I'm trying to analyze a pop punk song that sounds pretty interesting.

The song starts on an E chord, with a very major sounding riff that, to my ear, immediately puts the song in the key of E major. But as soon as it gives your ear time to adapt to the key you've just identified, it hits you with a C chord that's outside the key. I love that sound and would like to learn the theory behind it so I can add it to my arsenal.

The progression for the intro is E C C#m A. I know that E = I, C#m = vi and A = IV, but I don't know how to notate the C chord in this context. Is it a #V? A bVI? A "flat submediant"? What do you call that chord? Can you reference any materials where I can learn more about it?

  • bVI, it is. A borrowed chord, derived from the parallel minor.
    – user53472
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 4:47

4 Answers 4


Please don't reference specific songs on this site!! It's a recipe for getting the question closed.

The theory is simple. The C chord is 'borrowed' from the parallel key of Em. It's a common ploy, and is explained in theory by a song's key being allowed to stray into the major if it's minor and vice versa. One of the chords from the Em key list is C.

In terms of notation, bVI sounds about right, since it's in reference to the key of E major.

  • Do you call that a bVI? Also, could you clarify why it's not OK to mention specific songs here? Is that against the TOS or something? I think it's really useful when you're trying to convey a very specific sound.
    – sdeleon28
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:23
  • bVI sounds about right, since it's with reference to a written key(?) of E major. There are more learned folk here who will, I hope, explain it better. The site rules state that questions about specific songs are not allowed.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:45
  • Questions about theoretical principles are better when asked with a specific example. Theory questions without real examples are the absolute worst.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 19:44

The chord progression in question is E - C - C♯m - A. Granting that this is in the key of E, I am not convinced that it is always useful to talk about a chord such as C here being borrowed from another key.

Consider that the notes of an Emaj triad are E - G♯ - B, and the notes of a Cmaj triad are C - E - G. Both chords share an E, and the other two notes are a half-step apart. But notice that the G♯ moves down a half-step, and the B moves up a half-step in the transition from Emaj to Cmaj. This contrary motion can be highlighted by playing the Emaj in root position, and the Cmaj in first inversion. For example:

      Emaj  Cmaj  C♯min  Amaj
E ----------------------------------------------  
B ------5-----5-----5-----5---------------------  
G ------4-----5-----6-----6---------------------  
D ------6-----5-----6-----7---------------------  
A ------7-----7-----7-----7---------------------  
E ----------------------------------------------  

Here only the two inner voices move, with contrary motion in the change from Emaj to Cmaj. However you justify using the non-diatonic chord here, in my opinion it is satisfying because of this potential for contrary motion.

I would call this progression a I - ♭VI - vi - IV, considering the ♭VI chord to be a passing chord. But I wouldn't worry about where this chord may be borrowed from unless it is borrowed from a key that is visited by the tune.


It's bVI, a common chromatic chord. You don't really need to worry about where it might be 'borrowed' from. Describing it in those terms doesn't help our understanding, unless it's being used as a gateway into another key (when the chord being 'in common' to the two keys might be a more useful concept).

  • 1
    Describing in those terms seems just what the OP is looking for. Thus -1.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 17:54
  • 1
    Yes, I know. He's asking for reassurance that this chord is 'allowed' in E major. I'm telling him that it is, without any special excuses. Guitar players seem to want everything to fit to a scale. 'Classical' musicians want everything to be linked by a dominant - tonic relationship. They both need to loosen up a bit!
    – Laurence
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 22:06
  • "Guitar players seem to want everything to fit to a scale" -- ugh. Why do guitar players have to take so many beatings? Maybe this is the price to be paid for playing a popular instrument, adopted by the unwashed masses ;) Seems like a fine answer to me +1
    – user39614
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 22:19
  • The price, I think, of an improvisation-led approach rather than a notation-led one. Though 'classical' students, as I mentioned, can get equally tied up over non-functional chords.
    – Laurence
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 22:59

Based on the jazz notion of approach chords, the C-C#m chord progression actually looks more like a weird VII/vi - vi to me. The C chord then has more of a secondary dominant function.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.