Progression: Music Theory 106 – Secondary Dominants, Modulation, and Temporary Tonicization

- Posted November 1st, 2017 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Tuberz here with my sixth article in the realm of music theory, and the underpinnings of musical witchcraft (knowing lots of cool chords and stuff). Last month we covered the idea of chord substitution from the natural chords found in our modes in an attempt to jazz up our chord progressions to provide a more lush harmonic landscape. By this point my articles may be very hard to follow if you don’t have prior theory knowledge, so it is my strong recommendation for you to you go back and read my previous articles. This article is going to cover the use of secondary dominants in an attempt to solidify chord structures, modulate to other keys and harmonic areas, and temporarily set our tonic to a different chord.

Let’s jam.

Surely you must be running out of images of notation by now. It’s definitely a bit of a niche.

What is a Secondary Dominant?

In order to understand what a Secondary Dominant is, we have to backtrack and re-introduce what a Dominant chord is. The Dominant chord is the fifth naturally occurring chord in a key center. For example, in the key of F major our naturally occurring chords are as follows:

F, Gm, Am, B♭, C, Dm, E°, F

The fifth chord here is the C major chord. It has a strong inclination to resolve to the first chord (F major) as our Tonic chord. The dominant is used as to prepare the tension of the music for a movement towards the most stable chord of the key center (being the first chord; the tonic). The other dominant chord (known loosely as the dominant in its rough function) is our vii° chord, E diminished. This also has a quality of wanting to resolve to F major. In fact, the V and the vii° chord share two of the same notes. In this case, C major is spelled C E G, and E diminished is spelled E G B♭. Spooky huh?

So where is this leading? What is a Secondary Dominant? Simple.

A Secondary Dominant is a Dominant chord of another chord with a definable function. For example, C major is the Dominant of F Major, but G major is the Dominant of C Major. G major in the key of F major would be a *II* (Major Supertonic), but we only have a naturally occurring *ii* (Minor Supertonic) in the key center of F major. This means that our G major can exist in the key area as a Secondary Dominant. It is labelled as *V/V* as in the Dominant of the Dominant. Yes I get that this is somewhat confusing the first time. Let’s look at another example.

In the key of F Major I could want a Secondary Dominant of D minor, our Mediant. The Dominant of D minor is A major, which doesn’t naturally occur in the key of F major. Rather, A minor naturally occurs. So instead of writing *III* we could write it as V/vi (Dominant of the Submediant). It should be noted however, that these chords only function this way if they are resolved to the appropriate chord. We now end up with a much larger lexicon of chords to use to provide function.

[insert snarky commentary about how easy chords are how you should be expected to know this with literary no training whatsoever]

So What’s The Whole Modulation Thing???

Modulation is the idea of ‘modulating’. Yeah I might need to break that one down a bit more.

Modulating is where you shift the key center of a piece of music to a new key. The process for this is to set up the new key with function chords and pivot chords. The Secondary Dominant is essential for this process as it allows us to give a strong bearing on a particular chord and emphasise the music’s resolution towards that particular chord, regardless of its initial function in the first key area. A great place to look at modulation with is from the Tonic to the Dominant key. This is a major staple of classical music (think Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Those dudes.).

For example, if we were shifting from F major (the Tonic Key with 1 Flat) to C major (the Dominant key with no flats) it would rely heavily on the G major (Secondary Dominant) to facilitate that change and modulation. And example of a progression to lead from F major to C major might look like this (with a first bar establishing F major):

F, B♭, C, F | Dm, Am, Em, G7 | C [we are now in C major]

I want to outline a few of my decisions here. Outside of just the obvious G7 to C (V to I) I have made a few other decisions, in order to drift into the land of no sharps or flats. The D minor and A minor are naturally occurring chords, but that E minor and G7 are not. So how do we migrate to the Em and G7 so smoothly? Well, you see, I’ve set it up with a few different things. I’ve decided that the antecedent phrase (first bar, generally think of it as a question in a question/answer format) is decidedly major and this sickens me probably. I have chosen to remedy this by making the consequent phrase (second bar, and the answer to our *question*) primarily minor. The first chord D minor occurs in F major naturally, and you might remember that as a vi (Submediant) it is a form of Tonic chord. It is a very strong chord in the key area. This provides a launching off point to move to A minor, which is the dominant of D minor. No biggie I guess, that movement happens. This however, creates a trend when we move to the E minor, which is the dominant of A minor, and not a naturally occurring chord within F major. The trend of moving to the Dominant softens this change and makes it less jarring. E minor is spelled as E G B, and it’s no surprise that G7 is spelled G B D F. That E suspends outwards to make D and F which resolves towards the C major.

This stuff seems complicated, but its just building on the competencies that you already know.

A really important distinction to make though, is that by moving to another key you are adding or removing at least one accidental (sharp or flat). These changed notes create tension that can either be very desired, or completely unwanted. Think carefully when modulating to another key.

God you’re a nerd for like five minutes can you just call it a sick riff like the rest of us? Jesus.

Please Don’t Tell Me Temporary Tonicization is as Hard as That Thing

Honestly it’s not. Temporary Tonicization is like modulation, but rather than transferring into a new key, you’re just emphasising a particular colour of that key for a smaller portion of time. If you modulated for two bars and those two bars felt like C major, but you immediately transitioned off somewhere else that would be more of a Temporary Tonicization than anything else. Honestly it’s not that complicated.

Thanks for sticking with me for another round of complicated (or not so complicated depending on how many of my other articles you’ve read) music theory jargon. It’s really starting to heat up and produce some cool results, so I’m looking forward to building on all of this knowledge for the next few posts. Once again, if you have questions, recommendations for topics, or even just want to share what you’ve learned, get in touch with me at tuberzmcgee (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to listen/read/help out. Tune in next month for some cool stuff surrounding one of my favourite topics: Rhythm and Time Signatures. 

Ciao~!

Tuberz
xoxo

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