Secondary Dominant

Are you familiar with the secondary dominant chords?

They are an easy way to provide musical intensity to any chord in the key other than the tonic chords to spice up your music.

In this article, we will go through the important concepts related to the secondary dominants like secondary function, types of secondary chords, how to build them with examples, how to analyze them and use them in your music, sample chord progressions, and examples of popular songs using them, their voice leading and the secondary dominant charts.

Keep reading the complete article to get the complete information in one place!

What is a secondary Function?

In Western music, composers frequently use chromatic notes (not in the key) in the harmony and melody to intensify them. These notes being dissonant and foreign to the key, are quick to draw the listener’s attention toward them and cry for resolution through a return to the diatonic notes and chords.

As you may be aware, the term function in music theory signifies the relation of other scale degree notes to the tonic note. Each of the scale degree names is related to the function that the note carries out. The most important functions are the Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant functions.

The secondary function refers to the use of chromaticism through chords that are not in the key in shifting the listener’s focus to chords other than the tonic chord by intensifying them. Such chords are known as secondary function chords.

For example, consider the ii – V – I chord progression in the key of C Major. The ii chord is a D minor chord with the notes [D F A]. If the F is replaced by F#, we get the D major chord, which is a chromatic chord for the key. Note that D major is the dominant chord leading to the G major chord, which is our V chord in the present case.

Types of Secondary Function Chords

The main secondary functions are the secondary dominant function and the secondary leading tone function. The corresponding chromatic chords are known as the “Secondary Dominant Chords” and the “Secondary Leading Tone Chords.” You can see a brief introduction to both of them, but we will deal with the secondary dominants only in detail in the present article.

Secondary Dominant Chords

The secondary dominants are used extensively in classical, jazz, and popular music. They use the power of the V – I progression with the dominant function that forces the resolution of the dominant chords to the tonic.

The dominant chords get this power from the simple fact that in the overtone series, the notes that get a maximum emphasis are the tonic and scale degree five dominant note. We dealt with this in detail in our article on Consonance and Dissonance in Music.

Using the same concept, we can create secondary function chords to resolve to a harmonic degree other than the tonic. Such chords are the V or V7 chords of the other harmonic degree that we want to intensify and are known as the secondary dominant chords. In the example in the previous section, we had created a secondary dominant chord, D major, to intensify the G major chord by chromatically altering F to F#.

Secondary Leading Tone Chord

The leading tone chords also have a dominant function with a very strong relationship with the tonic note at the octave, where they want to resolve. The chromatic alteration of lowering the root note by a half step of any harmonic degree other than the tonic chord result in the formation of the secondary leading tone chords.

These are usually a diminished triad, a half-diminished 7th chord, or the fully diminished chords for resolving to a major triad.

For resolving to a minor triad, the secondary leading tone chord has to be either diminished triads or fully diminished chords. They cannot be half diminished 7th for resolving to a minor triad. These secondary chords are designated as viio/ii or viio7/ii, where ii is the chord they will resolve to.

In the previous example, instead of altering the Dm chord, if we created an F#dim chord with notes [F# A C], it would try to resolve to the G chord, which is V in the key of C. Hence, the chord is designated as viio/V.

Introduction to Secondary Dominants

The secondary dominants are also known as the applied dominant, borrowed dominant, or artificial dominant chords.

You can use a dominant chord to provide a temporary focus to any major or minor diatonic chord in the chord progression to add variety to the music. They can be the major triads or the dominant seventh chords, 5ths away from the chord they are emphasizing. The emphasized chord acts like a temporary tonic and is known as a tonicized chord.

The dominant seventh, used as the secondary chord, has a different sound quality than the major or minor triad it emphasizes, further adding to the variety.

The secondary dominants can be recognized in progressions by

  1. The presence of a major triad where you are expecting a minor triad.
  2. The presence of a dominant seventh chord in place of a simple triad.
  3. The presence of an altered chord instead of a chord in the key.

The secondary dominant chords are designated as V/ii, V7/ii, V/iii, V7/iii, V7/IV, V/V, V7/V, V/vi, and V7/vi in major keys. Notice that there is no V/IV because it is the tonic chord itself. Also, the vii0, the diminished chord, does not have a secondary chord, as the secondary chords are only for the minor and major chords in the scale.

How to build a Secondary Dominant Chord?

The secondary V chord-building exercise is akin to defining the spelling of the chord. To do so, we need to follow the following steps.

  1. Find or name the root of the chord to be tonicized.
  2. Go up a Perfect 5th interval or the 7 semitones.
  3. Spell a major triad or a dom7 chord, with the note at step 2 being the root note.

