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An example - in key C major, the E7 chord is a 'secondary dominant' chord. Now, if it goes directly to the chord it's dominant to in its own right - A, or Am, then it makes sense to call it secondary dominant. However, if it went straight to F, quite a common occurrence, it ought to lose its right to be called secondary dominant, as it's not actually posing as such. We call it secondary dominant because of its role at that point in the music, but it doesn't fulfil that role. So is there a better term to use, as it appears to be a misnomer, not really describing its function?

And, with the same theory, is a tritone substitute a secondary dominant?

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  • We have "functioning" and "non-functioning" dominant chords, where the former resolve down a fifth and the latter presumably do anything else
    – Judy N.
    Jan 12 at 17:34
  • @JudyN. - that's so. I presume the 'functioning' ones get 'V/x', while the non-functioning ones are such as ' III/x'? But should they all be under the 'sec. dom.' banner?
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 17:41
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I would argue that this E7 is still a secondary dominant, just one that resolves deceptively.

This E7 is V7/vi in the key of C, and it resolves to F, thus VI/vi. In other words, we have a V–VI progression in the temporary key of A minor (vi of C major).

If we're in C major and we have a G7 that resolves to A minor, do we still call this G7 a dominant? I think we do. And as such, this E7 is still a secondary dominant for the exact same reason.

And I would argue that there are other examples of this, too. If, say, an E7 chord in C major suddenly went to a C♯-major triad, that E7 could potentially still be a secondary dominant as long as that C♯-major triad is understood as the resolution of the E7 (here it would be a relatively common Romantic resolution—see Strauss and Mahler—of a V7 resolving to a major III).

Examples of this E7 could not being a secondary dominant would depend on style, genre, and where the chord resolves to.

As for tritone substitutions, I think they can also be secondary dominants. The German augmented-sixth (think A♭7 in C) is basically a tritone substitution of V7/V (D7 in C). Tritone subs don't (always) resolve down a fifth, but they're not really supposed to; the idea is not of a V7–I motion, but rather that it keeps the tritone of a normal V7–I resolution.

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  • Richard, I haven't seen your answer when I wrote mine. So I agree and tell about the same thing. I think the system of Parallelklang and Gegenklang is less referring to the theory of dominant, tonic and subdominant dunctionality. Jan 12 at 17:10
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The E7-F progression may be analyzed as a secondary dominant with a "deceptive" resolution. It's analogous to the G7-Am deceptive cadence. The term secondary supposedly comes from the idea of treating the secondary chords of a key (in C, these are Dm, Em, and Am) as local dominants.

Earlier, the term "applied dominant" was used as well as "attendant dominant." The concept has been known for a long time.

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  • I like 'local dominant' - or 'local secondary dominant' as applied to dominants of other diatonic chords - which is partially where the question came from - it's more apposite than 'secondary dominant' for me.
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 17:30
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Not all ‘foreign’ dominant-seventh chords are ‘secondary’. The Bb7 in C-Bb7-C could be described as a chromatic neighbour chord. The E7 in the progression C-E7-Gm would best be described as a chromatic mediant. Obviously the E7 in C-E7-Am is a secondary dominant. The particular example you give of C-E7-F is the one where we don’t have good vocabulary. In the classical sphere at least the effect is that the E7 arrives as if it’s going to be a secondary dominant , but it leaves as if taking part in a deceptive/interruptive progression. In my Bach chorale classes I settled on ‘applied interrupted’ but that’s not such a helpful phrase for the same progression in a pop song.

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Speaking from more of a jazz harmony viewpoint, which I tend to approach most things by, I agree with you that a 7th chord (notice I didn’t say “dominant”) that functions as a dominant to a chord other than the “I” should be labeled as a secondary dominant.

Your example of going from E7 to F also has a deceptive cadence since the tritone resolves to the same two notes as it would in an Am. However it’s obviously not a V of F. For this reason in jazz harmony I learned to call this chord a VII7, in this case of the IV. A VII7 does have a resolving quality to it, in particular to a major chord.

If the 7th chord has no obvious function or cadence I’m inclined to name it based simply on the scale degree, II7, IV7, bVI7, etc. these types of chords exist very liberally in jazz and pop music. “Dock of the Bay” is a good example.

||: G(I) | B7(III7 or VII7/IV) | C(IV) | A7(VI7) :||: G(I) | E7(VI7) :|| G(I) | Am(IIm) | G(I) | E7(VI7) ||

The second bar is the same as your E7 to F. The A7 in the 4th bar has no obvious resolution, thus a II7. The E7 in the 6th and also the last bar also has no obvious resolution so it’s a VI7 in my book.

Bottom line, sometimes a 7th chord is just a 7th chord.

