See also Cool Chord progressions -- a self-teaching course on CD. A free movie that relates to the concepts in this lessons is available online!

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Chord Substitutions
Altered Dominants

This is one in a series of free music lessons offered by composer and music educator, Phil Seyer. Click here if you'd like to subscribe.

In this lesson you'll be introduced to one way to do chord substitutions. A chord subsitution is a chord that replaces (substitutes) for a chord that you might usually expect in a chord progression. Jazz musicians like to take traditional tunes and reharmonize them, substituting different chords for the chords that the original composer came up with. It gives the music a different, interesting sound.

These substitution methods can also be used in your own original compositions. For example, you might think of using a simple dominant seventh chord at first, but then try out a subsitute for it and like that better. Or the "substitute" chord might just pop into your mind immediately -- in which case it would not really be a substitute chord. (smile) Does this make sense?

To keep this lesson focused and easy to learn, I'm limiting it to two of my favorite kind of altered dominant chords. Before I go further, let me explain what I mean by an altered chord.

An altered chord is a chord that has one or more of its chord tones changed from what it would normally be in the scale that it lives in.

Review of Chord Construction. Older timers, this will be elementary for you. If so, you may want to skip this section. Beginners, please read on and pay close attention. This stuff is crucial. Consider for a moment how chords for popular music are constructed: we build chords by starting with a root tone and then adding tones, taking every other tone in the scale. Let's build a dominant chord in the key of C. A dominant chord is built on the fifth step of the scale. It is called the dominant because it is a very strong and has a powerful tendency to move toward the key center (the first tone of the scale). Let's start with the do (the key center) and count up five scale steps: do re mi fa so. The letter names for these scale tones in the key of C would be:

c d e f g

So g is the dominant tone for the key of C. If we build a chord on g, it will be a dominant chord in the key of C. If we take every other tone in the scale and form a 3-note chord (called a triad) we will have: so ti re or g b d. The tones g b d when sounded together form a dominant chord in the key of C. Now lets make a four note chord. We do this by skipping over mi and adding fa. That gives us: so ti re fa or g b d f in the key of C.

This chord is called a dominant seventh chord or V7. The V represents the fifth degree of the scale. The "seventh" in the name comes from the fact that the fourth tone (f) is seven tones up from the root. If you start with g and count up 7 scale steps, you'll land on f. This keyboard diagram shows how we count up 7 starting with g and landing on f:

The red dots show the chord tones (g b d f). Notice how we make the chord by taking every other note in the scale.

We can carry this futther and build a 9th chord by adding another tone a 9th above the root: In this diagram, I have colored each chord tone red for easy identification. Again see how we build the chord by taking every other note of the scale.

dominant major ninth

Technically this is a dominant major ninth chord, because the interval from g to a' is a major ninth. This is one of my favorite chords. But let's add yet, another chord tone.

Progress Check. What name would you give to this chord in the key of C?

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It is a dominant 11th chord. You might also refer to it as V11. The letter name for the chord is G11. Notice how the letter name for the chord doesn't tell us anything about the function of the chord. That's why music students who just learn the letter names of chords and don't think of their function within the key are really missing something. They are playing chords, but playing them without understanding how they fit into the key center and how they function. .

Try playing this chord on your instrument. If you play a melody instrument like a flute, just play the notes one-at-time. You are still playing a chord -- just a broken chord (also called an arpeggio). If possible play all the tones at once on a piano or other keyboard instruments or a guitar. Or click here to listen using MIDI. How does it sound?

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It's rather harsh sounding. The technical term is dissonant. It's something you might hear in a movie when something scary happens -- for example, the camera suddenly focuses on a clue in a mystery. After stacking so many tones to build a chord, composers often start dropping some of them out to make the chord less heavy and dissonant. The dissonance in this 11th chord comes a lot from the sound of ti clashing against do or we might say the the third of the chord clashing agains the 11th. So musicians will often drop the third of the 11th chord. They may also omit the 5th of the chord. Different arrangements of the tone of the chords produce different effects, too. Here is one of my favorite ways to play a G11th chord (dominant 11th chord in the key of C):

Look at the three upper tones in this chord; they are c, f and a. Now rearrange them and you get f a c. So the upper three chord tones of the G11th look just like an F chord! In fact, most of the time, the guitar notation for this chord would be F/G which means play an F chord, but put a G in the bass. But now you know that a F/G is really a G11th chord with the third and fifth of the chord omitted. F/G is really a dominant chord in the key of C and the root is of the chord is G, not F. Anyway, I am digressing a bit from the main point of this lesson, so let me continue.

Let's continue and stack yet another tone on our dominant chord, to make a V13. In notation it might look like this at first (before we omit some of the tones):

Progress check. Why is it called a 13th chord?

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Because if we count up from the root of the chord (g) to highest chord tone (e), we count to 13.

