In the key of C major, take the following progression:



In this progression, can the VI chord be analyzed as a borrowed chord from the major mode (parallel major) of the relative minor?

I arrived at this interpretation because:

1) The chord has no leading tone to G7, so can't be a dominant leading chromatic chord.

2) The preceding chord (iii) isn't the secondary dominant of the chord (V7/VI), nor does it tonicize it, so I don't see how it can be transient modulation or tonicization.

3) It isn't a full-blown modulation as it doesn't last long enough, no other chords from the key are heard, and no other notes from the would be key are heard, most notably the leading tone (G#).

The background to this is that I was listening to David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' (in C major). The A major chord during the middle eight guitar solo part (which I believe is a direct transient modulation) got me curious as to the above question.

  • 1
    That II chord is surely a VI. The sequence looks like it's in C, with a dom. G7. Calling A II presumes it's in G. Em can lead to A, weakly, as the step is a fourth up, very common.The parallel would be Cmin., which has no sharps to make the A. It could be construed that it's a parallel Amaj. instead of the usual Amin.
    – Tim
    Oct 27, 2014 at 7:41
  • I guess you realize that this progression is not the progression used in Space Oddity, where the context is different and where the A chord consequently has a different interpretation than in your example.
    – Matt L.
    Oct 27, 2014 at 9:12
  • Yes thanks for pointing that mistake out. Its A major so supposed to be VI not II. Have edited accordingly. Oct 28, 2014 at 12:30

2 Answers 2


You have to look at what you have and look at where you are going. Like you said, the A does not naturally exist in C major, however, I think it would be a stretch to say it borrowed from A major since there is such a big jump to the parallel major of the relative minor key especially since the Em doesn't make A seem like a temporary tonic and neither G7 nor Em are in the key of A major.

I look at it this way:

You are going from Em to A to G7. The iii chord is rarely used in major pieces so instead it is used to take you to the chord outside the key. You can look at these 3 chords as a temporary progression borrowed from D major with as Em is ii, A is V, and G is IV. The dominant 7th is not in the key of D and you can look at the progression is trying to take you away from the key of C major, but the G7 is pulling you back.

The formal analysis of this would be rather tricky. I can see someone calling the A a non-functioning secondary dominant and have the analysis look like this:

C  Em    A     G7
I  iii   V/ii  V7

I could also see the Em also being denoted as from the supertonic key as such:

C  Em      A     G7
I  ii/ii   V/ii  V7

If I were to write this down for myself though just for simplicity I would just ignore the function and just write this:

C  Em    A    G7
I  iii   VI   V7

Even though this ignores the function, it is pretty clear the submediant is raised.

In general, a borrowed chord is typically only borrowed from a key/mode that contains the tonic of the key you are in. (I.E. C major's tonic is C, A minor has a C in it and is the relative minor, but A major does not). Saying A is a borrowed chord in the key of C major is not really likely and very odd at best.

  • Just to clarify, I don't see it as a 'jump' to the key of A major either, if by 'jump' you mean a jump to another key. Quite the opposite for me, that's why I 'see' A as a borrowed chord. Your interpretation of Em and A as borrowed from D major makes sense to me (especially as in that interpretation Em is functioning like a non-functioning pivot chord also) but, for me, it raises the question, if you're going to say those chords are borrowed from A major, then why not just say the A major is just a borrowed chord and be 'done' with it? Oct 27, 2014 at 1:32
  • @user191338 Borrowing from the relative minor's parallel key is kind of a stretch especially since the tonic would be altered and that if not handled correctly would seem like you are trying to modulate away from your key. It's a lot simpler to say that it's a borrowed chord, but there is more going on in the progression and it is not a likely borrowed chord for the reasons mentioned above it's much more likely an altered chord: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altered_chord
    – Dom
    Oct 27, 2014 at 1:44
  • Yes, reading your answer again, I see how thinking about it in terms of movement away from and back to the key gives the progression added sense. I just conjured up that progression to illustrate the question though really, and that tonal pulling wasn't part of the plan! So I am still a little curious as to whether chords can ever be borrowed from parallel modes of the relative key, or whether such interpretation is just fundamentally at odds with the definition / concept of chord 'borrowing'. Oct 27, 2014 at 1:56
  • @user191338 I would recommend posting a new question solely about that so future readers can find it, but I can give you an idea in a sentence: Typically chord are only borrowed from keys/mode that contains the tonic of the key you are in. (I.E. C major's tonic is C, A minor has a C in it and is the relative minor, but A major does not).
    – Dom
    Oct 27, 2014 at 2:05

I suppose it could, but why bother? iii (Eminor in this case) is far from uncommon in a song in C major. It could act as a different flavour of C^7, moving on to F. It could lead to Am, maybe directly, maybe via E major. It could do plenty of other things.

Do get away from this idea that a key has "permitted" chords. It makes life so complicated, having to invent a modulation or modal shift any time a chromatic chord occurs!

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