For example, consider the vi chord in the key of C major. To build a secondary dominant chord for it, first, you have to find the name of the chord to be tonicized. The Chord in the present case is the sixth scale degree minor triad Am.

In the next step, you have to go up a P5 interval, which is the E note. Now spell an E major or E7 chord, which shall be the expected chord with a secondary dominant function. The E Major has notes [E G# B], and E7 has the notes [E G# B D].

Rules related to Building the Secondary Dominants

There are certain rules you need to follow in building any secondary dominant chord. You would have noticed these rules in our earlier discussions, but let us summarize them in one place.

  1. Secondary dominants can only tonicize the major and minor diatonic triad chords.
  2. You can tonicize these triads in both the major and minor keys.
  3. They are altered chords with chromatic notes. This means they are non-diatonic chords.
  4. They can only be major triads or the dominant 7th chords.
  5. For a major key, they can be a V or V7 chord for ii, iii, V, and vi chords and only V7 chords for IV.
  6. There is no secondary dominant chord for the viio, as it is not having a major or minor quality.
  7. For a minor key, the V/III is the same chord as VII. However, both representations are used, but it is not an altered key. For V/V, we normally use the harmonic scale and hence make a major chord. Also, V/VI is the same as the III chord. So we use only V7/VI discarding V/VI. Other chords will have both the V and V7 versions.

Examples of Building Secondary Dominants

You must go through a couple of examples to build upon the concepts dealt with in the article.

Example 1: Find the V(4/3)/iv in the key of C minor.

Solution: The steps involved are:

  1. The scale degree four note in C minor key is F. Fm is designated as the iv chord in the key.
  2. Going up by a Perfect fifth, You get the note C.
  3. C major chord [C E G] or the C dominant seventh chord C7 [C E G Bb] will be the secondary dominant chord for iv.
  4. You have to find V(4/3)/iv chord, which is a 7th-degree chord. So you need to consider only the C7 chord.
  5. The figured bass notation 4/3 indicates the 2nd inversion. The second inversion of C7 is [G Bb C E].

How to find and Analyze the Secondary Dominant Chord

While going through the sheet music, you encounter a chord that is not in the key. If it is a major triad or a dom7 chord, chances are that it is a secondary dominant chord. To be certain, you need to verify analyze it and verify the following.

  1. Convert the notes on the sheet music to lead sheet symbols.
  2. Check if it is an altered Major or dom7 chord.
  3. If yes, go down by a Perfect 5th interval. Find the note.
  4. Check if you can build a major or minor triad with that note, which is diatonic.
  5. If yes, you have a secondary dominant chord for the note in Point No. 3.

Examples of Analyzing Secondary Dominants

In real life, you may encounter different voicings of the chords, which may appear complicated if you are not well-versed in music theory. So, let us consider certain examples to make the concept of analyzing the secondary chords clear to you.

Example 1: In the key of D major, D# is the bass note of the 1st inversion of the 7th chord. Analyze the chord and give its designation.

Analysis: The steps in the analysis are:

  1. As D# is a chromatic note and bass of the first inversion, the chord must be major or dom7 with its root position note being a major 3rd or 4 semitones below D#, i.e., B.
  2. So, the chord can be a B major triad or B7 with notes {B D# F#] or [ B D# F# A].
  3. P5 below the B in the key of D is E.
  4. We have Em as an ii chord in D major key.
  5. So the chord given is V(6/5)/ii.

Example 2: In the key of D major, D is the bass note of the 3rd inversion of the 7th chord. The 4th of the chord is raised by a half step. Analyze and designate the chord.

Analysis: The steps in the analysis are:

  1. D is the bass note of the 3rd inversion. The intervals of the 3rd inversions are 2, 4, and 6. So, we must have E, G, and B as the other notes.
  2. It is given that the 4th is raised by a semitone. Hence G is raised to G#. Hence we have four notes D, E, G#, and B.
  3. The root position chord dom7 chord with the above notes is E7 [E G# B D].
  4. If we go P5 below the E, we get A.
  5. In D, A is the V chord.
  6. So, the given chord represents a V(4/2)/V.