Now this chord really has too many notes for most purposes -- so let omit some of the tones. If we omit the 5th and 11th and rearranged the tones, we might end up with this version of a dominant 13th chord.:

(I would play the two lower notes with the left hand and the b e' a' with the right hand.)

Progress check. Is the V13 chord shown above, an altered dominant?

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If you're not sure, you might guess yes, since the e' and a' are not part of the G7 chord. But no, this is not an altered dominant chord because the e' and a' are, indeed, part of the C scale. You can find them in the key of C major. (By the way, in these lessons, if I don't say "minor" you can assume that I am talking about a major key.)

Creating an Altered Dominant. Remember, an altered chord is a chord that has one or more of its chord tones changed from what it normally would be in the scale Now, let's make an altered 13th chord. Lets lower the 9th.. In other words, we'll change the a' to a'-flat..

For lack of a better name, I'll call this an dominant-alt-1 chord.or a V alt1. Just so you know, some people notate an altered dominant chord with a triangle like symbol. Others notate it as G 13.-9

[NOTE: You may want to see a free movie that illustrates the same idea discussed here. If so, click on this link to Cool Chord Progressions. Then look for the free sample lesson.]

As a help in finding this chord quickly in various keys, I like to think of building a major triad on a tone a half-step below the 7th of the chord. The 7th of this chord is f (f is seven steps above the root g). A major triad a half step below f is E-major. When thinking this way, we could notate the chord like this:

This time I put the three upper notes in the treble clef. This makes it easier to see that these notes are easy to play with the right hand. You should be able to recognize b-e-g# as an E major chord. If not, rearrange the tones. Put the e on the bottom: e g# b. (Notice that the a-flat is now notated as a g#. The tone g# is called the enharmonic equivalent of a-flat.)

IMPORTANT: To build this chord quickly, play the root and the seventh of the chord in the left hand. Then build a major triad on a tone that is a half-step below the seventh of the chord. Rearrange the tones of the major triad as desired for the sound you like best.

To find this chord quickly in the key of C, I usually play g and a higher f with the left hand and an E-major triad with the right hand. This way of thinking is only for the purpose of finding the chord quickly. From a pure theory pont of view, it is better to think of it as a dominant 13th chord with a minor 9th.

When improvising or composing, you might choose to arpeggiate the "E-major" chord or play it in different inversions. The advantage of thinking of the upper three notes as making a major triad makes it that it is easier to improvise or compose in this way.

Exercise: Play this dominant alt chord in the keys of G . Then check your answer below. Hint: the dominant in the key of G is D. Be prepared to explain your thinking as you build the chord.

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Answer. Ok, let's start with the key of G. The dominant chord would be built on the tone d. If we put a minor 7th in the lower part we would have: d and c' A half-step below the c' is b, so we would think of the tones played by the right had as making a B-major chord. Make sense? Here's what it would look like in notation:

Progress check. To build this chord quickly, play the root and the ____ of the chord in the left hand. Then build a major triad on a tone that is a ____ below the seventh of the chord.

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You can check your answer by scrolling up or by clicking here. .(Use your back button to jump back here.)

Type 2 Altered Dominant

Another way to create an altered dominant chord is to play a dominant 9th and augment the 9th (play it a half-step higher) and also augment the fifth. Here's what it would look like in the key of C.

To find this chord quickly, I like to play the root and 7th of the chord in the left hand. Then I play the third of the chord with the thumb of my right hand. Above the third, I go up another major third -- that's gives me the d-sharp. Then I go up a perfect fifth (to find the a#). I've marked the perfect 5th interval in the example above to make this clear.

Some like to think of this chord as a major/minor chord with #5 (augmented fifth). That's because the b-natural in the chord makes it major. The a# can also be thought of as b-flat, which would be a minor third. As you study music theory, you'll find that there are often different ways to interprete the same chord.


Whenever you come across a dominant (or secondary dominant chord), you can try substituting a different chord by adding a 7th, 9th, or 13th to the basic dominant chord. You can also try changing one of the tones by a half-step. For example, augment the 5th or 9th -- or lower the 13th and 9th. Sometimes this will work well and sometimes it won't. It usually won't sound good if the melody note clashes with the altered tone. For example, if the melody is a-nautrual, it usually won't work to change a to a-flat in the chord. These kinds of chords tend to work best in a jazz setting, but may also work in other kinds of music if introduced carefully.

Assignment: try substituting some type-1 and type-2 altered dominant chords for regular dominant or dominant 7th chords. Practice playing these chords in various keys.

NOTE: An expanded version of this lessons in available free with purchase of PowerTracks Pro Audio, a MIDI and audio recording program. The tutorial includes narration, animated keyboard showing notes played. Also, the notes turned red when played so you can follow along easily. The examples are played for you on your sound card or MIDI instrument.

I hope you've enjoyed this lesson. Please let me know you are alive and well by sending me a brief note. Give me a report. How are you doing? Are you practicing regularly? Do you have any questions?