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I'm writing a song--the photo posted below is the last two measures of the verse and the first measure of the chorus (this is a reduction). I wanted to create some extra tension before playing the A minor chord, so I figured I would play an E minor chord (the fifth of A) and add some 7th scale degrees in there (D note) to make it the dominant seventh chord for A. Did I execute this properly? The E minor chord sounds quite muddy.

I am just wondering if there are any ways to improve this sequence. Please let me know!

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After fiddling a bit, this is where I'm at:

enter image description here

This sounds like an improvement to me. Thanks for the help!

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    A dominant seventh needs a major third, so you would want an E7 not an Em7 to have a dominant seventh chord. In a sense, you've stumbled accidentally onto the reason for the harmonic minor scale existing; in order to have a dominant chord for A minor, we raise the G to G#. – Some_Guy Sep 5 '18 at 16:48
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    As for your improvement: you can certainly have a C in the middle staff, but that creates more of an augmented V7 chord (the C is really understood as a B♯, a raise chordal fifth). But you could also replace that C with a B and see what you think. This would be the more "normal" V7, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's better! – Richard Sep 6 '18 at 17:05
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As you have it now, it's just a simple fifth relationship. You're in the key of C, and you have iii7 moving to vi.

In order to have a secondary dominant (also called an "applied chord"), you want to temporarily use the leading tone of the chord you're moving to. You're moving to A (vi), so you want to actually use this key's leading tone (G♯) in that E chord.

Therefore, your Em7 chord will become E7 (E G♯ B D), and that chromatic addition of G♯ will add in the color I think you're looking for. You can experiment whether you want the G♯ to begin right on the downbeat of that measure (what I would recommend) or on the second half.

In making this Em7 an E7, we can now better analyze it as V7/vi. In this way, we show precisely how this chord is functioning: as a secondary dominant of vi. This label is much more informative than just calling it something like III7.

(And technically speaking, we tend to resolve chordal sevenths down by step. This means that D, the chordal seventh above E, will want to resolve down to C in the next chord. You do this in the middle staff, but it looks like the D in your top staff resolves up.)

As for the chord sounding "muddy," it may because of how you've voiced it. Notice that you have two Bs, two Ds, and only one G(♯) and one E. Typically you'll want to double the root (E) before you double anything else. Even changing the D in the middle staff to an E might make a big difference.

  • thanks for the awesome response @Richard. Do you know where I can learn more about the effects of different voicings of the same chord? – 286642 Sep 6 '18 at 0:53
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    @286642 Honestly, there are so many different possible permutations that I can't think of a good source. Furthermore, I worry that the claims would be too opinion-based to be helpful. In general, we tend to double the root before anything else, and we can omit the chordal fifth whenever we like. Otherwise, I think the best I can do is recommend you just experiment with different things to get a sense of the sounds and what you think of them. – Richard Sep 6 '18 at 2:25
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Secondary dominants are used to get to another chord other than the tonic. It could be just about any chord - in C, there's a good chance it'll be Am, Dm, Em or G as the main contenders.

That secondary dominant needs to be dominant. Therefore, it needs that leading note to the new chord. In your case, going to the Am, it needs to have a leading note to A, which is G#. G doesn't quite hack it. So, with that G#, (which is found in the Am key if that's an issue) and the D making a tritone, it resolves nicely to the Am.

If the chord you were going to was Em, then the secondary dominant would need to be B7, with a couple of non-diatonic notes necessary. That would be B7. And if you were getting to G, you'd need the leading note of F#, with a C, producing the tritone again which would be crying out to resolve to a G chord.

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The mentioned sequence vi-iii-iii7-vi isn't a secondary dominant as usually used. A secondary dominant would usually be III7-vi (or V7/vi-vi to show the structure) without a preceding vi. A common use would be C-E7-a(perhaps followed by D7-G7-C) where the E7 is a secondary chord used as a dominant to an a-minor chord; the D7-G7-C is the most common secondary dominant replacing the ii-V7-I sequence.

There's nothing wrong with the original sequence (if it sounds good with the rest of the piece); it's not really a secondary dominant. Formally a secondary dominant is a major-minor chord built on the step above major or minor chord. It makes a local tonicization of the major or minor chord; if that chord isn't confirmed as representing a key (by playing a cadence there and "neutralizing" the tone or tones which differ from the home key), it's just a blip reinforcing the original tonality.

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Well, going from a minor chord to its minor seventh is a very uncommon chord change. It's of course doable, but you may like other tension-building sounds better. It's difficult to add in a chord between the dominant and its resolution.

You may like changing the iii7 to III7 (E7), as usually the "dominant seventh" of a minor key refers to the dominant seventh chord, not the minor seventh. Additionally, if your song is in A minor, I'd suggest analyzing in A minor rather than C major. If it's in C, you're good. Alternatively, you could change the iii to a chord with subdominant function, say iv or VI, maybe even the minor ii-V (B half-diminished 7 to E7 in A minor). The main problem I see is the fact that only one note changes through the iii-iii7 movement, usually not ideal when the chords have the same root.

Unusual chord movements are also on the table, such as, depending on how the unreduced version of the song goes,

  • IV7-III7 (F7-E7)
  • ♭VII-III7 (B♭-E7)
  • ♭VI-III (A♭-E)
  • III+7 - III7 (Em-E+)

My suggestion is to change one or more of the chords in order to create more movement, as generally that E-D movement sounds pretty weak. Good luck with the song!

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    Secondary dominants are more usually written as such - V/ii, V/iii, V/V. Labelling as VI, VII, II respectively doesn't really label them as secondary dominants, but rather as a minor diatonic chord change to major. – Tim Sep 5 '18 at 17:43
  • True, but as I don't see OP specifically asking how to create a secondary dominant, and with regard to harmony, I suggested analysis in A minor, so my suggestion was basically just the dominant of A minor and not a secondary in C major. EDIT: I just saw the words "Secondary Dominant" in the title of the question. My apologies to Tim. Anyway, I revise my opinion to that OP is not describing a secondary dominant and is really writing in A minor. – user45266 Sep 5 '18 at 22:10
  • @user45266 thanks for the suggestions! I tried implementing your first one. Let me know what you think! (see update). Thanks! – 286642 Sep 6 '18 at 16:54
  • Hey, that sounds really nice! I like it! Thanks for your thanks! – user45266 Sep 7 '18 at 17:14

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