Tag Archives: how to write chord progressions

Unlock The Mysterious Sound Of The Minor Subdominant Chords

Let’s talk about what is probably the most beautiful chords in Jazz.

When I was first getting into Jazz, the basic 7th chords sounded amazing, and it was fun to play stuff like:

but then you realize that already with a II V I you can add these beautiful extensions like minor chord with a 9th,

and you can add color to the chords in the progression but you’re still just playing the basic 251

and then you discover that in the songs, there are these other chords other progressions that are even more mysterious and beautiful like this one Fmaj7 Bb7 Cmaj7.

And this group of chords is what I want to talk about in this video. They are often described as “Modal Interchange” or “Borrowed chords” but let me show you why that is maybe not a precise description.

This group of chords is called minor subdominants, and the basic version is the easiest to understand if you start with this cowboy or country progression, imagine that our hero, the cowboy, is at home C Major,

and he has a car that he loves C7,

then he goes for a ride Fmajor,

but the cart breaks down 😣

and his horse comes and rescues him:

You can hear how this progression has a natural flow but you probably also noticed that there are a few chords in there that are not in the C major scale

because that would be these chords:

And some of the most interesting  chords are the chords that are not in the scale, but still in the key, because the key and the scale is not the same thing. The key is a larger and more complicated place than the scale.

The star of the cowboy progression is of course the F minor chord,

which is the surprising but beautiful sound that leads us back to C.

But where does this chord come from?

A Simple Explanation (that almost works)

One way to look at this is that the Fm is a chord borrowed from C minor. When you have a chord progression in C Major, you can also use chords from C minor which is especially useful for the subdominant and for the dominant chords, but later I will show you how this is a simplified explanation and it goes further than this with a lot more interesting chords!

 

For now, it is practical to start with C minor, so to begin with you have the diatonic chords of C minor and together with the diatonic chords of C major then that is a lot of material to work with:

The minor subdominants here are Fm7 Abmaj7 Bb7 and Dø:

And with these, you can do incredible things using the minor subdominant as a way back to I instead of a dominant chord:

or this, where the Bb7 is what is commonly described as the backdoor dominant, something that will come back later:

But there are more options, and some of the most common ones don’t really come from the C minor scale at all.

When Is Something A Minor Subdominant Chord?

A question that I often get when discussing this topic is “when is something a minor subdominant” and that is a little difficult to nail completely.

In tonal harmony then the function of a chord depends on what is happening around it, so you can’t just list some notes and then use that to decide what the function of the chord is. Let me show you an example with Bb7.

You could have a Bb7 that is the backdoor dominant resolving to C major: Dm7 Bb7 Cmaj7

but it could also be a secondary dominant reslving to Am or A7:

so you need to look at the key and the progression to decide what Bb7 is in the key of C major, and that is actually true for most chords.

When Is Something A Minor Subdominant

So when is something a minor subdominant: I guess the best definition would be:

It can resolve to a tonic

It contains an Ab

And it is not a dominant chord (which mostly means it does not contain the leading note, B and it will often contain a C)

As you can tell, it is not just a matter of certain notes being in there.

Let’s widen the net a bit and look at what is actually going on before looking at how to use these chords.

It Isn’t Really About Scales

I already hinted at this, the explanation for borrowing chords from the minor scale doesn’t really explain what is going on, and that is because this really comes from voiceleading. Let me show you how that works for the cowboy example.

I will play it in a different position so you can see what happens and how that gives you some much more interesting chords!

The progression starts on C, goes to C7, then moves to F. And here it is:

I want to go back to C, and one way to do that is to first make the A an Ab so that it resolves down to G on the C chord smoothly.

That is how we get Fm that resolves to C. It is about a melodic movement inside the chords,  horizontal not vertical chords which is, I think, also how we actually hear music.

Which is why “modal interchange” or “borrowed from minor” are not great descriptions, they are vertical descriptions of a horizontal thing.

Why Is That Better?

Why is this better? It is better because you can now have other melody notes and more interesting Minor subdominant chords. Let’s first look at variations of chords that I already mentioned and then add a new one as well.

