Dominant Chords

Do you want to learn how to play dominant chords?

Dominant chords are some of the most important chords in music. They give your music a sense of direction and resolve. In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about dominant chords – from their different types to how to use them in music.

Once you learn how to play them, your music will sound richer and more complex. Secondary dominants are especially powerful tools that can add extra flavor and interest to your compositions.

Keep reading this article to learn all about dominant chords!

Chord Families – Tonic, Dominant & Subdominant Chords.

The seven diatonic chords of any key in tonal music have a chord function, which defines the relationship of these to the tonal center. However, at a higher level, these chords can be further classified into three groups or families – the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords.

Tonic chords are used to establish the tonality of the key and are the most stable. The chord progression moves to these chords to release their tension. The first scale degree (tonic), the third scale degree (mediant), and the sixth scale degree (submediant) chords form the Tonic chord group in a key.

Dominant Chords have the maximum tension and want to resolve to the tonic chords. Thus, they are assigned the harmonic function to lead the progression back to the center of the key. The fifth note (dominant note) and the scale degree seven (leading tone) note and any chords built on them belong to the dominant family.

The subdominant group consists of the second note (supertonic) and the fourth scale degree (subdominant) note in a major scale. The chords built on these scale degrees are called the supertonic chord and the subdominant chord, respectively.

The subdominant function means that these chords result in a movement away from the tonic and towards the dominant. The subdominant movement away from the key creates tension, but not as much as the dominant chords do. They can also move back to the tonic but are used more to lead to the dominant.

Hence in any major key, the three major chords are divided into three functions, with I as the tonic, IV as subdominant, and V as the Dominant. Out of the three minor chords, ii is subdominant, while iii and vi are in the tonic group. The vii0 chord is a dominant chord. A similar distribution is applicable for the minor key.

In the key of C Major, the distribution is:

  1. Tonic Group – C major, E minor, and A minor chord.
  2. Subdominant Group – D minor and the F major Chord.
  3. Dominant group – G Major and the B diminished chord.

What does Dominant mean?

In music theory parlance, the word dominant usually refers to the note at scale degree 5 (SD5) of the diatonic scales. The 5 is the second most important scale degree of any major scale after the tonic, with a very strong tendency to resolve either to the tonic or the octave note. Hence it is considered to be a very dominant note.

The chords that are built with the fifth degree as the root notes are said to be dominant chords with a dominant function.

Dominant Chords Harmonic Function

As you may be aware, the word function or harmonic function describes the relation of any scale degree note or chord to the tonic. The term dominant function for a chord implies that the chord creates an instability that requires the tonic chord for resolution.

All dominant triads, dominant 7th chords, and dominant 9th chords have a dominant function. In addition, the leading tone triads (diminished triad) and the leading tone seventh chords (half-diminished seventh chords) may also have a dominant function.

Dominant Chord Music Theory – How to Make a Dominant Chord

As stated above, the scale degree 5 note is known as the dominant note. Chords built with scale degree 5 as the root notes, the V chords, are known as the Dominant Chords.

In the key of C, the major triad with G as the root note and {G B D} as its notes is known as the Dominant Triad.

Presence of the Leading Tone and Scale Degree 2

The dominant triad comprises the notes with scale degrees 5, 7, and 2, i.e., notes G, B, and D in the C major key. The B, at scale degree 7, is the leading tone (also known as the leading note) and has a strong urge to resolve to the tonic note C, being just a half step below the octave.

Also, D at scale degree 2 tries to resolve to the tonic. These two scale degrees, 7 and 2, act in unison to result in an assured and satisfying harmonic motion.

The V chord is the only chord that has both unrest and direction with respect to the tonic in any scale. The tonic has no tension or direction, while all other chords have tension but not direction.

Addition to the Dominant Function by Scale Degree 4 note

Adding the seventh note to the basic dominant chord, a minor seventh further enhances the leading quality. The dominant sevenths are denoted as V7 in the roman numerals and as G7 in the C Major scale. The Dominant 7ths are used in blues-based music just for their sound quality or color.

