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 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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