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I have been learning a song by John Frusciante that looks like it's in D minor (or maybe F Major, you tell me). The main changes go something like this:

Amin -- Bb -- Dmin

F -- C -- Gmin -- Dmin

C -- Gmin -- Dmin

But toward the end, he throws in a G-Major:

Dmin -- Gmaj -- Dmin -- F -- Dmin

I have seen this a few times recently, now that I am beginning to analyze songs harmonically, where they will have the same chord be both major and minor at different points of the song, and from what I can tell without really changing key. This is the only example I could find at the moment, but I was wondering what were the rules for this sort of thing. It sounds great in context, in fact these chords combined with the melody he sings is a favorite of mine. Is he borrowing the GMaj from another key, and how would one usually construct a melody involving this type of chord from outside the key? I'm guessing you would avoid the B (major 3rd from the GMaj), but like I said I don't know what the conventions are.

  • Do you remember which chord was played right before G ? It might help – Shevliaskovic Sep 6 '14 at 7:28
  • What's the song? – Tim Sep 6 '14 at 7:42
  • Dmin right before GMaj. Untitled #11 from Nainda Lades tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/j/john_frusciante/untitled_11_tab.htm – Charles Sep 6 '14 at 7:57
  • Just a comment, since the style of the song does not support this explanation. In jazz, D (melodic) minor tonality perfectly supports G7 as a 4th degree, in fact D-7M and G7(9,#11,13) are practically interchangeable. Here the reason is modal, all the chords belonging to D dorian (and the progression really sounding D dorian). – Alexandre C. Sep 6 '14 at 11:45
  • youtu.be/ur3juD8uIbo – Frank Henard Sep 6 '14 at 15:27
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Theory is just that - theory. It ain't law. The 'rules' don't have to be adhered to necessarily. Obvious in this (and many, many other) case(s). If it needs pigeon-holing, it could be explained that it isn't only in full minor, whatever that may be, but has slipped into mode. Dorian mode, as it happens. This mode sounds quite minor, but has its 4th chord as a major, rather than a minor. Thus, D Dorian, containing G major. Similar, I suppose, to, in D minor, the 5th (A) could be either major or minor - each sounds acceptable, given the right circumstances, and theoretically each IS correct.

  • The progression really sounds D dorian here. – Alexandre C. Sep 6 '14 at 11:49
  • All great answers, but your Dorian comment makes the most sense to me. So in a solo or melody construction during the GMaj chord one might use the D Dorian scale then switch back to Aeolian for the rest of the song? – Charles Sep 6 '14 at 18:52
  • Yes, the difference between them being B or Bb, all the other notes are the same. And if you don't actually play those notes anyway, who can tell ? – Tim Sep 6 '14 at 19:33
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This is a technique in compositional music called Borrowed Chords. In "traditional" music, you would have only 6 chords (3 majors and 3 minors) to use in a song. However, some composers became creative and tried to use other chords from outside the scale. Using Borrowed Chords is one way of using them.

When you use Borrowed Chord, you essentially change the tonic from major to minor (or minor to major) and use the new chords that are associated with the new tonic in addition to the old chords that are associated to the old tonic. For technical-terms aficionados, this is the same as borrowing chords from the parallel key of the tonic.

In your example, I assume that the song is really in D minor. The G major does really look out of place in D minor; however, it is the sub-dominant in D major and since D major is a parallel key of D minor, G major can be "used" in the key of D minor.

It should be noted that there is no "rules" in music (and any other form of art). There are only just guidelines.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borrowed_chord

  • 1
    what about diminished chords? – Dave Sep 6 '14 at 13:32
  • There are actually 3 ways mainly to use abnormal chords: Secondary chords, borrowed chords and "national" chords. For diminished chords there are two ways of usage; either as the diminished chord of the leading tone or as secondary chords. Diminished chords which are secondary chords basically functions to resolve to the note which is a semitone higher. (for example Cdim to C#). – krismath Sep 6 '14 at 14:51
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This might not be the best answer, but in music, not everything has to be always 100% harmonically correct. Songs are not harmony examinations, so you are allowed to do things that are not 100% explained in the theory of harmony.

This was the issue with old jazz songs where people didn't really know the theory, and they just followed their ear.

So, since you said

It sounds great in context, in fact these chords combined with the melody he sings is a favorite of mine.

Frusciante could have simply have written a melody first and needed some chords to accompany it, but at one point, he gets off key and he needed an off-key chord.

  • "Correct" is what sounds right at the time. – keshlam Sep 6 '14 at 17:32
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It looks like this was well answered but I'd add that if you think of this in the context of sheet music rather than chords, it's not weird at all. How often does a musical score contain a sharpened/flattened note? Every time that happens you're outside the key!

We also had an interesting discussion on a related subject in my question here: What key could the progression Cm - G - Dm - Am be in?

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