If you carefully observe, the minor 7th note forms a tritone with the major 3rd note (B-F). The tritone is an unstable and dissonant interval. Further, the 4th degree always wants to resolve to the 3rd degree. Hence 7th, 2nd, and 4th degrees always try to resolve to 1(8), 1st, and 3rd degrees, resulting in the V7 – I progressions.

The chord formula for the Dominant 7 chords is {1 3 5 b7].

Types of Dominant Chords

The dominant chords may be classified into various types depending on their structural composition, such as the dominant triads, dominant 7ths, extended and altered dominants, leading tone chords, secondary dominants, etc. Let us review each of them in detail in the next section.

A Dominant Triad

We have already discussed the dominant triads in the major key above.

In a C minor scale, the major triad built on the fifth degree is the G minor with notes [G Bb D], which is the dominant chord for this natural minor scale.

If we use the harmonic minor scale with a raised seventh note, which is quite common, we get the notes [G B D], the same as that for the major scale.

A Dominant Seventh Chord

The structure of the dom7 chords has already been discussed above. We have dealt with the dominant 7th chords in detail in a separate article on the topic.

DOM7 Chords

Extended Dominants

The dominant 9ths, the dominant 11ths, and the dominant 13ths form the extended dominants. As you undoubtedly know, the extended chords are diatonic chords formed by further adding the thirds over the seventh chords.

Let us briefly review the extended dominants.

Dominant 9th or DOM9 Chords

These are often referred to as funk chords and find extensive use in jazz and funk music. These chords are formed by adding a major 3rd interval over the dom7 (dominant 7’s) chords. This results in the chord formula [1 3 5 b7 9]. In C major scale, the notes of the G9 chord are [G B D F A].

Dominant 11th or DOM11 Chords

The dominant 11’s are formed by stacking an interval of minor 3rd over the dom9 chord. The chord formula for dom11 chords is [1 3 5 b7 9 11]. The notes of the G11 chord are [G B D F A C].

Dominant 13th or DOM13 Chords

The 13th chords are known as the full chords, as they have seven notes in them and cannot be extended further. The dom13 chord is formed by adding another major 3rd over the dom11 chords.

The chord formula becomes [1 3 5 b7 9 11 13]. The notes of the C13 chord are {C, E, G, Bb, D, F, A}.

Altered Dominants

The altered chords are built by chromatically changing one or more notes of the extended chords. This change is effected by raising or lowering the 9th, 11th, or 13th notes by a half step. As you know, chromatic alteration means using a note which is not in the key. Let us review them briefly.

B9 And #9 Variations to the DOM9 chords

Lowering the 9th to b9 gives a minor 9th or a minor 2nd interval, resulting in a 7b9 chord. The notes of C7b9 are C, E, G, Bb, and Db.

Raising the 9th to #9 results in a chord known popularly as Hendrix’s chord, used extensively in funk, rock, blues, and jazz music. #9 is a minor 3rd note. The combination of a minor 3rd, major 3rd, and a minor 7th produces a unique and funky sound. The chord is known as the 7#9, and the notes of C7#9 are C, E, G, Bb, and Eb.

#11 Variations to the DOM11 chords

The b11 variation is not meaningful, as it repeats the major 3rd interval. But the #11 alteration gives an Aug11 or Aug4 note. The altered chord is known as the 9#11 chord, and the C9#11 carries the notes C, E, G, Bb, D, and F#.

B13 And #13 Variations to the DOM13 chords

The b13 alteration gives a 11b13 chord. The notes in C are C, E, G, Bb, D, F, and Ab. The #13 alteration is not meaningful.

A Leading Tone Chord

The leading tone chords are built on the seventh scale degree and the leading tones of a diatonic scale. These chords in the major scale carry a tritone, which is a very dissonant interval. The notes of the triad chord are [7 2 4].

