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Applied chords

Megan Lavengood and Kris Shaffer

Key Takeaways

  • is the process of momentarily emphasizing a non-tonic chord by using chords borrowed from the key in which that chord is tonic.
  • An applied chord (sometimes called a secondary chord) is a borrowed from another key. The tonic of this other key is often a chord within the original key.
  • Applied chords can be V, V7, viiº, or viiº7.
  • Applied chords are notated with a slash. The chord before the slash is the identity of the applied chord within the , and the chord after the slash is the chord being tonicized. It’s read aloud left-to-right with the word “of” replacing the slash: V/ii becomes “five of two.”
  • Applied chords nearly always involve , and especially accidentals that raise the pitch.

Applied chords are a category of harmony, in which a chord x is embellished with chords from the key of x. For example, in C major, a V chord (G) might be embellished with chords from the key of G major. But unlike there is no cadence in a new key: only a short progression of chords is borrowed from another key.

Function

The most common applied chords are : V(7) and viiº(7). The unique quality of these chords (dominant and diminished, respectively) allows them to sound like dominant-function chords even in strange contexts. Example 1 demonstrates this concept: a V7–I progression in one key can be reproduced within a different key. The old I chord, then, is analyzed differently in the new key: for example, as ii, in the bottom staff of Example 1. The old V7 chord is then V7 of ii, written with a slash: V7/ii. The same principle holds with V\begin{smallmatrix}6\\5\\\end{smallmatrix} and other inverted V chords, as shown in the second row of Example 1.


Example 1. Applied chords are dominant-to-tonic progressions that are inserted into a new key.

Spelling and writing applied chords

If you are asked to write an applied chord, follow this process. We will consider a hypothetical applied chord V7/x. x is a substitute for a Roman numeral—it could be V, vi, ii, or any other major or minor Roman numeral—the process is the same regardless of what is.

Process for spelling V7/x

  1. Spell in the current key.
  2. Identify the root of V in the key of x (a perfect fifth above x, or scale-degree 5 in the key of x).
  3. Spell a dominant seventh chord built on scale-degree 5 in the key of x. 

Here is the above process applied to a concrete example: V7/vi in D major.

notation
Example 2. Process for spelling V7/vi in D major.
1. vi in D major is B minor: B–D–F♯.
2. The root of V in B minor is F♯. 
3. The dominant seventh chord built on F♯ is F♯, A♯, C♯, E.
4. V7/vi in B minor is F♯, A♯, C♯, E. Note that the A needs to be raised with an accidental, because it is not in the key signature of D major.

V7 is not the only possible applied chord—viiº is another common type of applied chord. To spell an applied viiº7, follow a slightly different, but related, process.

Process for spelling viiº7/x

  1. Spell in the current key.
  2. Identify the root of viiº7 in the key of (a minor second below x, or the leading tone of x).
  3. Spell a fully-diminished seventh chord built on V in the key of by stacking minor thirds on top of one another.

As a concrete example, Example 3 demonstrates the spelling of viiº7/vi in B minor.

notation
EXAMPLE 3. Process for spelling viiº7/vi in D major.
1. vi in D major is B minor: B–D–F♯.
2. The leading tone of B minor, which is the root of viiº7, is A♯.
3. The fully-diminished seventh chord built on A♯ is A♯, C♯, E, G. 4. viiº7/vi in B minor is A♯, C♯, E, G. Note that the A needs to be raised with an accidental, because it is not in the key signature of D major.

Resolving applied chords

notation
Example 4. If the applied chord is proceeding to another seventh chord, the secondary leading tone may resolve downward, instead of upward like a leading tone normally would, into the seventh of the next chord.

The leading tone of the applied chord is referred to as the secondary leading tone; the seventh as the secondary seventh. These dissonances resolve just as they normally would in their own key.

One exception is that when the tonicized chord is itself a seventh chord—as in the progression D7–G7–C—the secondary leading tone may resolve down by semitone into the seventh of the following chord. In the example progression, this would create a nice chromatic line: F♯—F♮—E (Example 4).

Recognizing and identifying applied chords

Applied chords are most easily recognized by their accidentals, especially accidentals that raise the pitch—oftentimes, those raised pitches are secondary , applied to the chord. When analyzing the harmonies of a score, you may come to a chord contains raised notes—for example, a chord that looks like ii but is major instead of minor—and suspect that it may be an applied chord. To confirm, skip the chromatic chord and analyze the following chord; then, return to the chromatic chord and see if it is, in fact, an applied chord.

Exercise

Listen to this excerpt from Elite Syncopations by Scott Joplin while following the score, then answer the following questions.

 


notation

 

Applied V and V7 as altered diatonic chords

Another way of thinking about applied chords is to imagine them as altered versions of the diatonic chord with which it shares a root.

The most straightforward example is when a ii chord is chromatically altered by changing \hat{4} to \sharp\hat{4}, and then progresses, like usual, to the dominant chord. This alteration of \hat{4} to \sharp\hat{4} turns a regular into a chord that has a dominant function in the key of the dominant.

Take the chord progression Dm7–G–C in C major. We would label this progression as ii7–V–I with Roman numerals. If we change \hat{4} (F) to \sharp\hat{4} (F♯) in the Dm chord, we get D7–G–C. In the key of C, we might analyze this progression as II♯7–V–I, noting the change in root and quality. However, we can also note that D major is native to G major; it is a dominant-functioning chord (V) in the key of G—the key in which the following chord is tonic. In other words, we are borrowing the dominant chord from the key of G and applying it to the G-major triad. Thus, we can re-interpret the progression as V7/V–V–I.

Exercise

Change one note in the following chord to turn it into an applied chord. What Roman numeral would you give the new chord?

Example 5 summarizes applied chords as they relate to diatonic chords with the same root.

notation
Example 5. A summary of how diatonic triads may be altered chromatically to generate secondary V7 chords. Click to enlarge.
Assignments
  • Applied chords worksheet A (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write applied V, V7, viiº, viiº7, and viiø7 chords.
  • Applied chords worksheet B without ø7s (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify and write applied V, V7, viiº, and viiº7 chords. Better suited for repertoires that don’t often use applied ø7s (e.g., jazz and pop).

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Open Music Theory by Megan Lavengood and Kris Shaffer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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