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While trying to analyze Mike Oldfield's Nuclear, I got stuck.

The main chord progression is Fm-Cm-Bbm-C.

Up until C, it looks like in Fm (natural) key, i-v-iv-.... C would look like a V (which Fm natural does not have).

What are the ways to interpret this? Is this a modulation from Fm natural to Fm harmonic? Given that this is a single chord, I do not think this is a useful way.

Is it more useful to think of C as a secondary dominant, V/i, which resolves to i?

I tried to research the topic of modulation between minor natural and harmonic as well as secondary dominants over tonic, but could not find anything relevant.

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    Music in minor keys typically uses elements of more than one form of the minor scale. In fact, these scales were invented centuries after people started thinking of music in terms of major and minor keys to account for the fact that music in minor keys typically has a lot of chromatic alteration. There is no such key as "F natural minor" or "F harmonic minor"; only F minor.
    – phoog
    Nov 26, 2021 at 17:32
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    Also, the dominant is the dominant, so it's not "secondary." Since the dominant chord is usually major, even in minor modes, you can call C minor the "minor dominant" if that makes sense, and to be explicit you can call C major the "major dominant," but "secondary dominant" is reserved for a dominant relative to any scale degree other than the tonic.
    – phoog
    Nov 27, 2021 at 18:39
  • What is the purpose of such analysis, is this homework for a theory course or exam or something? What do you want to be able to do? Do you want to be able to write different melodies over that chord progression? Or would you want to be able to take some elements from the Oldfield tune and apply them to other tunes that have this same harmonic pattern? Or are you trying to create an alternative variation of the harmony and would like to identify possible candidates? This site is full of analysis questions, and it's often unclear to me, what the posters would actually do with the analysis. :) Nov 28, 2021 at 14:37
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica: I am dabbling in composing little tunes time to time. Being an engineer by day, I tend to over-analyze. The ultimate goal of this specific analysis is to write a (private) song with a similar feeling, likely with a totally different rhythm and possibly a different chord progression. As others commented, my main mistake was confusing "minor" to be a specific mode, like "Aeolian", when in practice it's treated in a much laxer way than modes. Nov 28, 2021 at 19:51
  • IMO it would be better to learn at least a few different tunes in minor keys and spend time with the practice of music. Learning music is going to be very difficult, if you need to know theoretical descriptions before encountering examples of them in practice. That's completely backwards, putting the cart before the horse. Before hearing about any of this "dominant" or "secondary dominant" stuff, you should have already played lots of songs where they are used. Go and play lots of different songs. Don't care if you don't have fancy names for everything. Just play. My opinion only. Nov 29, 2021 at 9:02

4 Answers 4

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F minor is a key. F harmonic, melodic and natural minors are scales.

Modulation occurs between keys, not scales. The scales are simply sets of notes ordered. It happens that in minor keys, there are more notes in general use than the 7 expected, as we find in major keys. Hence the different minor scales (and that's before modes).

The major V is commonplace, but v is still found in pieces in minor keys. Theory seems to be somewhat lacking in publicity in this area. There's a few questions leading to answers explaining it all on this site - some to the right of your question.

It won't be a secondary dominant - that's a chord which leads (in theory) straight to another diatonic chord from the key (as in its V - V/ii, V/vi etc), but will be simply a dominant.

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Functional harmony typically prefers V over v since V makes use of the leading tone and has a stronger pull to the tonic. So the analysis would just be V-i. No modulation, just how minor harmony works.

There's in general a lot more going in minor key harmony since scale degrees 6 and 7 are typically modified leading to the three distinct minor scales which are natural, harmonic, and melodic. We have a lot more questions that go over minor key harmony that I recommend you take a look at:

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As the other answers already said, is in fact the standard dominant in the key of f-minor. Speaking in terms of common-practice harmony, it's rather the cm that's the odd one out – a minor chord doesn't really act as a dominant at all, lacking the (classically) all-important leading tone ♯7.

But while we're discussing this song, it's worth mentioning that it does in fact contain a very classical secondary dominant in the verse/bridge: an inverted D♭ augmented sixth chord.

b♭m - fm - D♭+6/B♮ - C
   -   - +6/+6 - 

(I initially heard it as a diminished seventh chord; was thrown off by the prominent B♮ note in the electric piano)

Both augmented sixth chords and diminished seventh chords are strong dominants, working particularly well as secondaries towards the actual (tonic's) dominant. The b°7 chord shares three notes (b, d, f) with G7, which would be the plain -of- secondary dominant. Additionally, it adds the A♭ note for some extra bite and leading quality. The augmented sixth chord shares only b and f, which may not at first sight point to a G-ish chord, however these shared notes are the tritone, the heart of the dominant's leading character.

Note that D♭+6 is enharmonically equivalent to D♭7, i.e. the standard dominant G7 shifted down by a tritone (thus the description “tritone substitution”, which is what this would be called in jazz).

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  • Thanks, I appreciate this additional analysis! Nov 28, 2021 at 19:53
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As Tim said, natural/harmonic/melodic minor are scales, not keys.

In this case you have correctly determined the cadence to be i - v - iv - V - (i)

The major dominant before the tonic of course a standard cadenza. The minor dominant before the subdominant is nescessary as a major dominant would have a leading tone which implies a resoltion into a tonic like chord, but not into the subdominant.

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  • “The minor dominant before the subdominant is nescessary as a major dominant” – that's of course a bit inconsequential for a song like Mike Oldfield's. Rock/pop/blues routinely has major - progressions. Nov 28, 2021 at 1:14
  • @leftaroundabout That’s probably true. But at least when we're in minor there is a strong indication to use it.
    – Lazy
    Nov 28, 2021 at 9:11

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