I am doing some harmony exercises in minor keys where there are tonicizations of III approached usually by VII. By having VII7 or just VII and its inversions available as applied chords or secondary dominants of III are we supposed to see these as new chords in the minor key or as V and inverted Vs in the relative major mode? So for example in the key of A minor if I was harmonizing a bass there might be a figure of 43 on the note D. A 43 built on ^4 is new to me. I suppose it means VII43 or it can be seen as V43 of III. How should one think of these chords and more importantly, how should I learn these chords? As inversions of VII7 or as inversions of Vs in the major mode?

1 Answer 1


I think the idea is if you don't do something after harmony like VII6 III to reconfirm the minor tonic, it will sound like III is the tonic.

Or, stated another way, if the music was all natural minor scale, with a lot of VII6 III, it will probably sound like III is the tonic. Depending on the details, it might sound sort of 'modal', or sort of shifting around tonic-wise.

Handel's Sarabande from Suite in D minor, HWV 437 might be worth looking at. It starts in Dm, immediately moves to III, but the sense of tonic of Dm is perfectly clear. Dm is primary, F - the III - is only a diversion from Dm.

Similar is a stock harmonic progression passamezzo antico which plays around with the various functions in minor of VII and V in relation to i and the relation between III and VII.

In the case of the sarabande, I think the description could be the two opening moves of i V and III VII set out the two tonal centers of the key signature, it just introduces the tonal palette. Then when the music continues, Dm clearly becomes the focus.

In the passamezzo antico, it could be described as presenting the variable roles of certain chords. The dominant of i is V, but the opening progression of i VII i shows how VII can be a modal alternate dominant. Later when used in III VII we see how VII can be the dominant of III. So that's two roles, VII as modal dominant of i and also VII as tonal dominant of III.

Also, in the passamezzo antico, regarding the potential tonicization of III. Notice the structural placement of III. The first four bars |i|VII|i|V| sets up a half cadence ending, the second four bars |III|VII|i V|I| close that with a full cadence. III is not involved with a structural cadence, in fact it's the opposite, it's the beginning of phrase. That makes the structural point of III a digression from the tonic i to start a phrase that ends with a return to tonic i.

You can also make a structural observation generally about the modal versus tonal treatment of chord. The modal character of i VII i - modal progression - and III VII - secondary modal chords rather than primary tonal chords - are used at the beginning of phrases, whereas the ending of phrases uses the tonally all important V. I think you can say, in this tonal style, the interior of phrases allow a lot of harmonic liberty, but the endings are formulaic to always confirm dominant based tonality.

That structural stuff is probably the really important point. The typical analysis approach says keys are confirm through cadences. Cadences, not mere progressions. You need to analyze structure to identify cadences. So, it isn't just a matter of is there VII6 III somewhere, the question is where does it happen structurally.

  • I think the question has its asker seriously considering VII6-III as a tonicization of III (in a minor key) and therefore seriously considering thinking of it as V6/III-III instead. The placement of that VII6-III in the minor-key passage therefore matters a lot less, as secondary dominants typically occur mid-phrase. Try considering this in your answer.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 29, 2022 at 16:34
  • Both tonicization and modulation are considered in my answer. Post your own answer if you think you can make the point more clearly. Jan 30, 2022 at 21:18

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