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When it comes to songwriting there are some tools that are used often to make more interesting chord progressions. One of them that is very popular is using Secondary Dominant Chords. 

Although at first glance this might sound like a complicated music theory concept, we’re going to go over it to show you how it is simpler and easier to understand than you may think. 

To use Secondary Dominant Chords in your chord progressions, first identify the chord in your key who’s Secondary Dominant you want to use. Then identify the perfect fifth interval above that chord and play it as a Dominant or Major chord. Ex. Your chosen chord – AMaj, its secondary dominant would be E7 (or EMaj). 

The effect this type of chord can have on your chord progressions is an injection of character, tension and surprise. 

It’s also one of the first ways many songwriters start moving out of simple diatonic chord progressions into spicier sounds.

What are Secondary Dominant Chords?

If you know a bit about Chord Function (and if you don’t, then check out this blog post Chord Function: The Compass to Flowing Chord Progressions), then you know that the V chord in a key is a Dominant chord. 

You also know that Dominant chords strongly want to resolve to a Tonic chord (especially the I chord). 

So Secondary Dominant chords take advantage of this relationship. 

You can make a V – I relationship with any chord in your chord progression and it will work, even if that Dominant V chord is not within the progression’s key. 

This may sound confusing but look below and you’ll see it’s actually really simple. 

How do you Use Secondary Dominant Chords in a Chord Progression?

Ok so like mentioned above, you can make a V – I relationship with any chord in your chord progression and it will work, even if the Dominant V chord is not within the progression’s key. 

So let’s add a Secondary Dominant Chord to this progression. 

C Major Chord Progression:

I – vi – V

Cmaj, Amin, Gmaj

So we can go from this:

C Major Chord Progression:

I – vi – V

Cmaj, Amin, Gmaj

To this:

C Major Chord Progression with Secondary Dominant of V (V7/V):

I – vi – V7/V – V

Cmaj, Amin, D7, Gmaj

In this case, we added the Secondary Dominant of the V Gmaj chord, which was D7. Notice the V – I relationship between D7 (the V of Gmaj) and Gmaj. Also notice we used a Secondary Dominant as a transitory chord to land on Gmaj.

In a C Major key the D chord is supposed to be Minor. 

Since D7 (or Dmaj as well) is not within the C Major key, it gives a specific spice that is different from any other sound you would get from the C Major key. 

So to get the most out of Secondary Dominant Chords you may want to focus on using the ones that are from outside of the progression’s key, so you really get that unique spice. 

I say this because if you try to do the Secondary Dominant of a IV chord for example, it will just be the I chord, which can be used as a Secondary Dominant but won’t sound all that foreign to the key. So, less spicy. 

Try using these Secondary Dominants for Major keys:

  • V/V or V7/V
  • V/vi or V7/vi
  • V/ii or V7/ii
  • V/iii or V7/iii

This all works with a Minor key as well. You want to create a V – i relationship. 

Try using these Secondary Dominants for Minor keys: 

  • V/iv or V7/iv
  • V/v or V7/v
  • V/VI or V7/VI
  • V/VII or V7/VII

Best Practices for Using Secondary Dominant Chords

As with many musical concepts there are a few ways in which Secondary Dominants are commonly used. Below I’ve included a few guidelines for applying them to your chord progressions to help you get started. 

  • Secondary Dominants are most commonly used in Major key songs. They can be used for Minor keys too but these are less common. 
  • Play Secondary Dominants as Dominant 7th chords. You can play them as Major chords too but they are usually played as 7th chords most often. Try both. 
  • Play the Secondary Dominant followed by the chord it is Dominant to. You want to use Secondary Dominant Chords as transitory chords to create a V – I relationship. This is the most common use of these types of chords. 
  • Don’t try to use the Secondary Dominant of a viio or iio chord. The pull of Secondary Dominants comes from the leading tone being a semitone away from the chord it resolves to, but with the V of viio or iio there is no leading tone and won’t work as a Secondary Dominant. 
  • Try adding several instances of Secondary Dominant Chords. You are not just restricted to using it once in a chord progression. Use 2 or 3 if you want. You can even string along several Secondary Dominant Chords in a row.

Wrapping it up

This type of chord is used a lot in older styles of music, although you still do find them in songs today. 

The Beatles used them a lot, so if you’re trying to write similar songs to them, then Secondary Dominants will come in very handy. 

If any of the music theory talk above seemed confusing and you feel like you still don’t quite get it, you can always default to the simplest way to apply them. Just find the chord you’re trying to get to, then right before that chord, put a Dominant 7th chord that is a 5th interval above it.

If you like the sound then use it, if you don’t, you can always try other chord progression tricks. 

Try checking out this blog post for other ideas on making your chord progressions more interesting 5 Ways Songwriters Spice Up Boring Chord Progressions

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