Hey dudes and dudettes,
Tuberz here with an awesome helping of music theory for you. I’ve spent the last few weeks detoxing from the release of The Great Australian Barbecue Bash (which was covered on this blog by a very hip and happening Chip Bit Sid). Last month we covered the idea of pivoting into closely related key areas, as well as harmonic planing. The usual disclaimer applies. Music theory is a vast topic, and if you don’t follow where we’re at with the content this month I would strongly recommend that you go back and revisit my previous articles. This month I’m covering the concept of pivoting into seemingly unrelated key areas. This is a deep topic, so it will be a bit denser than previous articles, but just as rewarding to read through.
Seriously, do you like… pay a guy to make weird photos of music theory or like what?
So why would we pivot to something unrelated?
I’m really glad that you asked that. The idea of pivoting to a closely related key is that it breaks up the monotony of the same key area. The harmonic palette can become boring, or perhaps stagnant is a better term. It’s because in the Western world we have 7 notes in a diatonic scale, and if we keep reusing the same 7 notes our ears become settled on those notes. It has no drama or tension. No conflict. Imagine a book where there was no problem to solve. Boring right? Music is the same.
We pivot to closely related keys because it provides an element of drama. Pivoting from C major to G major introduces an F# to the mix, and this is enough to create tension. Where our ears once expected F naturals, we hear the clash of F#s. This helps create movement in music and generate interest. It’s not too dramatic because we still use 6 of our 7 notes in the previous key. However, by pivoting to say… E major from C major we introduce a bit more tension. E major uses F#, C#, G#, and D#. Here 4 of our 7 notes differ from the original key. This is an overwhelmingly divergent harmonic territory, and is incredibly exciting because it completely changes the sound.
This could be used to create a jarring change that shocks the listener as you approach a new section, or it could just be a fleeting moment, perhaps only a few bars. Just to keep the listener on their toes as you return back to initial tonal centre.
Okay that’s nice, but how do we pivot to something unrelated?
This is more of a debated topic. Of course, you can just abruptly transition to this new, unrelated key with no preparation whatsoever, but it will sound somewhat disjointed. We can pivot into these unrelated keys more smoothly by slowly introducing the accidentals of the new key. This is generally done through function chords that have many of the notes of the first key, with mild additions and changes to adhere to the new key.
For example, transitioning from C major (No flats or sharps) to E major (F#, C#, G#, and D#) might use a chord progression like so: C – A7 – D/F# – B7 ] E – – –
This would be read using the roman numerals: I – VI7 – II6 – VII7 ] III – – –
However, we also need to think of how these chords relate to the key of E Major: ♭VI – IV7 – ♭VII6 – V7 ] I – – –
Before moving on I want to let you all know that a chord with 6 on the end is a chord in first inversion. A chord with 6-4 on the end is a chord in second inversion.
Some of these chords are quite typical in the harmony of the first key centre, and others are more typical of the final key centre. The II6 is a classic modal mixture, employing the Lydian Mode for its #4 (F# in this case). The I/♭VI is largely considered a colour chord, using modal mixture with the Dorian Mode. The VI7/IV7 is a chord that links itself more strongly to the final key area because of the weight of the I IV and V chords. The same can be said for the VII7/V7 chord. It strongly hints at the new tonal centre by acting as a dominant seventh chord.
So in this example, the A7 adds the C#, the D/F# adds the F#, the B7 adds the D#, and the G# is somewhat implied in this transition.
Another super cool thing is that the A7 is the dominant seventh chord of D, which is the dominant seventh chord of B7, which is the dominant seventh chord of E. This goes a bit beyond secondary dominants, and stretches into the territory of extended dominant functionality. Think of it as the musical equivalent of holding someone’s hand and leading them down the garden path. They don’t know what’s there, but they know where they’re going.
You could take this a step further and change the inversions of the chords to have a sturdy bassline too! I’ve done these edits in red.
Notice how the C in the first bar constantly steps up by a semitone for each consecutive chord! Also the A in bar two suspends the whole way through until it resolves to G#.
Music theory is so cool.
So how can I organise something like this for my music???
That’s the next step and takes a bit of time. Organise what your key is and then which key you want to navigate to. I like to think of the dominant chords of that new tonal centre and make that the last chord in the transitional passage. Let’s say we’re migrating from C major to A♭ major (B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭).
So our last chord might be E♭7 which is V7 of our new tonal centre, but it’s ♭III7 of our original key (It incorporates the Dorian Mode too, which we’ll touch on later). We then need to look for ways to add the accidentals and functionally prepare our V7. We could start with V/V7 (secondary dominant) [B♭7] (This is ♭VII7 in our first key). We could then prepare this B♭7 with another chord that prepares the V/V7.
Our chord progression could go: C – A7 – B♭M7 – E♭7 ] A♭
Our roman numerals would be: C Maj: I – VI7 – ♭VII△7 – ♭III7 ] ♭VI – – – A♭ Maj: III – ♭II6 – II7 – V7 ] I – – –
The D♭ of the new key is added in an abstract manner. A7 uses a C# to make it a major chord, and C# is enharmonically the same as D♭. This chord is followed by B♭M7 which not only introduces B♭, but also uses a D natural. this means that the voice leading of the phrase steps up from the C#/D♭ in the A7 to a D natural in the B♭M7 chord. This is closely followed by the E♭7, which includes the E♭ note, which is a step up from D natural (E♭ = D#).
The naturally occurring modal mixture is a testament to the nature of harmony and chord theory. Even chords outside of a certain key centre can imbue a sense of heavy tonality and function by moving towards a desired key area.
So hopefully this inspires some ideas for you on how to pivot into seemingly unrelated chords using function chords and by slowly introducing accidentals. Thanks so much for wrapping your heads around such a complex topic. Please share how this knowledge has helped you with your own craft! 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 a discussion on the use of melody and its impact on the harmonic landscape.