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This may be a simple question for someone versed in theory, but I've been trying to figure it out for several days and don't yet get it.

I'm trying to learn the song Santeria by Sublime and the theory behind it. From what I can tell it is in the key of E major. My understanding is that if it is in E major, I should expect the following chords might show up: E, F# minor, G# minor, A, B, C# minor and D# diminished.

It looks like the song has E, G# major, A, B, C# minor chords (see https://www.e-chords.com/chords/sublime/santeria ). I am trying to figure out what is going on with the G# Major in this song. is this in a different mode or scale than E major? Does the G# major maybe represent some other flavor of chord like a 7th chord for another note? Is there something else going on?

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You're right that a G# major triad isn't diatonic to E major; instead the G# in E major is actually G# minor.

Whenever you see a major triad where it isn't expected, it's often functioning as a dominant (V) of another chord. In "Santeria," you can see that the G# major chord is always followed by C# minor; thus we see that G# major is actually functioning as the dominant (V) of C# minor. In Roman numerals, we say that G# major is V/vi (since C# minor is vi in E major).

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    I think I'm understanding. Because G# is V for C# minor (vi), it wants to resolve into C# minor and helps move the song to C# minor as the next chord. I went Googling based and found en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_dominant and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonicization which both made sense from your answer and Laurence's answer. – Brian Erickson May 19 '17 at 4:49
  • In other songs, that G# leads to A, which happens to have two of the three notes found in C#m. Not sure how RN explains that, apart from III>IV. – Tim May 19 '17 at 7:47
  • @BrianErickson That's exactly it! – Richard May 19 '17 at 9:17
  • @Tim That's a deceptive resolution (it's V to VI in C# minor). – Richard May 19 '17 at 9:17
  • Is it o.k. to flick between keys - as here we're in E, where R.N. wouldn't be representative, V being, obviously, B. I realise that it's the same key sig., but suddenly III becomes V. – Tim May 19 '17 at 10:07
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Yes, G# major isn't diatonic to E major.

And that's fine. It doesn't break any 'rule'. It's common, along with other chromatic chords. Although, as @Richard says, it can be thought of as the dominant of C# minor, it doesn't really indicate any more than the smallest hint of modulation.

Your harmonic language is expanding, beyond simple diatonic chords. Good!

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