I am talking about C major here, and a common melody note in C major is of course the major 3rd, E. If you want to harmonize that then it doesn’t really make sense to think of a chord from C minor because that scale has an Eb, not an E,

but if you can still use a minor subdominant similar to the previous example if you do this:

And the same will work for Bb7 where E becomes a #11

and this is also how you will often see the chords appear in Jazz standards like this one in There Will Never Be Another You

and It Could Happen To You

So now you have FmMaj7 and Bb7, and Fm6 as well, and the scale that makes the most sense with these would be F melodic minor, again an illustration of how it isn’t really modal interchange or borrowed chords, it is not a vertical thing.

Another Minor Subdominant Sound

Let’s  find one more chord, I am going to show you this one in the “Jazz” way, because the “classical” way is not used so often.

Let’s start with another subdominant chord: Dm7 moving down to Cmaj7.

But it would be nice to have that A – Ab – G in there which gives you: Dm7 Dø Cmaj7

These half-steps moving in the chords are just so nice, let’s add one more!

 

This is the “jazz” version of the Neapolitan subdominant and another great option, the difference is that usually the “classical” version has an F in the bass.

How To Use The Chords

These chords can do A LOT of things! It’s useful to understand what is happening in the harmony in songs like There Will Never Be Another You or It Could Happen To You, but you can also use the minor subdominants for your own songs or for reharmonizing songs.

And you can work on inserting these as a surprising and different sound in place of almost anything. So here are a few examples.

You can use a minor subdominant instead of a “normal” subdominant:

Maybe use a bVImaj7 instead of a IIm7 chord in Tune Up. The original sounds like this:

and then becomes:

And you can use the bVII instead of the V in I Fall In Love To Easily to go from this:

To this:

And even use minor subdominants as beautiful suspensions of the I chord in Days Of Wine And Roses so that this:

Where They Sound The Best!

So you can hear how these sound amazing for making melodies fresh, but that is not going to be useful for you if you don’t know how to harmonize melodies and make your own chord melody arrangements, something that is a part of Jazz Guitar that people like Joe Pass and Barney Kessel have almost made into an entirely new style. If you want to start working on that skill so that you can arrange a song into a complete piece of music then you need to check out this video:

How Chord Melody Will Help You Master Important Skills

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How To Make 4 Chord Vamps That Sound Great

Whether you need chord progressions for your own song or an intro for a song you are learning, you want to be able to come up with chord progressions that sound great, natural, and are not too boring, and messing around with harmony to make beautiful chord progressions is one of the most fun and creative things to do in music.

That is what I am going to talk about in this lesson.

Creating 4-chord Vamps with Subdominant Chords

The chords are supposed to loop, so we can start by choosing two chords and then fill in more chords between them.

For most of this video, I will focus on progressions going from a I or tonic chord, to a IV or subdominant chord.

Mostly because there is more variation possible and they are a little overlooked. Then we can take the basic 2-chord vamps and look at different ways to add chords and get more movement.

So let’s first check out these 2-chord options that already sound great and then turn some of those into more complicated vamps. Already here you might get some good ideas, but you can go a lot further.

#1 Cmaj7 Fm6 – IVm

#2 Cmaj7 Bb7 – bVII backdoor dominant

#3 Cmaj7 Dbmaj7 – bII Neapolitan Subdominant

#4 Cmaj7 Abmaj7 – bVImaj7

#5 Cmaj7 F#dim/C #IVdim

#6 Cmaj7 Ab7 – #IV double diminished – German Augmented 6th chord

 

 

These already sound great, so the next thing is to add a little more movement to them to make them more like a story in different phases.

Making More Interesting Chord Progressions

The trick to creating these progressions is to get them to make sense by adding chords that move in a logical way. I am not using any exact science or strict rules, so you can use any type of system that sounds natural to you. Most of the time you will see me add chords based on common progressions like a standard I VI II V turnaround, step-wise movement or moving in 4ths.

