Music Gateway
Login or Join for Free
or sign up with
Spotify icon
Burger menu
Large chevron
close icon
Releasing music? Get more streams and grow your fan base. Tell me more.
Get more
with PROMO.
Discover more about PROMO.
close icon

Music Theory

What Is a Secondary Dominant?

Photograph of the blog post author, Sebastian Wolf

Sebastian Wolf


Small blue and purple gradient divider


What Is a Secondary Dominant

In the vast and intricate world of music theory, having a profound understanding of chord progressions and their underlying functions can truly enhance your comprehension and application of music. Among these captivating concepts, one such device that stands out and demands attention is the secondary dominant. 

In this article, we’ll delve deep into the realm of secondary dominants, exploring what they are and their significant position in music theory. We’ll also provide examples from famous songs that showcase their enchanting power and musical allure. 

So, get ready to embark on a captivating journey through the intricate tapestry of secondary dominants, unravelling the mysteries and unlocking the secrets that lie within this fascinating aspect of music theory.

The Concept of Secondary Dominant

YouTube player

As the name suggests, a secondary dominant is like the ‘second-in-command’ to a song’s main, or tonic, chord. It plays a crucial role in adding complexity and tension to the harmonic progression. Essentially, it’s a chord that assumes the dominant function over a non-tonic chord within a song. By introducing secondary dominants, composers can create intricate and musical passages that captivate the listeners and enhance the overall musical experience.

For instance, in the key of C major, the dominant chord would be G. However, let’s say we have an A minor in the progression. If we altered that A minor to an A major or an A7, it would become a secondary dominant because it now functions as a dominant to the D minor chord, which follows it.

In jazz harmony, the chords often occurs on a weak beat and resolves downward by a perfect fifth. This resolution creates a unique tension and release pattern within the song, adding depth and complexity to the music.

Analysing secondary dominants involves identifying chords with chromaticism (notes outside the standard key) and assessing their dominant relationship with other chords. They can add ‘sizzle’ to your chord progressions by providing unexpected turns and twists. They are chords from outside the home key that hold a V-I relationship with chords in a progression.

History of Secondary Dominants in Music

History of Secondary Dominants

Secondary dominants have been a part of music theory since the Baroque period, but their usage significantly increased during the Classical period. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven started to use them more frequently to add tension and resolution to their compositions. 

In the 20th century, secondary dominants became integral to pop and rock music, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. Popular artists use these chords to give their music a sense of unpredictability and excitement. Even in contemporary music genres, like pop and hip-hop, you can often hear them being used to add a twist to the otherwise predictable chord progressions. 

Secondary dominants are one of the many tools composers use to create memorable melodies and harmonies that captivate listeners. Whether you’re an aspiring musician, a music student, or simply a music lover, understanding them can deepen your appreciation for the beauty and complexity of music. So, the next time you listen to your favourite song, try to spot the secondary dominants. You might be surprised at how often they are used to create those musical moments that give you goosebumps!

Delving deeper into our musical exploration, we’ll find that some of the most iconic and beloved songs of our time feature secondary dominants. These harmonic gems are often the secret sauce that makes music unforgettable. 

From the timeless hits of Elton John to the infectious tunes of Taylor Swift, secondary dominants have left an indelible mark on the pop music landscape. Here, we’ll examine popular songs that artfully employ them, illuminating how these chords elevate simple melodies into resonant anthems that tug at our heartstrings.

Elton John – “Tiny Dancer”

One of the most heart-stirring examples in popular music is Elton John’s emblematic song “Tiny Dancer”. This enduring classic cleverly employs secondary dominants to add complexity and a touch of unpredictability to its otherwise simple chord progression. 

The poignant shifts in harmony perfectly mirror the emotional peaks and valleys of the song, making it an unforgettable musical experience.

The Beatles – “Let It Be”

This iconic song by The Beatles is a prime example of the use of secondary dominants. The chord progression in the verses toggles between C and G, but with the introduction of A minor and F, we experience the moving effect of secondary dominants. This adds a layer of depth and complexity to the song, making it more emotional and impactful to the listener.

Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is renowned for its diverse musical styles and innovative use of secondary dominants. These unexpected chordal shifts contribute to the song’s dramatic effect, making it one of the most iconic songs in rock music history.

The Eagles – “Hotel California”

One of the hallmarks of “Hotel California” is its distinctive chord progression. The use of secondary dominants creates a sense of tension and release, contributing to the haunting mood of the song.

Leonard Cohen – “Hallelujah”

“Hallelujah” uses secondary dominants in a subtle yet profound way. This technique adds an extra layer of emotional depth to the song, enhancing the resonance of Cohen’s thoughtful lyrics.

Adele – “Someone Like You”

This heartfelt ballad by Adele employs secondary dominants to enhance the song’s emotional impact. The unexpected chord shifts create a sense of longing and melancholy, mirroring the song’s lyrical content.

Taylor Swift – “Love Story”

An enchanting modern classic, “Love Story” showcases Swift’s deft use of secondary dominants. The innovative chord progression, transitioning between C, G, A minor, and F, intensifies the romantic narrative of the song.

This musical manoeuvre adds an extra layer to the emotional journey, making the listener feel as if they’re right in the middle of Swift’s captivating love story. It’s a brilliant example of how a song’s harmonic structure can amplify its storytelling power.

Learning Secondary Dominants

Incorporating visual and auditory aids can prove to be highly beneficial to effectively learning and applying secondary dominants effectively. One excellent resource is renowned music educator and producer Rick Beato’s popular music theory YouTube channel. On his channel, Rick offers comprehensive lessons on various topics, providing detailed explanations and demonstrations. These lessons delve into the theory behind devices like secondary dominants and showcase practical examples from various musical genres. In doing so, the videos help learners grasp the intricacies of this concept in a more immersive and engaging way. 

By leveraging these valuable resources, learners can deepen their understanding, gain confidence, and master the art of using secondary dominants effectively in their own musical compositions and arrangements.

Final Thoughts

The concept of the secondary dominant is a potent and versatile tool in the arsenal of any musician or songwriter. By introducing them into a composition, musicians can elevate their harmonic complexity to new heights, creating a rich and captivating musical experience for listeners.

The beauty of secondary dominants lies in their ability to add unexpected twists and turns to a musical journey. Moreover, they inject moments of tension and release, creating a dynamic interplay between different chords and tonalities. This interplay keeps the listener engaged and intrigued, as they are constantly surprised by the unexpected harmonic shifts.

Secondary dominants offer an exciting avenue for enhancing musical compositions. Their application can transform a piece from ordinary to extraordinary, captivating listeners with a harmonically rich and unpredictable musical journey. So, embrace the challenge of mastering them, and you will be rewarded with a greater understanding of music’s intricacies and the ability to create truly captivating compositions.


closed button
Music Gateway Company Logo

Get started today

Join for Free