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I am confused with the following passage:

Dominants are associated with a strong urge to resolve to their next chord in the circle of fifths. This particular sequence, E7 A7 Dm (or V7/V-V7-i) is a very common cadence that your ears likely favor before the much less resolve prone sequence of Em7 Am7 Dm.

From that it seems that E7 and A7 are both V chords? I don't understand how that's possible? Surely the E7 is a II chord?

Am I confused because the passage is wrong, or because I am missing some knowledge?

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You've stumbled onto secondary dominants. In the key of D, yes, "E" would be the second degree, however, when spelling the chord: E, G#, B, D, the G# is not diatonic to D major. Essentially, the E7 functions like a V chord in the key of A, and then A7 of course functions as a V7 back to D.

To clarify:

A secondary dominant is any chord other than the primary dominant.

In the Key of D major, "A" would be your primary dominant. Any other chord functioning as a dominant would then be considered a "secondary" dominant. Most commonly however, the "ii" chord is used as it tonicizes the dominant (often called and labeled as a V7/V).

  • Wouldn't the secondary dominant have to be the dominant of the next chord, rather than 'any chord' ? – Tim Jun 14 '15 at 18:40
  • @Tim the chord itself (which may be any chord) that functions as a dominant is called a secondary dominant. However, if it did in fact go to any other chord, then that would of course be a deceptive resolution. – jjmusicnotes Jun 14 '15 at 18:55
  • What I don't understand is that you say E7 "tonicizes" A7, but I don't see how because E7 and A7 can't fit into any diatonic scale together where A7 is the tonic? – Lost Crotchet Jun 15 '15 at 21:37
  • @BenPhillips E7 (E, G#, B, D) is diatonic to A major. The G# functions as the leading tone, the D resolves down to C#. Meanwhile, we're still "in" D major the whole time. G# does not belong in D major, but because of the context (secondary leading tone and the D resolving down), the sense of tonality is momentarily shifted so it sounds like A is where we're supposed to go. The trick here is that once you resolve to A, you're met with another dominant 7th. A7 (A, C#, E, G) is now the diatonic chord for D major, the key we're supposed to be in. C# is leading to D, G resolves down to F#. – jjmusicnotes Jun 16 '15 at 6:15
  • @BenPhillips Don't get hung up with a restricted idea of what a "scale" ought to be. In Western music there are 12 different notes in an octave, not 8. If you play E7 A (or any variation on the A chord like A7, Am, Am7) it sounds like a dominant-tonic progression, whatever "key" or "scale" the piece is in. You can put a "secondary dominant" before any chord you like. An classical example would be Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" which starts with the chords C B7 Em F G G7 C. The progression C Em F G G7 C is solidly in C major. Adding B7 as a secondary dominant before Em doesn't change that. – user19146 Jun 16 '15 at 13:41
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Let's take a scale. Your example is most likely in the D minor scale.

  • The V of the D minor scale is A7.
  • Let's take the A major scale.
  • The V of the A major scale is E7.

So, what the composer in your example is doing, is to 'leave' from the D minor scale for a little while and 'go' to the A major scale. It is pretty common to use more than one scale in a song.

So, if we are in the A major scale and then move to D minor, we have:

E7-A7-Dm or V-I (which also happens to be the V of D minor; we will use it this way; we have now moved to the D minor scale) and then I (D minor).

If you wanted to play Emb5 instead of E7, it would still be correct. The Emb5 is the II of D minor. But what makes E7 nice, is that it wants to be resolved in the next chord, which is A7.

This is called secondary dominant; and to borrow the wikipedia explanation:

It refers to a dominant seventh chord set to resolve to a degree that is not the tonic

It is symbolized as V7/V

  • I am totally at understanding with A7 being the V chord of the Dm scale, but I get confused when you say "E7-A7-Dm or V-I"; the A7 can't be the I chord of A major because major scales have major sevenths? – Lost Crotchet Jun 15 '15 at 20:59
  • @BenPhillips Try to think of it like an illusion. You play E7, which is the V7 of A. When your ear/brain is expecting to hear a A(maj7), it hears a A7 which is the V7 of Dm. It is unexpected, thus creating a different sound – Shevliaskovic Jun 15 '15 at 21:26
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Any dominant seventh chord is crying out to resolve to a chord a fourth above. As in G7 will (apart from in blues!) most often be followed by C. In your example, the A7 will move to a D or Dm. A fourth above. The concept is common in music.

Take a piece in C. It goes to E, then A, then D, then G, and back to C. All up a fourth. Feels and sounds right, even right out en though it's been right out of key.

  • Yes, it feels right because you're just cycling through secondary dominants. E is V of A, A is V of D, and so on and so on. – jjmusicnotes Jun 14 '15 at 18:56

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