When playing a secondary V passing chord, is it played in the scale of the destination chord (or the current scale)?

Assume we have the following: (source) enter image description here enter image description here

In the above, the passing chords are Em7 and A7. They're secondary II, V passing chords in relation to Dm7, the destination. Now, since they're II, V chords in relation to the destination chord, am I supposed to play them in the scale of Dm (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C)? Or am I supposed to play them in the current scale, i.e. the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B)?

  • This is partially based on incorrect information, and as it stands is difficult to be provided with an exact answer. Have you played this example both ways? What was the result? Scales and keys often get mixed up - they're not the same.
    – Tim
    Jul 21 '21 at 8:11

In a secondary dominant such as "V of V", you think about the "of V" being a temporary I. For example if you go to Dm using a secondary II-V of Dm, then you do it as if in the key of Dm, for example Em7 and A7.

We say that we're "in" a key. But not "in a scale". "In D minor" means in the key of D minor.

Key is much more about a tonic than a scale. For example over the A7 chord, is B natural or flat? The A7 chord does not say anything about a B, and both alternatives work. The B question is left open by the A7 chord.

From your follow-up comment:

Isn't the V chord of the D minor scale (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C) Am? (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C)

Am is a diatonic "v" chord in D minor, yes, but in order to be a proper dominant chord it has to be A major, or usually even A7. In most minor-key songs, the V chord is a major chord, meaning that a chromatic alteration is needed compared to the diatonic scale, the natural minor scale. When doing secondary chord progressions, there many chromatic alterations. For example in the key of Am, you might do B7 - E7 - Am. Or even "V of V of V": F#7 - B7 - E7 - Am. To have e.g. the B7 chord, D has to be made D# and F has to be made F# etc.

The same thing happens in major keys as well. The V of V in C would be D7, giving a V/V to V to I progression D7 - G7 - C. You need to make the F note sharp if you want to play a D7 chord. Or in C7 - F, using secondary dominant C7 going to F, thinking about F as being a temporary I chord. A "secondary II - V - I" in C going to F could be Gm7 - C7 - F. The C7 can be called "V of IV", abreviated as "V/IV". (Which can be a confusing notation, because in concrete chord symbol names, the slash is used to denote a bass inversion, not secondary chord role.) To have this harmony progression, the B note has to be made temporarily flat. As soon as you get to the target F major chord, you can return the B note back to B natural.

It seems to be a very common mistake to assume that music has to be "in a scale". These people have great trouble understanding even basic polka songs in minor keys, and they try to come up with theories like "it's in harmonic minor" or "it's in melodic minor", just for the sake of constructing a single seven-note scale where all the chords can be fitted without needing chromatic alterations.

More additions from your comments:

Correct me if I am wrong: I am under the impression that chords are -- at any given time -- played in a context (a scale); that is not to say there only is one "true context" at any given time, but there is always at least one. When composing, you have to have an idea of what specific context you're in, so that you can on the basis of that know what chords goes well with the context you have in mind.

I think I agree with that, but I'll elaborate.

Thinking that a scale is something concrete, a law of nature, is a common assumption that causes problems understanding actual music. In reality, sounding chords wipe the floor with scales. Play a Dm and some "normal" Dm melody stuff over it. Then play an Eb major chord. What happened? The chord bulldozed your scale's E note and forced it flat, no permission asked. Now an E natural melody note would sound wrong! But then play a Dm9 chord - the chord's E note kicked your Eb idea away and back to E natural. Chords rule, scales follow. Or more like - whatever you actually play, affects your scale assumptions and the so-called harmonic context in your mind.

When composing or improvising, it's quite essential to have some kind of an intellectually definable idea of the harmonic context, and it can be explicated in terms of a scale. But even then the scale is just a reference grid that helps you reason about where things are. It's like a ruler that you might place on a drawing. It's not a rule about what can or cannot be done. Decide what chords you want, and then you can think about what the chords did to scale possibilities. Sometimes you find new chord combinations that do something interesting and you have to poke around to find where scale degrees could be, i.e. what harmonic contexts you could superimpose over the new situation. But you might also simply accept the chords as-is without explicating a complete scale over them. One example that comes to mind is "planing" chromatically, for example in Dm, if you descend chromatically like Am7 - Abm7 - Gm7, what scale might there be over the Abm7? Does it matter? Many people are able to use chromatic tricks like that completely fine without caring about the scale question.

