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One progression I come across often (in tonicizations or modulations) is V7 to VI∆7. For example: G7 to A∆7.

In playing with it, I notice that the V chord can be in many different forms, including dominant and sus chords. The VI seems to be more fussy: only VI chords containing the major seventh seem to work especially well.

Why does this progression work so well?

Example: "Knocks Me Off My Feet" by Stevie Wonder, bar 4 to 5.

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    Do you mean, in key C, going from G7 to Amaj7? A or Amaj 7 works well for me. Seems opinion based.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 14:44
  • @Tim I dunno, as long as the question is "why," I'm open to the possibility that there's a better answer than "because I like it, that's why." I don't have that answer—maybe it's a sort of deceptive motion but with major? I would have been interested in Gmaj7 to Amaj7, as a whole-toney thing... Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 17:10
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    What does ∆7 mean?
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 19:06
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    @phoog - it simply means major seventh.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 19:09
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    @MichaelCurtis I updated my question with an example.
    – Daan
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 13:29

2 Answers 2

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"Why does x work?" I've played piano by ear for 35 years and I've never felt a need to ask why something works. I don't understand what that question means. It works for you because you like the things the chord change does? Someone might think it sounds cheezy. (It does, a bit.) All I need is to hear what it sounds like, and look at the pattern that goes on with the notes. Ok, this sounds like this. Then I can apply the pattern in situations where it feels appropriate.

But if you ask, what happens from some perspective in that chord change, it's a much more answerable question. I can think of two things:

  • If you expected a I chord, getting VI maj7 is a surprise.
  • The VI chord, especially when it's maj7, forces chromatic alterations to the listener's assumptions of what pitches or scale degrees "fit" or are expected to be heard, which I call "harmonic context". The VI chord raises the I degree to #I (or whatever is the appropriate notation), and the maj7 raises the V degree to #V. This can be seen many ways, for example as a change between parallel major/minor. Or you could call it modal interchange between something and something.

To "milk" the same modal interchange phenomenon, and switch between A minor and A major, try this:

Amaj9 G69 F#m9 Fmaj9 (repeat)

it keeps switching scale degrees from sharp to natural and back. If you like the sound of that, then it works for you.

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  • Thank you! You're right about the why. I guess I meant it as a lazy shorthand for what happens. I think you nailed it with your answer. Going from G7, you expect a C and G. Instead, you get a C# and G#. The chromaticism is what makes it appealing (at least to me).
    – Daan
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 21:00
  • I find I mostly do a theoretical analysis of my playing or composing when it doesn't work. I'm not sure which chords are being asked about but the simple V7-vi works "because" it's only s single step different from V7-I and has good voice-leading. V7-VI in minor works too.
    – ttw
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 21:15
  • @ttw In this case it would be something like G7 - Amaj7. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 5:52
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These deceptive motions typically function so well because something about the chord of resolution is a part of the expected chord.

Your question could allow for two chord progressions: in the sample key of C, either G–Amaj7 or G–A♭maj7. We can address both of them.

When we have a G chord in C, we often expect it to move to C. Put another way, we expect it to move to a collection of {C, E, G}. When it moves to Amaj7, we move to a chord with a prominent E in it, thereby realizing some of our expectations while not realizing others. But because at least one pitch here is what we expected, we get a sense that this chord is kind of right, but also very very "wrong."

This explanation is even more clear when moving to A♭maj7. We expect the G chord to move to {C, E, G}, or perhaps even (in minor) {C, E♭, G}. The A♭maj7 chord actually has all three of these pitches—C, E♭, and G—with an added A♭. But because it has all three of our expected pitches, this one is really convincing as a chord of resolution...there's just that one pitch, A♭, that prevents it from sounding complete.

The VI seems to be more fussy: only VI chords containing the major seventh seem to work especially well.

I admit I don't have an answer for this one, and perhaps because my experience doesn't align with yours; I've found that these VI triads are perfectly good deceptive goal points, and that the seventh isn't necessary. But clearly our results may vary!

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  • I suspect that only some voicings make it sound 'especially well'. I've tried all sorts, and some don't sound 'especially well' at all. Yours sceptically...
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 19:13
  • Thank you! Sorry for the confusion - I clarified my question in the second sentence. Your 'common pitch' theory makes sense. Reading your answer, I realize that it's hard to be objective about these things. Stevie Wonder employs the V7-VI∆7 progression a lot, and perhaps my ears are now trained that way. :-)
    – Daan
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 20:51
  • Have a look at this answer: music.stackexchange.com/a/121203/77758 Your theory is certainly not wrong, but I think the chromaticism is what I found appealing. That also explains why the major seventh works particularly well for me. Again, depends on the ears.
    – Daan
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 21:05

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