it's two questions:

a) Can a piece in one key borrow from its relative minor?

b) Can a piece in one key borrow from its parallel minor?

for example,

a) key of E major piece (progression): I V i/vi

last chord plays in C#m?

b) key of E major piece (progression): I V i

last chord plays in Em?

  • A better example of borrowing from the relative minor is I V I V/vi vi.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Oct 7, 2019 at 10:10

4 Answers 4


Short answer: yes.

Long answer: not at all uncommon. Your first example is a deceptive cadence, which is a standard progression. The second is a fairly standard move to the parallel minor; a similar move from minor to parallel major is a tierce de Picardie. Both are as common as dirt. There is, in all cases, no real need to establish the new key or mode - the substitution can be colouristic or motivic.

Other substitutions, quite a bit further out, take place all the time. Establishing a key doesn't necessarily require a diatonic progression; it does require strong root movements that confirm the key.


Yes, it happens. There are plenty of examples out there, in serious and pop music. The finish on relative minor is, as Patrx2 stated, the deceptive, or interrupted cadence, leaving the listener with a feeling of being left hanging on for the end, which has actually just happened.

The 'tierce de Picardie' where the last chord is 'borrowed' from the parallel major is far more common than the change you suggest, but playing a whole piece in major, and finishing on the tonic minor is rare. It would leave the listener on a down, unless it was setting up for the next movement, or even the middle 8 of a pop song, but isn't often used. Best to try each and see - or better still, listen!


Yes. But I find the whole "borrowing" concept rather suspect. Chromatic chords are acceptable without special justification. So they're diatonic in some OTHER key. So what?

Do remember that 'Theory describes, it does not command'. 'Borrowing' can be a description of an 'outside' chord. It may even be a useful description, (though I have reservations!). But it describes what HAS been written, it doesn't tell you what you MAY write.

  • If I ever get to be world dictator, my first edict will probably be to destroy all music textbooks that start with the statement "a scale consists of 7 notes". Every scale in contemporary Western music has 12 notes - but some of them get used more often than others!
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 2:48
  • Humans tend to gravitate towards things that work logically, or form patterns. If an often used scheme can be found to follow a 'rule', then that rule becomes accepted, mainly because it helps to give a framework for working within. Merely stating such as 'anything goes' isn't particularly helpful to anyone who is still struggling to make sense of a concept. If 'they're diatonic in some other key' that's obviously true, but that's rather like saying if you want to spell a word you are having trouble spelling - use the letters of the alphabet, they'll do. That's part of 'so what'.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 7:36
  • @alephzero - to do the job properly, wouldn't you, as world leader, have to include the 'in the cracks' notes that occur in Blues, making a number larger than 12 in Western music?! Just include the magic word 'diatonic'. Doesn't that ameliorate the term.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 7:51
  • A scale usually has 7 notes. Though improvisors seem to favour a 5-note one. But a KEY has 12 notes and hundreds of chords. Tim: sure, but there are just so MANY exceptions to the "diatonic only" rule, and they occur so early in everyone's musical journey, that it's hardly a rule at all.
    – Laurence
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 17:13
  • 1
    Not sure where the concept of a KEY having 12 notes comes from. If it's true, there can only be one key. And that's not true.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 17:52

I'm going to argue, contrary to others, that the concept of "Borrowed Chords" is actually very useful, not just for learning, but to help understand music from a programmer's perspective. It helps us understand where the familiarity stems from and where the "flow" tends to want to lead (knowing from where the borrowing is coming). Some are more accepting of the math of harmonic pull - something definitely not precisely defined.

But IMHO as we better mathematically predict how music is heard and what commonly gives it appeal, we are entering a new territory. We're not there yet, but at some point we might learn to weigh probabilities and understand what causes music to be of greater quality to some average listener (in a particular genre or culture). I'm not arguing for musical AI. But if someone should want to create AI that would write well-liked music, they would need to recognize 'attractive' tendencies that make a listener enjoy listening. It would not be possible without some weighted functions.

Part of my argument is that it is necessary to recognize that musical structures that are used frequently can become so overly common that the flavor is not longer pleasing. Spicing things up can be a natural answer to this, but it is relative to prevalent taste. One is not going to go from mild to "tiger tears", "crying waterfall" levels (Dishes at a Thai place out here affix names like that to their spiciest meals.)

And spicing things up can be done in different ways. Using texture and rhythm to do so can predominate in some styles and contexts so that straightforward harmony won't grow old quickly, if at all.. But if we produce music with less interesting sounds, maybe just basic keys or guitar, there is a definite tendency to embellish by adding the color of slightly less obvious harmonies and melodies.

A relative key uses the same notes as its sibling. Sometimes the tonic could be either of the two possibilities, and a bit of mystery or surprise can add interest. With parallel keys it can be sort of the opposite - you're benefiting from the strong function of the tonic, springing into recognizable relationships borrowed from a parallel key. Borrowing is just a term that points at some very common methods of adding color to a progression. There are other common methods of adding chromatic pitches (for instance in stepping up or down to the target chord root, or using a chromatic run between chord tones). But Borrowing refers to methods that create a mysterious blend of harmonies in the mind of the listener. If we listen we can hear boundaries, and this methods are definitely not pushing any extreme limits. They're the very comfortable ones that still add sufficient color to be commonly used. I think a less common example of borrowing is to use a Major III in Major. C#m is the tonic of the relative minor key of E Major. The V Chord of C harmonic and melodic minor is a major chord.

So understanding this helps a student "see" potential source harmony and melody notes when they instinctively find themselves using the chord.

Other examples are the borrowing of the phrygian mode chords of bII and bIII in a major key, and the borrowing of the iv from harmonic minor.

Then there's the borrowing of the bVII chord from the mixolydian mode, and the borrowing of the bIII chord from one of the minor modes (Aeolian, Dorian, Melodic, Harmonic). We can see that use of a "borrowed chord" does not mean that we necessarily have a specific source.

There are of course other examples that are a little unusual. The bV chord used in rock that is based on the bV note in the blues scale, which is flattered by the bIII chord. (Think of the bV and dual minor/major tendencies of the blues scale like this - the I has an overtone which is the same (if pure) as the M3. And the m3 is the pitch a P5 below the b7. And 4 half steps (a M3) below the b7 is the b5.

Such choices may come (may be arguably being essentially "borrowed") from the possibilities/tendencies we hear as a result of unconscious familiarity with the creative uses of the harmonics of music. It really takes one just a single listen to a single example to get one these creative uses of the harmonics of music "felt" by our minds, because there's a mathematical sense to them. But the term "borrow" implies that the tones are the result of something, and they could, embryonically simply be the result of past listening experience. Or they could be more "defined by the accompanying chords".

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