How to use the Secondary Dominant Chords in Music

You can use the secondary dominants in your music to

  1. Emphasize any chord in the chord progression within the diatonic key. In the following sections, you will see many examples of how to do it. The process is known as tonicization.
  2. You will get the best results by using the secondary dominants as the dom7 chords. You can use dominant triads when you are altering a minor chord. For example, ii to II, iii to III, etc. For major chords, it is advisable to use the dom7 chords.
  3. You can use them in deceptive or plagal cadences to emphasize the vi/VI or IV chord.
  4. They work like mini changes in the key. Suppose you want to play the I-vi-II7-V progression in any key. The II7 is the secondary dom7 chord. To play the progression, you need to start in the original key, but when you reach II7, you need to switch patterns to the V chord and back to the main key after playing the V chord. While switching over to the major patterns of the V chord, you actually play the II Mixolydian, also known as the dominant scale.

Sample Chord Progressions Using the Secondary Dominants

Consider the standard diatonic progression I – iii – vi – ii – V – I. You can insert a secondary chord in front of each of the chords to create a strong pull to the next note.

For example, V/iii before the iii chord, V/vi before the vi chord, V/ii before the ii chord, or V/V before the V chord. Take care to use the appropriate inversions of these chords for proper voice leading.

In the key of F, the iii chord is Am. The note P5 up from A is E, which makes the E7 chord the V7/iii chord in the key of F major. Similarly, A7 is the V7/vi, D7 the V7/ii, and G7 is the V7/V chord. You can insert any of these chords in front of the respective chords to tonicize them.

For example, you can use either of

  • F – E7 – Am – Dm – Gm – C – F, or
  • F – Am – A7 – Dm – Gm – C – F, or
  • F – Am – Dm – D7 – Gm – C – F, or
  • F – Am – Dm – Gm – G7 – C – F.

You can even use multiple secondary chords in the same progression or even chain them. For example, you may go in for V/vi – V/ii – V/V – V – I progression.

In the key of C, the above progression will translate to E – A – D – G – C.

Or you can use them to create Deceptive or Plagal cadences. As you may be aware, the deceptive or interrupted cadences are where the V chord leads to the vi or VI chords instead of the tonic triads. They lead to the IV chords in the plagal cadences. The examples are:

  1. V7 – V6/vi – vi. Here the V7 chord leads to the first inversion of the secondary dominant of the vi chord and finally to the vi chord.
  2. V(6/5) – V(4/2)/IV – IV(6) is an example of using secondary dominants in the plagal cadence. In the key of C, the chords are G7/B – C7/Bb – F/A. The F chord is the IV chord in this case.

Songs using the Secondary Dominant Chords

Let us start with some older songs to understand the use of secondary dominants in actual compositions.

  1. Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” – The use of consecutive secondary dominants in fifths down progression gives great forward momentum to the song. The progression is I – III7 – VI7 – II7 – V7 – I in C. So the chords are C – E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C.
  2. Trouble in mind” – The song is a blues classic in the key of G. The song uses a separate chromatic chord, F7, not in the diatonic key but also within the key secondary dominants progression. The three progressions used repeatedly in a cycle are (a) I – F7 – I or G – F7 – G7, (b) I7 – IV7 – F7 – I or G7 – C7 – F7 – G, (c) I – VI7 – II7 – V7 – I or G – E7 – A7 – D7 – G. The last progression has a run of secondary dominant sevenths: E7 – A7 – D7.
  3. Lovesick blues” by Irving Mills and Cliff Friend uses all the secondary dominant in the key of D.

Other popular songs that use secondary dominants are:

  1. In the songs “Act naturally” by the Beatles, “Faith” by George Michaels, and “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, the II chord leads to V.
  2. Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson – The III chord is used as a secondary dominant to lead to vi.
  3. Hey Jude” by The Beatles and “Running on Faith” by Eric Clapton – The I7 chord is used to lead to IV. Remember that we use only I7 chords for IV in a major key.
  4. The Way” by Fastball – A I chord leads to iv in the minor key.

Voice Leading with Secondary Dominants

Voice leading follows the same rules as those of the primary dominants that we discussed (in our separate article on voice leading) with the following exception:

  1. The leading tone may go a half step below to become the 7th of the next chord.

Usually, the leading tone note in the outer voices resolves up. Here it needs to go down. Let us understand the reason with an example. In C, G7 is the V7 chord, and its secondary dominant V/V is D major [D F# A]. The new leading tone is the chromatic note F#, which will resolve to F in the G7 chord [G B D F].

Secondary Dominant Chart

The secondary dominant chart is attached below in the major and minor scales for easy reference. This video provides excellent guidance to find the secondary dominants from the Circle of Fifths.



We hope that the article has been informative for you and provided the information you were looking for. If you have any comments or you want additional information, please provide the comments in the section below.

Leave a Comment