I was fooling around in D major earlier and discovered something odd. I was playing this progression:

Dmaj7 (I) -> Gmaj7 (IV) -> F#min7 (iii)

Something led me to then play an Fmaj7, and it sounded really good in the context of the chord progression (at least to me), especially when followed by an Emin7. So the total progression is:

Dmaj7 (I) -> Gmaj7 (IV) -> F#min7 (iii) -> Fmaj7 (?) -> Emin7 (ii).

What exactly did I stumble upon here and why does it sound good even though Fmaj7 is not in the D major key? Some kind of chromatic walk-down?

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    Modal interchange with D-minor? – user1079505 Sep 29 at 22:14
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    makes me vaguely feel like a part of Ten Years Gone by led zep (just before the riff) --- mabe it's just playing unmatched M7 chords on guitar that gives that feeling, and on piano it's a totally different vibe – gui3 Sep 29 at 22:21
  • Fsharp minor 7 to Fmajor 7 is the same as A6 to Aminor + flattened 6. Both contain the A and the E. – Peter Sep 29 at 23:41
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    Have you tried Fm7 instead of Fmaj7? That is a total chromatic walk-down. – Tim Sep 30 at 8:04
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    I think a common misconception is that EVERYTHING must stay in key or it needs explaining via some convoluted intellectual gymnastics. Music existed long before music theory and there is a lot more variety that WORKS than can be extracted from a cursory understanding of keys. – ggcg Oct 1 at 11:46

There are already some short answers, I'll try a longer one.

You'd like to understand what happened. If you can do the following:

  • (1) deal with or operate in the situation adequately
  • (2) locate or recreate the situation at will
  • (3) identify similar situations in other contexts
  • (4) maybe even communicate and describe the situation to others

... then you "understand" the situation. (My own definition from the top of my head.) From what I can tell, you're not far from "understanding" the Fmaj7 chord in a D major context. You're able to recreate it, place it in a context ("locate" it), and even describe it to others! A lot of musicians would be perfectly happy with such a good level of understanding, and ask no further questions. :) But not you - you want more?

I guess what you're missing is somehow dealing with it, operating when the Fmaj7 chord is playing. For example, play other notes, solo or create melodies over it, meaning that you want to find notes and scales that would naturally fit over the chord. Maybe you tried using notes from the D major scale and it didn't really work? Or maybe you want to find similar patterns, examples of a similar phenomenon on a more abstract level, and that's why modal interchange was suggested. I agree, you can look at it as modal interchange.

Let's list a few "strategies" for finding things to play over the Fmaj7 chord.

  • Do not try to find any scales. At least the chord notes work! I guess this is what Laurence suggested. You don't have to find a scale for every chord. But since you came here and asked the question, I guess you're not happy with that solution.
  • Find a scale by holding the Fmaj7 chord and singing. I tried it without thinking and sang a D Dorian scale over it. Many musicians would be perfectly happy having found a scale to play over the chord. But you want more? You ask where did that come from, and what other alternatives are there?
  • Try to explicate a scale by adding extensions to the chord in question. You have Fmaj7. Add a 9th, an 11th, and a 13th ... when you have the 13th, you have a full scale. Which ones did you add? Myself (and this is subjective) starting from F, A, C, E, ... 9th:G, 11th:B, 13th:D. I tried to add a Bb as the 11th (which would be in an F11 chord), but it sounded wrong for this progression. When I added B natural as the 11th, it sounded right for this context. This is in agreement with the D Dorian scale I sang: D, E, F, G, A, B, C are all in the extended chord.
  • Try to identify chord roles and possible roles, including possible new tonics (modulation targets) when the Fmaj7 is sounding. Forget the D major context for a second. Play Fmaj7 - Em7 - Ebmaj7 - Dm7 - Dbmaj7 - Cm7 - Bmaj7 - Bbm7 - Amaj7 - G#m7 - Gmaj7 - F#m7 - ... and start over. Endless descending loop stepping through keys. Could the F#m7 - Fmaj7 utilize the same phenomenon as whatever it is that's happening in that long chain? So in other words, does the in-between chord Fmaj7 open up possibilities for a modulation to somewhere? (That's actually the same or similar thing as what happens in modal interchange) Where to? How about F#m7 - Fmaj7 - Emaj7? That would make E major the tonic, wouldn't it. Is that a similar chord step as in your example?
  • Find other songs that have the same kind of progression and see what other people do over it. This is unfortunately not easy, if you haven't played a lot of music. That's why you should play a lot of music! Play jazz, soul, bossa nova, anything you can find that has interesting harmony. Look at what's happening - you automatically absorb harmonic patterns, even though you couldn't completely analyze them.
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  • Right, eventually I got to the point where I was playing that chromatic descending, maj/min alternating chord progression (Fmaj7 - Em7 - Ebmaj7 - Dm7 - Dbmaj7 - Cm7 - Bmaj7 - Bbm7 - Amaj7 - G#m7 - Gmaj7 - F#m7), and that progression sounded really cool to me. I also agree that D Dorian sounds great for melodic lines when I hit that Famj7 chord, although at the time I was just thinking of it as C major. I guess my main concern is why did that chord work (maybe a category to put it in) so I can assimilate it into my understanding and use it again. – Steel Oct 5 at 0:34

...Some kind of chromatic walk-down?

I think so.

Depends on the voicings and what you're reacting to that sounds "good."

I played...


...to get a lot of half step movement.

In some cases you might call Fmaj in the key of D major borrowed or even a chromatic mediant depending on how it is used. Alternating D major and Fmaj would be typical chromatic mediant move.

