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On this page I found the following:

"The vi chord is used in this song as though it were a full-fledged sub-dominant (in the way it sets up the V chord) or even as a surrogate dominant — in the way it sometimes is inserted between the I chord on either side".

Is it possible for vi (or VI) to have a dominant function?

Also I'm not sure what is the "surrogate dominant" in the case of vi. In the key of C, the vi is ACE and V is GBD (no common notes), therefore I do not see the connection.

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    No, but emacs can. //rim shot [ok I promise never again to go there] – Carl Witthoft Dec 6 '17 at 18:09
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I don't agree with that analysis. The vi chord usually has a tonic function. The reason why it cannot have a dominant function is because it misses the most important notes indicating that harmonic function: scale degrees 5 and 7 (G and B in the key of C major). Scale degrees 2 and 4 (D and F) would also help, but they're not part of the vi chord either.

If - as indicated in the analysis you quote - the I chord alternates with the vi chord, then the vi chord can be seen as a variation of the I chord to have some movement in an otherwise unchanged harmony.

You can find more information on harmonic functions on this page.

As an aside, a VI7 chord is a totally different thing because it functions as a secondary dominant leading to the ii chord. But this is not what the author of that analysis is talking about.

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I'd say no, but there are those out there who are far more versed in theory than I. A dominant chord shows the need to push onto somewhere else - usually the tonic, so VI could be used as such - leading to the ii (or II) chord - reason being the leading note ( in C) of C# pushing to D/Dm.

The notes in vi (A C E) mean only the E can move one semitone to another diatonic note - F - but the mix of those three isn't powerful enough to make it a dominant of an F chord. Which is C(7) in any case.

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I didn’t read the link, but the provided quote is silly. In the context of being bookended by “I” chords, a “vi” shares two notes in common, the third note separated only by a whole step. A “vi” chord does not contain any members of a dominant chord. A “vi” chord is most commonly seen as an extension of “I” - with that one changed note (in this context) serving as a dutiful upper neighbor tone. It would be much more reasonable to assert the “vi” in this context as a “passing vi chord” though not a standard term.

Generally speaking, “vi” is most commonly seen as a substitute for “I”, so the notion that it’s being used as a “full-fledged subdominant” or even a dominant in the tonal context of the parent key is laughable.

That said, a “vi” may act like a sub-dominant as long as it is succeeded by a VII (or more correctly a V/iii) which would then resolve in any manner of ways. Similarly, as others have mentioned, it could also function as a secondary dominant, provided a raised 3rd, thus leading us to “ii” or “II”. Without those conditions, however, it’s really nothing more than an extension / substitution of “I”.

More reasons to check your sources, folks. We live in a crazy world.

  • In your penultimate para., you mention V/iii. In C, that would be a B chord, wouldn't it, so would the sequence be Am>B>Em>xyz? Or would it not have to go to Em at all? I'm probably asking 'after V/x, is the chord x to follow obligatory'? – Tim Dec 6 '17 at 16:14
  • Yes, V/iii in C is a B chord. Also your sequence is correct, though it may be E major or E minor, or whatever chord the composer decides. Macro-analysis can show the intended harmonic function as well as the actual harmonic function. For example, the listener might believe that V/iii actually leads to iii or III, but it might be a deceptive cadence, leading to vi in the new intended key (C# minor) or any such chord. Up to the composer. Good question. – jjmusicnotes Dec 6 '17 at 17:04
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One could say though that vim7 is a II of V if you make the V chord into a temporary tonic which is frequent in jazz (I took a look at the page on which vi is said to precede V in the progression). In this case vim7 could be seen as a sub-dominant of G with its V of V, D7, left aside. It's a micro II-V-I where they've ousted the V chord. It makes sense. I don't understand the surrogate dominant thingy though

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The thing with theory is that it's an attempt to explain the music that we hear and love. In some instances, traditional interpretations don't provide the analysis we're looking for. In those cases, theorists/analysts typically try to find interpretations to describe what's happening, which often takes the form of drawing parallels between common/traditional concepts and what's actually happening in the music.

I recall going over this in a theory/analysis class in college, where the teacher had chose to interpret an unusual chord progression within the frame of an unrelated key. I challenged this but in the end, his interpretation was the best we could come up with. So even though it didn't exactly make sense in the standard approach to analysis, it was the only thing that really provided us with any sort of explanation that made sense.

So I can't say that Pollack's interpretation is exactly wrong but I don't really agree with it. It's in his wording, where he says, "used...as though" and "surrogate". If he said vi is the dominant, I'd argue he was explicitly wrong, as that, by definition, is not what the vi is. In trying to reconcile this, I'd try to listen to the piece a few times, paying attention to how the vi chord feels and where it seems to push/pull. If it feels like the vi prepares us for the V, it seems appropriate to say it acts as a subdominant. If it feels like it wants to resolve back to I, then we could say it's acting as a dominant. I don't believe I would feel that myself but you may and Pollack clearly did.

One thing to consider here is how/where/why you might be doing this analysis. If you were taking this sort of approach to analyzing a piece of music within an academic setting, then you would want to be a bit careful with how you make your argument and possibly bring it to your teacher prior to submitting it, particularly if it is an important assignment, like a final paper. If you're just looking to have a better understanding of a song to allow you to perform it better, or just appreciate it more when listening, then analyzing along these lines is just as valid as analyzing vi as submediant, or purple for that matter, because it's just about you at that point. If you're trying to work with a band to play this song (and everyone happens to be familiar enough with theory), you might confuse everyone or cause an argument about the validity of the analysis but you may also find that it brings everyone to a new interpretation that allows you all to play the piece better as a group, regardless of how "correct" your analysis may be.

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