Diatonic Chords

When I am making the chord progressions I keep in mind this is in the key of C major, so I am in general pulling from C major and C minor, which gives me these diatonic chords to use:

Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø

Cm7 Dø Ebmaj7 Fm7 Gm7 Abmaj7 Bb7

CmMaj7 Dø Ebmaj7(#5) Fm7 G7 Abmaj7 Bdim

CmMaj7 Dm7 Ebmaj7(#5) F7 G7 Aø Bø

And besides that you can add secondary dominants everywhere you want, so if you have a Dm7 you can add an A7(b9) to lead to it, but also an Eb7 before an Abmaj7 (the bVI in minor).

You can check out more about secondary in the video I am linking in the description.

Turnaround with some step-wise surprises

#1 Cmaj7 Fm6 → Cmaj7 Am7 G7sus4 Fm6

Going to Am7 is coming out of a standard turnaround, and from there it is step-wise movement. You might want to notice that G7sus4 is F/G Which makes it very close to F Fm, so IV to IVm in C but with a different bass note. That is really just helping it make sense on another level.

Backdoor dominant and a secondary dominant

#2 Cmaj7 Bb7 →Cmaj7 C7/E Fm7 Bb7

With a dominant chord, you can often add a II chord in front of it to make it a II V. In this case with the Fm7, that also gives you the option of having a secondary dominant which is C7/E.

Another nice way to tie everything together is to have a pedal-point in the harmony, so a note that stays the same through all the chords. In this example, I have a G in the melody of all the chords to get that effect.

bVImaj7 is underrated

#3a Cmaj7 Abmaj7 → Cmaj7 Bb7 Am7 Abmaj7

In this example, I am using step-wise motion to go from Cmaj7 to Abmaj7. You can do this in a few ways, but this one was the nicest with the Bb7.

Instead of using stepwise motion, you can also turn it into a row of secondary dominants like this:

#3b Cmaj7 Abmaj7 → Cmaj7 Bb7 Eb7 Abmaj7

Which is a pretty different sound but certainly works as a progression that moves forward.

Composing With Chord Progressions

Coming up with chord progressions is about composing and improvising with chords so the best way to do this is to just mess around a lot and try to find new ways. There are many ways to get inspiration, but probably one of the strongest is to know and analyze a lot of songs. The advantage here is that if you learn songs you not only know the progression but also really have an idea about how it sounds, and you can always mess around with it.

Another great exercise is to harmonize or re-harmonize melodies to explore what is possible with the chords and how you can use different chords to go from A to B.

 

#IVdim: Neutral and spicy

The #IV is an uncomfortable chord for a lot of people, but it is a really beautiful sound. Here are two examples that work really well and also both use a C pedal point. The second one is a bit out and dark, but also beautiful.

#4a Cmaj7 F#dim/C → Cmaj7 C7 F/C F#dim/C

This is really just a basic C C7 F F#dim “gospel or country” progression with a C in the bass, but it certainly works. A great example of what you learn from checking out songs like St Thomas or Rhythm Changes.

The next one is a bit weird,

#4b Cmaj7 F#dim/C → Cmaj7 Eb7/C Abmaj7/C F#dim/C

Folk inspired Minor Chords (and a double diminished inversion)

The IVm and Vm chords together have a real folk sound which can be really beautiful and it works great here in combination with the Ab7 which has the heaviest name: (Hans Groiner).

You will also see the double diminished #IV chord referred to as the German Augmented Sixth chord.

#5 Cmaj7 Ab7 → Cmaj7 Fm7 Gm7 Ab7

To me calling it a double dim #IV tells me how it sounds, that’s why I use that. I don’t really have any association with that with German augmented chord, but that is most likely just me.

Another reason for using Subdominant chords

The progressions in this video are pretty natural sounding and will loop very well. If you plan to make songs with the same chords looping for a longer period of time, then it makes sense to not be too specific about the key. Being vague becomes a way to make it not too predictable. This is actually something you can see in a lot of pop music where you even have long discussions and articles about the key of pieces.

Using the subdominant chords makes these progressions less “predictable” and clear than a standard V I. Similar to the effect you have in Radiohead’s Creep, which is almost example 1. Another way to keep it a little more vague is to play fewer notes, so sticking to triads can be useful too.

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