The chord has a dominant function due to the presence of the three scale degrees that create tension, along with the tritone, and need to be resolved to the tonic chord.

Secondary Dominants

As explained, the “dom” chords have a very strong relationship with the tonic chords. The composers in Western music use the concept to create resolutions to the chords other than those built with the tonic note as the root.

These non-tonic chords with dominant functions that are built to resolve to a scale degree other than the tonic are known as secondary dominants.

Consider any chord in the major key except the I and the viio chord. Each chord built on scale degrees 2 to 6 can have its own dominant major chord or a dom7 chord built with a root a 5th away from it.

For example, Dm, the ii chord in C, has the A major or the A7 chord as its secondary dominant. These A or A7 chords will lead to the Dm chord. In essence, you can lead to any chord using its own dominant.

In addition, the A or A7 chord has a very different sound quality than the Am chord in the key. Their main purpose is to put emphasis on a specific chord in a chord progression. It is not necessary for the secondary dominant to be followed by the chord they are emphasizing.

They are denoted as V/ii, V/iii, V/IV, V/V, or V/vi in the major scale. As you would have gathered, V/iii means the secondary dominant of the iii chords in any major key. For example, in the key of C, it means B or B7, the secondary dominant to the Em (the iii chord).

There is no secondary dominant for I as it has the primary dominant. The secondary dominants exist only for major and minor triads. Hence the viio chord does not have one.

How to Use Dominant Chords in Music

You can now see how to use a dominant chord in your music.

In Cadences

As you know, cadence is the term to signify the musical punctuation at the end of a phrase, period, verse, chorus, and so on. The dominant chord is the main ingredient of many different types of cadences, as shown below.

The Perfect Authentic Cadence is a closed cadence built on a V – I progression, where both the V and I chords are in their root position. This cadence denotes the end of the phrase, verse, chorus, or even the complete composition.

Imperfect Authentic Cadence – This is where the listener feels the music piece to be incomplete. Here either an inversion of the V or I chords is used, the top note of the I chord is not the tonic note, or V is replaced by the leading tone chord.

Half Cadences end with the V chord instead of the tonic chord. For example, I – V, ii – V, II – V, or vi – V.

As a passing Chord

The passing chord is usually a chromatic chord (with one or more notes not in the key) connecting two diatonic chords. Every diatonic chord can use its V or V7 chord as a passing chord to it. Such chords are known as secondary dominants, which we will discuss in the next section.

Modulation to Dominant Keys of Major Scale

While it is possible to modulate to any key, modulation to the dominant, subdominant, and relative keys is more common. The modulation to the dominant key increases the tension, while the modulation to the subdominant results in a musical relaxation.

How to use Secondary Dominant Chord in Music?

As explained earlier, the secondary dominants are used to

  1. Emphasize other chords in the key between scale degrees 2 to 6 by setting up their secondary dominants in the chord progression and using the power of the V – I or the V7 – I.
  2. Use the I7 – IV in the larger progression IV-V-I-I7-IV-V-I, where the I7 chord is the dom7 chord with the tonic as the root.
  3. The use of secondary dominants tonicizes other chords in the key. For example, II7, instead of an ii chord, highlights the V chord. Tonicization is like a mini-key change temporarily. For example, consider the key of F. In the F-Dm-G7-C progression, the G7 has notes in the key of C instead of those in F major. You must start out in F major, switch patterns to C major at G7, and back to F major patterns once you have played the C major chord.
  4. The secondary dominants work best as the dom7 chords, you can use them as a triad in many cases. You can easily recognize the secondary dominants by the major chords where you normally expect to see a minor chord. II-V or VI-ii are easy giveaways. The dominant triads work best when you are altering a minor chord. For example, ii to II, iii to III, etc. For major chords, it is preferable to use the 7th chords.


A Dominant chord is an important part of music, and understanding how to use it can make you a better musician. Secondary dominant chords are another type of chord that can be used to add interest and variety to your tunes. If you want to learn more about using dominant chords in your music, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!

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