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    "Sometimes a 7th chord is just a 7th chord." That's just what we need -- music theory tinged with psychoanalysis. :-)
    – Aaron
    Jan 12 at 18:30
  • @Aaron I’m not a smoker but I’ve heard 7th chords go well with cigars... Jan 12 at 18:31
  • 1
    Afro-Cuban ones, I suppose. I understand that Dizzy Gillespie preferred the Manteca brand Bb7 with a nice Cognac.
    – Aaron
    Jan 12 at 18:44
  • So, from your 1st para., a sec.dom. needs to go it its own tonic (as in a 4th above)? And - if it's merely a 7th, that's it. Just a 7th? Rather than a sec.dom?
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 18:46
  • @Tim to be labeled a secondary dominant I think that makes sense but I would also include tritone substitutions in the secondary dominant category, i.e. Gb7-F in C. I do believe that dominant chords do have some other functions, such as the VII7 and the bVII7 or what is called the augmented 6th for example. My point is if there’s no obvious harmonic relationship to the next chord or two it’s just a 7th chord. Jan 12 at 18:55
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In this case, the term you're looking for is chromatic mediant.

in key C major, the E7 chord is a 'secondary dominant' chord

This is incorrect. E7 would only be considered a secondary dominant chord if it was part of a chain of dominant chords (a circle of fifths progression):

E7 | A7 | D7 | G7 | C

If the E7 were to resolve to F, then it would simply be called a III7, which has a chromatic mediant relationship to C.

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  • Sure I've read somewhere that in key C, E7 is still called secondary dominant, wherever it is. hence the question.
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 16:35
  • 1
    @Tim Peter is correct: it's only a secondary dominant if it functions as a dominant. The name comes from the function, not the fact of being spelled as a dominant seventh chord. However, in the case being asked about, it could still be a secondary dominant if the F chord functions within a subsequent context as VI in A minor -- then the E7 to F would be a deceptive cadence in A minor. So additional context might be needed to adequately determine the role/name of the E7 chord.
    – Aaron
    Jan 12 at 16:46
  • 1
    Similar as in a false cadence V-vi (G-Am) in major V is called the dominant ... V-VI E-F in minor E is considered as secondary dominant. In German it's called Zwischen-Dominante (zwischen=intermediate, between. May be there are analogies to the incomplete dominance in genetics ;) youtube.com/watch?v=YJHGfbW55l0&ab_channel=AmoebaSisters Jan 12 at 16:53
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Like Peter says, the III and bVI are chromatic mediants:

For example, in the key of C major the diatonic mediant and submediant are E minor and A minor respectively. Their parallel majors are E major and A major. The mediants of the parallel minor of C major (C minor) are E♭ major and A♭ major. Thus, by this conservative definition, C major has four chromatic mediants: E major, A major, E♭ major, and A♭ major.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromatic_mediant

But the system of "parallel" and relative chords and mediants is just another definition of chord relations while the terms dominant and tonic refer to the function theory:

E is the borrowed dominant of A-minor (relative key of C) resolving in a false cadence to IV.

There would be even more examples of V7 (dominant 7th chords) with irregular resolutions but these chords are still called a dominant chord.

Interesting would be the question: Is the progression of G7-F7 in a Blues the sequence of 2 dominants?

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    Thanks. Considering Blues - rule-breaking is its speciality.
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 17:27
  • 1
    In jazz theory any 7 chord is called dominant, but it doesn't mean it has a function of dominant, as in the blues. Jan 12 at 17:45
  • @user1079505 - the tonic 7th is always never dominant - always major 7th. You're thinking Blues.
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 20:02
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There are some good answers already, but the following is not addressed:

And, with the same theory, is a tritone substitute a secondary dominant?

No (or it depends). E.g. in the key of C, chord Db7 substitutes the regular dominant chord G7, and it (may) resolve like G7, i.e. to C.

On the other hand, in the key of C, chord Bb7 resolving to Am would substitute E7, so you could call it a secondary dominant.

I would frame it this way: a dominant chord is a chord that creates a tension requiring resolution to another chord. If that other chord (whether it appears or not, as e.g. in deceptive resolution) is the tonic, it is a regular dominant, if not, it's a secondary one. The same way you can define secondary subdominant.

I'm not sure how this relate to the term secondary mediant mentioned by the others. To me it seems that the term dominant focuses on where the tension leads to, while mediant on what is the chord function in the base key. Perhaps these two terms can function in parallel.

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    indeed, and for me ‘tritone substitution’ is almost always a convenient shorthand for ‘tritone substituted (secondary) dominant’.
    – user71850
    Jan 12 at 17:56
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"Posing as such" is an interesting formulation. That's exactly what it does, isn't it — all on its own? Even if something entirely unconventional follows — i.e. nothing from the conventional "deceptive cadence" vocabulary, such as F major here (V7 - VI) — the E7 has already successfully "posed" (in the midst of hearing it) as the dominant of A.

1
  • An interesting take on it! But when that sort of thing happens, posing takes over from functional. Hence 'deceptive', or 'interrupted' - which itself is a bit of a misnomer...
    – Tim
    Jan 12 at 18:09

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