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I was playing around with some progressions in the harmonic minor scale and realized that this progression sounds the same as a chromatic submediant chord progression (i–vi) but here it is written as a sus 2, the 2 obviously enharmonically equivalent to a minor 3rd. Is this progression actually not chromatic at all but just diatonic to the harmonic minor scale?

  • There are sus4 chords, but sus 2 should be called ret 2, strictly speaking. (Ret =retardation - resolving upwards).
    – Tim
    Aug 18, 2022 at 11:47
  • @ToddWilcox - why '(natural)'? isn't that just simple Am?
    – Tim
    Aug 19, 2022 at 9:07
  • @ToddWilcox - I've heard (b)iii before in minor-key pieces (man, Kirby and the Forgotten Land uses i-bII-i-(b)iii quite a lot). I similarly wouldn't buy Ebm in C minor as Eb-F#-Bb, and I also won't buy Abm in C minor as Ab-B-Eb.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 19, 2022 at 11:36
  • @Tim Looks like my earlier comment is wrong. I thought the two chromatic submediants in C minor were A major and A minor (not Ab anything - A natural). I was only half right. A major (no flat) is a chromatic submediant in C minor, the other one is Ab minor. So the chord in question is enharmonic to a chromatic submediant but isn’t spelled liked one. Aug 19, 2022 at 12:04
  • @Dekkadeci I don’t see why you addressed your comment to me, since it doesn’t seem related to my earlier comment. In any case, I’ve deleted my earlier comment because it contains an error. I wrongly remembered my chromatic mediants and thought this was not even enharmonic to a chromatic submediant, but it is. Still, it’s not spelled like one so the composer or transcriber seems to believe it does not function like one. Aug 19, 2022 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


Music is subjective and cultural, it "is" what you think it is. Staff notation is one way to express your thoughts to others and why not yourself as well, in written form.

B can only be either natural or sharp or flat, but not all at the same time. If you say that your B is natural, like you said by using that notation, it implies that you feel that a Bb could not be added to that chord, and also that there's still room for a possible simultaneous C-something next to it. If you want to express that feeling to others, you write it in notation like you did in the picture.

But if you feel that a C is out of the question, and the chord should be heard as an Ab minor triad, and that one could even add a "9th" (assuming that you subscribe to the idea that all chords must be seen as stacks of thirds to reveal what they "actually" "are") i.e. Bb to it and retain the same essential musical feeling, then you write it as Cb.

In our prevalent Western musical culture there are thought to be seven letter-named notes in a scale that fills an octave, and an A-something triad is a combination of three notes:

  • A something (natural, flat, sharp, double-sharp, double-flat, etc).
  • C something (natural, flat, whatever ... )
  • E something (natural, flat, whatever ... )

Each of the pairwise intervals is a "third". From A-anything to C-anything, it is a "third". For example from A######### to Cbbbbbbbbbbb it's supposedly called a third in that theoretical naming system.

This thinking and naming is based on traditional Western music. If you think that there can be more than seven simultaneously sounding pitches at any time, then the seven-notes-and-stacks-of-thirds harmonic thinking may not apply very well.

I think it would be better to ask not what something "actually is", rather ask "if I write something like this, what would it imply." What you wrote in the question implies that you do not think of that chord as an Ab minor triad. If you do think of it as an Ab minor triad and you want others to think like that as well, then don't write it like that.

  • 1
    In music theory I DO want to know what something is :) and why it sounds the way it does... how it is written was of second priority, I was trying to put forth a theory for the use of such a progression and that it is not chromatic at all but comes from the minor scale... how you want to write it is exactly what you say so thank you
    – user35708
    Aug 18, 2022 at 17:57
  • 1
    @armani There are many theories and sub-theories about musical practices, and each of them just describes a certain way people tend to think about music in some subculture. You could ask what something is in THIS specific theory, but then you'll have to name what theory and cultural context you mean. There is no general theory of everything. It's how you look at it. The concept of "mediant" only exists in some theories, i.e. ways of thinking and talking about music. Aug 18, 2022 at 18:34
  • @armani So is your question about why is this chord called a “chromatic submediant” instead of just being a normal diatonic submediant for C (harmonic) minor? Aug 19, 2022 at 12:13
  • Todd, yeah pretty much.. if we look past music notation and how it is written... If you pretend music was never written down and just listen to the 2 chords
    – user35708
    Aug 19, 2022 at 17:58

By calling it a submediant, I would argue that you are by definition implying a tonal backdrop (i.e., the submediant is based on the sixth scale degree above the tonic pitch). And because of this tonal backdrop, I would argue that you're also heavily implying tertian harmony.

Because of this, the logic would also suggest spelling this pitch as a C♭ instead of a B♮. So although all pitches are enharmonic to something in the harmonic minor scale, this vi chord is a chromatic chord as opposed to a diatonic one.

In neo-Riemannian terms, this is an L transformation followed by a P transformation; L takes C minor to A♭ major, and P takes A♭ major to A♭ minor (thus the C♭ as the chordal third).

If you're curious, it's the same progression used at the start of the "Imperial March" from Star Wars, but there starting on G minor and going to E♭ minor.

  • Thanks Richard... these progressions seem to be used a lot in films :)
    – user35708
    Aug 18, 2022 at 15:50

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