But in your progression you play the diatonic mediant F#m first then the Fmaj goes between it and the Em. Filling in the whole step between F# and E in that way you probably want to just call it a chromatic passing chord.

Regard the comment from @user1079505, I don't think borrowed harmony/modal interchange makes sense here. For that kind of thing the borrowed chord should function according to its function in the borrowed parallel key. In this case the chord is the mediant (iii or bIII). The mediant is already a tonally "weak" chord so it could be hard to say what it's function should be, but probably it would be moving to the submediant vi/bVI or acting as some type of tonic by some theory. Moving to ii (Em) doesn't really fulfill those types of functions. So, probably best not to invoke a borrowed/modal interchange analysis.

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  • The difficult thing here seems to be the "analysis" part and using correct theory hygienic terms! :D The notes C D E F G A B fit very well over the Fmaj7. D feels like home and using only natural notes - looks like D Dorian, no? And if you play an Ebmaj7 after the Em before going to D, then the notes C D Eb F G A Bb fit nicely over the Ebmaj7. What you should call that situation though... looks like a D Phrygian scale, and it gives a similar feeling as examples of modal interchange. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 18:05
  • "For that kind of thing the borrowed chord should function according to its function in the borrowed parallel key." I don't think I've ever seen a borrowed ♭III or ♭VI by this definition. I don't think this makes you wrong, it just surprised me. – Peter Smith Oct 4 at 22:58
  • @PeterSmith, Right, that's why I don't hear this as borrowed. Borrowing a subdominant seems the more common thing and the function is easy to hear. – Michael Curtis Oct 5 at 17:35

Seems to me the underlying scale under the Fmaj7 chord here is C major,

because this only changes 2 notes from the D major scale, C and F :

(C#) D E F# G A B C# (D)    (D major)
(C ) D E F  G A B C  (D)   (C major, D dorian)

This way you modulate from D major to D dorian

this gives your progression quite a good mood, coloring the major tone temporarily to a dorian mood.

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    ok tell me what's wrong with this instead of downvoting silently. I learned music theory by myself and I'd be happy to learn some more – gui3 Sep 29 at 22:49
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    I didn't downvote, think this is a valid interpretation, but I don't exactly see why it would be Dorian in particular. Fmaj7 is fits lots of other scales too. Yes, of these C-major is the one that changes the fewest notes, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's closest related. – leftaroundabout Sep 30 at 3:43
  • @leftaroundabout Yes, could be D-aeolian, or even phrygian but given just the chords D-dorian sounds the closest. – user1079505 Sep 30 at 4:24
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    From least to most severe: (1) "The underlying scale under the Fmaj7 chord here is C major" is misleading at best -- as you say, the tonal centre is unambiguously D. (2) A one-off flattened seventh doesn't have to come from a mode like Dorian, we generally reserve modal categorization for music which consistently rejects major/minor-tonality conventions (and, anyway, III+ is used much less often than III in minor-key music). (3) A single "outside-of-key" chord doesn't imply modulation, Good Charlotte's The Anthem doesn't modulate just because the chorus briefly flirts with chromaticism. – Peter Smith Sep 30 at 12:41
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    The problem here is saying that C major is the "underlying" scale. You should say that one way to handle the Fmaj7 chord situation is to treat it as if it was so and so. But don't claim that it is. :) According to some people, switching between D major and D Dorian isn't a "modulation", because D is the tonic note in both. (nevermind the fact that D Dorian is a minor mode so it's quite a big change) Anyway, you understand the situation and can handle it, but others aren't happy with your choice of words. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Difficult and inefficient. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 18:13

Yes, it's a chromatic walkdown, and F major 7 is ♭III7, borrowed from the parallel minor. It's difficult to stick a functional label on that chord, but it's certainly valid to view the flattened third scale degree as leading to the second.

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  • If the Fmaj7 is "borrowed" from D minor, then shouldn't Bb feel like a suitable note to play over the Fmaj7? I think it sounds wrong there, but B natural feels fine. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 17:49
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica B♭ sounds wrong because it's a semitone above the third, it'd sound wrong even if we were in D minor (and, to be clear, we're not; try borrowing iv sometime, you can still play the natural-third scale degree over it. It takes more than a handful of accidentals to change the tonic). D minor has the raised sixth available anyway. – Peter Smith Oct 4 at 19:44
  • I disagree. In proper D minor a Bb note over an Fmaj7 sounds quite okay and a melodic thing waiting to perhaps resolve, but in the OP's context on the Fmaj7 between F#m7 and Em it's completely wrong and doesn't fit at all, sounds just like a mistake, a brown note or something. I subjectively tested these and the results are completely clear and no amount of theory explanations can change it. :) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 19:49
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica "and, to be clear, we're not; try borrowing iv sometime, you can still play the natural-third scale degree over it. It takes more than a handful of accidentals to change the tonic" is really the meat of the point. The fact that you can make the dissonance work to your satisfaction in D minor doesn't really have any bearing on a progression in D major. – Peter Smith Oct 4 at 19:59
  • Ah, got it! :) With borrowed iv it's clear, but in this case for some reason, borrowing sounded too black-and-white. Anyway, I'd recommend the OP to experimentally find out what the temporary in-between mode is like by playing notes, looking at note patterns and interacting with the music, not paying too much attention to what it might be called. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 20:59

Yes, a chromatic walk-down. And that's a full and sufficient justification.

Always remember, the diatonic notes are a framework, not a restriction. And not every chord demands a scale.

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  • But what if the musician demands a scale... I think that's why the OP posted the question. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 18:19
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    Chord=scale isn't the answer to EVERY musical situation. – Laurence Payne Oct 3 at 18:22

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