most popular chords are: Am (vi), Dm (ii) and Em (iii). That leaves Bdim (vii) as the least-used chord out of the 7 that naturally occur in the key of C major.
Introducing Flat-III, Flat-VI, and Flat-VII
As you likely know, it’s relatively common for a songwriter to use chords that don’t naturally exist in a key’s allotment of 7 chords. That keeps things interesting, and helps as a writer seeks to shape the mood of the music.
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Most of these so-called non-diatonic chords fall into different categories such as secondary dominants, modal mixtures, various types of pre-dominant chords, just to name a few. The chords that we’re looking at today in this post, the bIII, bVI, and bVII, are all a type of modal mixture, which simply means that you’d find them in the key of C minor, and they’re “borrowed” and used in the key of C major.
Creating these chords is easy enough. To make a bIII chord, find the 3rd note of C major (E), lower it one semitone (Eb), and build a major chord on top of it (Eb-G-Bb). Do the same thing to make a bVI (Ab-C-Eb) and bVII (Bb-D-F).
Using Flat-III, Flat-VI, and Flat-VII
For any chord to sound good, you have to approach it and then leave it in a way that sounds right. Sometimes the best way is to demonstrate this with a few examples, so check out these ideas. (The letter b in front of a Roman numeral indicates “flat”):
Progressions That Use bIII:
- bIII usually moves easily to IV: C Eb F G
- bIII can move easily to bVI: C Eb Ab G
- bIII can move easily to bVII: C Eb Bb F
Progressions That Use bVI:
- bVI can move easily to V: C Am Ab G
- bVI can move easily to I: C Am Ab C/G G C
- bVI can move easily to bVII: C F Dm G Ab Bb C
Progressions That Use bVII:
- bVII can move easily to I: C F Bb C
- bVII can move easily to IV: C Dm G Bb F G C
- bVII can move easily to bIII, as part of a circle of 5ths: C F Bb Eb Dm G C
It’s very important to keep your eye on the bass line that non-diatonic chord like these ones create. It is the bass line that makes a progression sound good or bad. In general, moving stepwise into or away from a non-diatonic chord (i.e., Eb to F) or moving by a 4th or 5th (Eb-Ab, or Eb-Bb) will almost always work.
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