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From what I've understood from other questions, the dominant chord is always major. So in a minor key, the v chord is not considered dominant.

Considering that, is there a name for when we're in a minor key, and a v chord is raised to a dominant V? When a iii/III chord is changed from major to minor or vice versa, it's called a chromatic mediant, so why is there seemingly no name for when it's the v chord? It's also chromatic, using a note not in the original scale.

I get that V to v is extremely rare, but v to V is very common, I would have expected it to have a name. I'm not satisfied with just saying "to use the dominant chord" because it's "normal" in a major key (it's just the V chord), but it's a chromatic change when done in a minor key.


For example, in Bad Romance the chorus uses both, raising it to a dominant in the second half:

F G Em Am

F G E Am

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  • "So in a minor key, the v chord is not considered dominant": that depends on who you ask. "the dominant chord is always major": some people would say that, but not all. The defining characteristic is being built on the fifth degree of the scale. In functional harmony of the so called "common practice," it's true, but not necessarily in other musical styles, and there's no reason to avoid calling v the "minor dominant." The dominant is always major like potato chips always have salt -- it's the natural order of things, but taking away the salt doesn't stop it from being a potato chip.
    – phoog
    Dec 19, 2023 at 23:33
  • @phoog Fair, but note that my question still stands even if there is such a thing as a "minor dominant". Saying dominants are always major just narrows it down a bit. Dec 19, 2023 at 23:57

4 Answers 4

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The dominant chord is so called because the fifth degree of the scale. Normally, in traditional functional harmony, it's major. This arises because of conventions of chromatic alteration that were established long before harmonic theory was developed.

Some people therefore think that a minor chord built on the fifth degree of the scale can't be called "dominant," but there's no reason why it shouldn't be.

When a iii/III chord is changed from major to minor or vice versa, it's called a chromatic mediant

There similarly isn't total agreement on precisely what chords should be defined as chromatic mediants. If we take C major as our example, though, it's clear that of the major and minor chords built on E and E♭ the only one that doesn't involve chromatic alteration is E minor.

But it's silly to call the major chord built on the dominant scale degree of a minor key the "chromatic dominant" because the chromatic alteration that makes it major is the default state of that chord. So much so, in fact, that the minor chord built on that degree of the scale has to be the chord that is qualified. We can't call it the "chromatic dominant," though, so we may call it the "minor dominant" or even analyze it in relation to the temporary tonicization of a different scale degree.

In a chord progression that isn't in the common practice style, therefore, I'd use the terms "minor dominant" and "dominant" for the v and V chords, respectively.

The process of modifying the seventh scale degree, the third of the dominant chord, is generally "chromatic alteration," or, more specifically, "raising [or lowering] the leading tone."

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When I first encountered 'theory' in the 1950s, the basic minor scale was the Harmonic Minor, with its sharpened 7th note. V HAD to be major, otherwise how could there be a V-I cadence, the cornerstone of Common Practice harmony? When determining whether a piece with two flats in the key signature was in B♭ major or G minor we were taught to 'spot the sharpened 7th'. If there were a sprinkling of F♯ accidentals, it's G minor! We knew about the Melodic Minor and Natural Minor scales, but Harmonic Minor was the norm. Harmonic Minor IS the 'original scale'.

Latterly, Natural Minor seems to have taken over as the One True Minor Scale, particularly in 'Jazz Theory'. But not all jazz is 'modal'. There are plenty of major dominants still being played.

The sharpened 7th requires an accidental. We could call it a 'chromatic alteration'. I don't know any special name for that particular chromatic alteration.

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I'll gloss over a description of how common practice minor key harmony works vis a vis the dominant triad and just say that in such a context I would probably distinguish the two chords by name using:

  • functional dominant for the major triad, and...
  • minor dominant for the minor triad

So, in a passage like i v6 iv6 V, I might say something like: "the minor tonic moves to the minor dominant in first inversion, then to the minor subdominant in first inversion, for a phrygian cadence type progression to the functional dominant in root position." I don't always load up a description with theory terms like that, but it I wanted to say it in a way to avoid confusion, I might say something like that.

Along with "functional" terms like "raised" or "leading tone" are other was to describe the "major triad rooted on the dominant."

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There is no special name for swapping between major and minor V chords. The reason chromatic mediants have a special name is that they come from neither the parallel major or minor of the current key; whereas, major and minor V do. That is, v/V can be attributed to modal interchange, but III cannot. (I'm not aware of an instance where iii would be considered a chromatic mediant, as it can always be explained in terms of the major key.)

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