As an exercise, play the following chords: C, F, G7, C, Gm7, C7, G/F, C/E, F/Eb, Bb/D, Eb/Db, Ab/C, Dm7, G7, Ab/Bb, C. What happens to the harmonic context along the way? Did the tonic really change - you did remember the initial C even after all the changes happening in the middle?

All that said, it is possible to think either way. Decide on a scale and use whatever chords it allows - like in modal music. Or think about chord progressions you want to have, and let the scales follow. Both approaches are used, but IMO, the chords-first style is more "melodic".

The difference in perspective extends to even how you view a scale or a mode. Is the Dorian mode a minor mode where the sixth degree has been raised, or is it a minor mode where you have a IV major triad instead of minor? Both aspects are true of course.

  • Sorry, my question is a little unclear. What I am essentially asking is how did he derive "A" as the passing chord? The V chord of the Dm scale is Am, the same goes for the C scale. So how did he derive the A? Jul 20 '21 at 18:38
  • Yes, I got your point now, I changed the whole answer. ;) Jul 20 '21 at 18:38
  • Thank you, that cleared half of it. Now, I only got one question left: Isn't the V chord of the D minor scale (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C) Am? (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C). This website agrees with me. So I suppose the A major is either a mistake or he is not using the natural minor scale. Jul 20 '21 at 18:41
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    @SebastianNielsen You're correct. The V chord in D minor, strictly speaking, is A minor (or Am7). However, the convention in a minor key is to raise the seventh scale degree when moving to the tonic. That makes the V chord a major chord (or dominant seventh chord). That convention is the reason for the A7 even relative to a Dm chord. In D minor, the seventh scale note is C; raising it gives C#. Thus, the V chord relative to D minor becomes A7.
    – Aaron
    Jul 20 '21 at 19:08
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    @SebastianNielsen I answered this follow-up question as well. Jul 20 '21 at 22:20

Essentially, "yes."

But you really don't want to think of it as "dominant in the scale of the destination chord." Instead think of it as the dominant to the destination tonic.

The simple reason being that, using the given example with a secondary dominant of A7, the A7 is dominant in both D major and D minor.

Also, in the sense that "passing" means non-harmonic, like with passing non-chord tones, these chords aren't really passing chords. A typical passing chord is the V6/4 in I V6/4 I6/3. When that V6/4 is called passing, it's sort of like saying the harmony is really just I I6/3 or even more simply a tonic chord.

But in your example two things make these chords not really passing. One, you move from one root to another (notice that in the example above I I6/3 doesn't change root) and two, the chord Em7 A7 Dm7 are strongly functional. They have clear harmonic identities rather than non-harmonic passing identities.


Any chord has specific notes which make up that chord. Any scale has no bearing at all on that fact. So the question itself isn't clear. In whatever key, A7, for example, comprises A C♯ E G. Even in a key with no sharps, but flats instead. So the chord A7 will have those 4 notes even in D♭, with 5 flats.

EDIT: actually using your example, we quite often DO use the notes from the (in this case) Dm scale!That would make Em7 into Em7♭5, which moves really well onto A7. but then there's your problem - what do we use for the A7? Is there a C♯ or a C♮ in the D minor scale? Well, yes, and yes. Depending on which scale we consider (see why scale and key aren't the same?). So we plump more often for including the C♯ in A7 - or, being adventurous, maybe play A7♯9...

By the way, chords are named using RN, whereas notes use Arabic numbers. Thus, the V is the chord rooted from the 5 note in the scale.

  • Sorry, I see I didn't clarify my question well enough. What I am asking is: Given that I know the V chord of Dm is an A note. How do I know how I am supposed to play that A? E.g. is it an Am, A, Am-diminsihed, A-augmented, etc. I presume it depends on the scale; hence why I was asking about which scale to view it in terms of ... if that makes sense. Jul 20 '21 at 18:33
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    @SebastianNielsen The notation you posted specifies A7, so as Tim is saying, A7 always means "A-C#-E-G" no matter the surrounding context. In your comment here, it seems you're conflating "note" and "chord": The individual note "A" is a perfect fifth above "D" (that is, the fifth note in the D major and minor scales); The "V chord" relative to the keys of D major and minor is A7.
    – Aaron
    Jul 20 '21 at 18:51
  • @SebastianNielsen - edited answer rather than comment.
    – Tim
    Jul 21 '21 at 8:21

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