Tag Archives: minor subdominant

The Most Beautiful Jazz Chords And How You Use Them

Sometimes you get a little bit tired of playing chord progressions that all sound like this:

And you want to hear some other less predictable chords, and actually, there are a lot of options for that which are already built into the key and let you play something like this.

What I am using here is borrowing some chords from a category called minor subdominant chords,  which is a large group of chords that really can sound incredible in a chord progression!

The Chords That Didn’t Make Sense

When I was beginning to learn standards then I didn’t know how to analyze them, so in the isolated Danish mountains while I was practicing endlessly I was just trying to remember the chords, not understanding what was going on. My knowledge of harmony was limited to realizing what key something was in and maybe figuring out that something was a II V I of some sort.

But I still often ran into other progressions that sounded great, but where I didn’t really understand why, and a lot of the chords that I liked the most later turned out to be minor subdominant chords, they were often the part of the song that I was really drawn to but that I couldn’t figure out.

Tonal Harmony in (almost) 1 minute

The music that I am going to explore in this video is in a key, it is not random chords next to each other which is important to realize.

If you take the key of C major then the foundation is based on the C major scale

And the basic diatonic chords that you create in that key if you stack 3rds would give you these 7 chords:

The way I look at these chords they are split into 3 groups: Tonic chords, Dominant chords and Subdominant chords.

The groups are made so that the chords in the group can often replace each other in a progression, contain many of the same notes, and therefore also sound similar.

Usually, you call this the function of the chord, so in C major, Em7 has a tonic function, and G 7 has a dominant function.

Notice that the function of a chord is also about the chord progression, so it is not just about the notes in the chord. That is also why you can find examples of Am7 being a subdominant chord in C major as well as other places where it is tonic,

The Great Tonal Trick

When a song is in a major key then the great thing about that is that you have all the diatonic chords that I just showed you but you can also use the chords from the minor key with the same root, so in C major you can also use the chords from C minor.

Cut in: – I can, for some reason, never remember what is parallel and what is relatively minor, so I think about it like this, sorry…

This is not entirely coming from scales and is essentially more about voice-leading, but starting with a scale is a great way to get some things to work with, and then you can expand on that to get to some of the great sounds, but I will get to that later in the video.

For C natural minor:

You have these chords:

And in fact, most of these can work as a minor subdominant: Dø, Fm7, Abmaj7, and Bb7 will all be great minor subdominant chords. Let’s hear them in action also to get a better understanding of how they are used in the songs.

#1 Dø

The Dø chord is the easiest to put to use in a II V I, so that you in fact have an entire dark-sounding minor cadence that then beautifully resolves to a bright major sound, similar to Cole Porter’s I love you

#2 Fm7

The Fm7 chord is more often used as a way of getting from a subdominant chord to a tonic chord, so not as a part of a II V I. Often you will in fact see it as an Fm6 or FmMaj7, but I will get to that in a bit. Here it is moving coming from Dm7:

#3 Abmaj7

The bVImaj7 is a beautiful sound and is actually used in quite a few different ways. It can be used like the Fm7 chord:

But it can also be used in a cadence instead of a II chord, which is how it is used in Cole Porter’s Night and Day:

#4 Bb7

One of the minor subdominant chords that is a little less obvious is the bVII, also called the backdoor dominant. You often hear that used as a transition from subdominant back to the tonic:

But it is also sometimes appearing as an extra movement at the end of a section:

Now you have some basic examples so I can show you some more advanced chords before getting to the one that doesn’t fit at all,

A minor (subdominant) misunderstanding

But first, let’s just go over one of the questions that I get most often when I am analyzing something involving these chords which is something like

“why is Abmaj7 a minor subdominant? It is not even a minor chord?”

What you want to know here is that it is called minor not because it is a minor chord, but because it is coming from the minor key. The reason that it is subdominant is that it doesn’t contain a B, so the leading note in the key, and it WILL resolve to a tonic chord, so it isn’t dominant and it isn’t tonic and therefore it is subdominant.

As I already mentioned with the Am7 chord, then you can’t really boil function down to just what notes have to be in the chord.

What I am talking about in this video, is also sometimes referred to as modal interchange, but that concept is, as far as I know, a lot wider, where this is much more specific to the key and more of a description of the type of harmony you come across in Jazz standards.

The next thing to look at is how the chords often are given extensions so that they work better with the major key which gives you some really beautiful chords, and then that chord that doesn’t really fit into the system but sounds beautiful.

Make It Closer to The Key

Some of the other very common minor subdominant chords are a little different in terms of how they are colored, and those are in fact more common.

As I mentioned earlier then the minor subdominants are more a result of voice-leading than of chords from a scale, and in fact, it is mostly about one note that is moving, in C major that would be A moving down to Ab to G, which if you start with an F chord gives you:


The 6th note in the scale is one of the most important parts of the subdominant sound, and when you alter that you create minor subdominants.

The most common minor subdominant, and maybe the one that it all points back to in Jazz, is probably a IVm6 chord, so in C major that would be

The Fm6 is a nice sound in C major because it is closer to the key than the Fm7 that also has an Eb which is not in the C major scale.

The Fm6 also allows for having an E in the melody so there is more melodic freedom over it when it appears in a C major context. The most common scale used for this chord is F melodic minor.

You can also see, or rather hear, how Fm6 and Bb7 are interchangeable,

and that also explains why the backdoor dominant is a Lydian dominant, so it has a #11 as an extension.

There is one more subdominant chord to cover, also one that is fairly common, but first let’s look at going beyond the subdominant function.

Minor Dominant – What Is That Anyway?

This video is of course about the minor subdominant chords, but you want to be aware that you come across dominants that are borrowed from minor all the time as well.

