Traditionally dominant chords are used primarily as a chord that returns to the 1 (tonic) chord in both major and minor keys.
For example, G (or G7) returns to C or C minor in the keys of C (major) and C (minor) respectively. Dominants are quite common in music from the Baroque era to the present.
Dominant “7ths” are an extension from the triadic form (G). The G7 chord contains the notes G,B,D,F. The “push” into the major or minor 1 chord is even stronger from a dominant 7 chord and that is due to the “tritone” interval within the dominant 7th chord.
The notes B (3rd of chord) and F (b7th of chord) form the interval of a tritone and increases the push into the 1 chord.
The increased use of the tritone interval through history is in itself an interesting study not only in music, but also in culture though that is a subject for another time.
None-the-less, the use of the tritone interval in dominant chords (and their extensions) increases in usage especially from the Impressionistic period to today.
Dominant chords are used frequently in jazz and other popular music styles. Though the vertical structure may not be an exact 7th chord, it may be an extension or a suspended version (there are many variations).
A couple of commonly used techniques in jazz and popular music (as well as classical and others) is:
- Secondary Dominants
- Tritone Substitution
Before discussing these two techniques, let me say that dominants, due to their restless sound (especially 7ths, 9ths, 13ths and their altered forms 7(#9), 7(#5), etc.) may be used without set up. Simply put, you can go to any dominant at any time.
There are, or course, other things to consider such as the melodic elements, the style, but as pure harmony or chords, one can go to a dominant at any time. The resolution “from” a dominant is another matter. Wanting to keep this simple and practical, let me move forward.
Secondary dominants (SD) are chords placed before an original chord in the progression. The chord you are going to is called the “target chord”. The secondary dominant is a dominant chord (any form, but for this example we’ll stick to triads and seventh chords) that is a 5th above, or 4th below the chord you are going into (the target chord).
Here is a simple example: If your original chord progression is this…
You can use secondary dominants like this…
Now, in reality you may not use this many secondary dominants all at once, but you could.
Other factors such as harmonic rhythm will factor in as well. For the example above I put all the chord changes on beats 1 or 3, but those can vary.
Tritone substitutions are basically an extension of secondary dominants. A tritone substitution (TS) is a dominant (any form) that is a tritone away (6 semitones up or down) from the original secondary dominant. You can also look at it as 1 semitone above the target chord. Here is an example…
I would suggest starting with a song you know. If you have a simple lead sheet with the melody and chord symbols start by adding secondary dominants to the original chord progression.
As I said before, you will have to consider the melody. Not all secondary dominants will work with the existing melody and may have to be either adjusted (through extensions, alterations) or abandoned.
Do the same with tritone substitutions.
Dominant chords are chords that traditionally seek resolution. In some styles such as blues and jazz dominants function without resolution.
Blues, for example is a style based on dominants on all of the primary chords (the 1 / IV / V are all dominant structures). Many jazz pieces end on a dominant other than the 1 chord. Some of my own big band compositions and arrangements do just that.
© 2014 Ric Flauding
Ric Flauding is a composer-arranger who has written for the London Symphony and Fort Worth Symphony Orchestras as well as hundreds of recordings sessions in Los Angeles and also now Nashville.
He is currently teaching at Weatherford College in Texas and also teaches composition-theory and all related subjects online.