Applied Dominant Chords Explained
Since our last post was on modulation, I thought I’d talk a little bit about one way in which we modulate—by using what we call applied dominant chords. These dominant seventh chords pave the way for some new chord that follows to feel like a home, or as we call it in music, tonic, chord.
Background: Dominant Seventh Chord Function
First, we need to understand how exactly dominant seventh chords function. Traditionally, these chords appear in what’s called a cadence. In music, a cadence marks some ending (which can also overlap into a new beginning, with, of course, some exceptions). We’ll talk more in-depth about cadences in a subsequent posting.
In other words, dominant seventh chords tend to appear right before the root (tonic) chord in a certain key. For example, in the key of C major, a G7 chord will almost always resolve nicely back to C major. This is because the seventh in the G7 chord (in this case F-natural) “likes” to resolve down one half step to E, which is the major third in the key of C. So in a nutshell, dominant seventh chords are most commonly used to get back to the tonic. Of course, this rule can be broken—perhaps we see this most clearly in the blues—but it generally applies.
Applied dominants serve a similar function to normal dominant seventh chords in that they resolve to a tonic chord (after all, they are dominant seventh chords too), but the difference is that they resolve to a new tonic. A new tonic means a new key, and a new key usually means modulation!
For example, if you wanted to modulate from the key of C major to G major, a common way to make this sound seamless would be to insert a D7 chord into the progression right before landing on G major.
I’ve chosen D7 because dominant seventh chords appear as V7 chords in major keys. In order to resolve to the key of G major, we would need to play the dominant seventh chord that is the V7 chord in G major (not C major), and that chord is D7.
That’s all for now. This is a rather complicated subject, so be patient and let it sink in while also trying examples for yourself. Our top notch instructors can also cover this topic in our in-home guitar lessons. Rock on!