The minor scale where the dominant function lives is harmonic minor, which is probably also why it is called that.

And here you have two chords with a dominant function: G7, which becomes a G7(b9,b13) and Bdim

Both of these are useful to have as chords you can use like this basic II V I with a G7(b9)

and this neat way of adding a dominant to get a different transition from a backdoor dominant to the tonic

A Beautiful chord that doesn’t fit

The chord that doesn’t really seem to fit and which is often seen as some sort of tritone substitute is the Neapolitan subdominant.

The way to understand it is really just to think of it as a IVm triad, so in C major that is an F minor triad, with an added 6th but in this case, it is a b6 since that is a stronger leading note to take us down to the root, C. And In Jazz, we turn that into a Dbmaj7 chord and have progressions like this:

The Most Beautiful Jazz Chords And How You Use Them

In this case, the chord isn’t found in C minor, but as you can see it is just a result of voice-leading. Keep in mind that chords is any way just a very crude way to understand voice-leading, something I have talked about before: making things into vertical chord symbols doesn’t always help you understand what is going on.


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IV minor chords in a major key

In this lesson, I want to explain what I see(or in fact hear) as the IV minor group of chords. I also want to give some examples of how they are used or can be used to reharmonize songs or create new progressions.

Understanding and hearing the key

To me the biggest advantage of learning to understand harmony in terms of a key is that you can group different chords together by how they sound, which is much more useful than having them grouped together by the type of chord. In a major key the IV minor group is one of those groups that contains quite a few different chords but they are closely related and recognizing that they are in this group makes it easier for me to immediately hear what they sound like and how to play over them.

Minor subdominant chords

The Minor subdominant chords are an important part of the colors found in the major keys when you play standards. Let us take the key of C major as an example we. I think you probably know this kind of chord progression. C F Fm C, where the 3rd(A) of F is descending to the 5th(G) of C via the Ab creating an Fm chord. If we list all the subdominant chords in C minor we get something like this:

IV minor chords ex 1

Dm7b5, Fm6, Fm7, FmMaj7, Abmaj7, Bb7. The last one, Dbmaj7 you get by also lowering the D to a Db in Dm7b5. The DbMaj7 is often referred to as a Neapolitan Subdominant you can look it up if you want more information.

IV minor chords ex 2

Scale choices

Since they are grouped together as subdominant chords I tend to relate them to a subdominant scale, so in this case, that would be an F minor scale. In the end, the scale choices are depending on what sort of chord it is, but they are all contained in some sort of F minor scale. The two I end up using the most is F melodic minor and F Dorian (which is also C minor). They contain all of them except the Dbmaj7 which I play as a Db Lydian chord (which is incidentally also F natural minor). Some people use the C harmonic major too, but I have never found that too useful because the B is less consonant on the chord than the Bb to me, but that is mostly a question of taste.

 IV minor progressions

The examples that I present here are both the progression and a line played over the progression to give an idea of the kind of stuff I might play over these progressions.

It is important to note that you should recognize these progressions in the standards you know and consider using these progressions if you want to reharmonize a standard that you play. The lines are kept fairly basic because the changes themselves are interesting it is often enough to just play basic solid lines to get an interesting cadence.

The first example is using the Minor Cadence bu resolving to major. Check out a song like “I Love You”  by Cole Porter to hear it used. In general, I find that when I use a minor subdominant chord in a cadence then it works better to also play a dominant from the minor key (so using harmonic minor or what is sometimes called Phrygian dominant)

IV minor chords ex 3

The line I play over this example is not that complicated, the Dm7b5 consists of an AbMaj7 shell voicing and a scale fragment. The G7 line is buil around the Fm7b5 arpeggio that is a good arpeggio to use over the G7(b9b13) chord. You might have to look twice to spot how the frame of the line is that arpeggio 🙂

IV minor chords ex 4

The 2nd example is again using the chord as a substitute for the II chord in a cadence. You’ll find this cadence in another Cole Porter song: “Night and Day”. This progression works well if you have the 11 and the 3rd in melody over the II chord.

In the line, I am making a melody over the AbMaj7 chord with only arpeggio notes. The line over the G7 is a base around the B diminished arpeggio that resolves to the 3rd(E) of CMaj7.

IV minor chords ex 5

The 3rd progression shows how you might come across a IV minor chord (in this case a DbMaj7, but an Fm7 or Bb7 would also work well) in a place where you might expect the V chord. It can be a good way to get a bit of variation by not having only II V cadences all the time in a song, but it has to fit the melody of course.

The line over this progression uses the F major arpeggio and a pentatonic fragment over the Dm7 chord and the DbMaj7 arpeggio and another scale fragment over the DbMaj7 chord before resolving to the 5th(G) of C.

IV minor chords ex 6

The last example is a very common way for a jazz standard to move from subdominant back to the tonic via the IV minor. In that way, it is the jazz version of Example 1.

IV minor chords ex 6

You can find many examples of this progression, most use a Bb7, Fm6, or an Fm7 Bb7 as minor subdominant to go back to C. Check out standards like “There will never be another you” or “It could happen to you”. If you know enough songs you might realize that it is often found in the same spot in a lot of songs. So much that if you ask me to guess what chord is found in bar 10 of a 32 bar standard I am likely to reply bVII dominant.

The line I play consists of an A minor pentatonic fragment followed by an FMaj7 arpeggio in inversion. On the Bb7 it is first n Fm triad arpeggio followed by a Bb major pentatonic fragment before it resolves to the 3rd of CMaj7.

I hope that you can use the material I presented hear in your own arrangements and in understanding the construction of tonal songs like standards.

As always you can download a PDF of the examples here:

IV minor chords

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