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I've learnt that in a minor key, the non-diatonic major dominant is basically always used instead of the diatonic minor dominant in order to get the leading tone in. Of course this is a trend but not a rule. What could be reasons for using the minor dominant?

The question was spurred by Amy McDonald's This is the Life, which goes i-VI-III-v in C#m. (I'm sure there are more insightful answers than "it sounds good".)

  • yes, this is how I'm spending new year's eve :) – Anna Dec 31 '18 at 18:42
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    Keeping things a little vague. With the leading note, it's pretty pointed as to what comes next. 'Black Magic Woman' is tarred with the same brush. – Tim Dec 31 '18 at 18:51
  • @Tim good point, thank you! I'm pretty new to thinking about harmony and these ideas are not obvious at all to me – Anna Dec 31 '18 at 18:54
  • You're spending your New Year's eve with the best possible subject! Don't get offended, but ... have you tried using a minor dominant in songs? What did it feel like to you? I'd like to answer many questions on this site like "just try it and you'll see how it feels and works! are you deaf or don't have instruments or do you need permission from the music government or what" ;) Any song has a dominant, and you surely know at least a thousand songs, so just try and replace one with a minor, and see what happens? Again, no offence intended. I'm trying to get to know how people think. – piiperi Dec 31 '18 at 22:33
  • @piiperi That's a great point and I guess that's kind of what people mean by the global answer "if it sounds good, it's good". I did try playing Am-Dm-Em-Am and Am-Dm-E-Am a ton of times, with some substitutions as well. There's two reasons I ask anyway: First, I'm new to music and listening, and don't fully trust my ears yet. Second, I think it's a useful pedagogical shortcut to hear what others think instead of figuring it all out myself. I'm sure that more experienced musicians would not find it useful to ask the question. – Anna Jan 1 at 20:14
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My ad-hoc list of reasons for using a minor dominant in a minor key.

  • Milder, more ambiguous feeling - it doesn’t shout ATTENTION ALL LISTENERS! THIS IS A DOMINANT CHORD. I REPEAT. DOMINANT CHORD.
  • Make your music cooler and more suitable for young rebels/snobs/kids who cannot stand proper dominants, because it reminds them of the kind of uncool music old farts like their parents listen.
  • Different jazzing-up possibilities. If the melody is compatible with it, try a minor 9 or even a IV/V (i.e. D6/E for Am)
  • If you want to make a harmonic variation or arrangement of a melody that was written for a major key, and use the relative minor key instead, the melody might clash with a major dominant’s third. So use a minor as a dominant - it’s a dominant all right.
  • Bass player’s revenge / application of above: if you’re tired of a happy C - F - G - C song, play a third below and make it Am7 - Dm7 - Em7 - Am7.
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Yes.

i v6 iv6 V where the second chord is the minor dominant in 1st inversion.

Harmonizing a descending bass in that way would be very normal.

The important point to realize is that the proper dominant V is used at the end of that example phrase to create a half cadence and in that place the raised leading tone is required to make a proper cadence.

If the music isn't forming a cadence then the treatment of the ^6 ^7 scale degrees become flexible in minor key music.

That sort of flips your question around. Rather than a reason for using the minor dominant, the reason for using the raised leading tone is what matters. You don't need reasons and rule for using any chord as the music unfolds. But, when you get to a phrase ending and form a cadence, you must follow the formula. At least in classical style.

On the other hand, if you aren't dealing with classical music, then such supposed rules and theories are simply being mis-applied.

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Even in the most tonal harmonic minor pieces, the leading tone is often avoided unless the melody is specifically moving upward toward the tonic note. That means there is a lot of opportunity for a minor v chord that involves the un-raised 7th scale degree. Feel free to use the minor v wherever you want unless you want to create a strong cadence.

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Though I'm probably just restating Tim's comment - getting the leading tone in isn't necessarily a good thing. There's a proud tradition of music oriented around the leading tone - a tradition that came about ultimately because people thought it sounded good! People still do of course, but they also want variety, and often want to get away from that insistent leading tone. Sometimes this is done by avoiding playing thirds altogether, including when playing a chord on the dominant (by playing 'power chords'), or even by avoiding the dominant (a characteristic of 'grunge' music).

Almost any time you find a guideline in music, You'll find a bunch of people who prefer the sound you get when you don't follow that guideline....

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In Common Practice Period theory, the minor dominant (AKA minor chord on scale step 5) is rather common. It's used when harmony based on step 5 is wanted but without the cadential implications of the V chord. Note that in a minor key, the V has a stronger cadential tendency as it contains the raised form of step 7 and this note has a strong melodic tendency to move to step 8 (at least in that style.)

There are two common uses; one is the one already mentioned: a descending bass i-v6-iv6-V or i-v6-iv6-v, etc. Another is in sequences like the minor form of the "Rule of the Octave" (AKA the Pachelbel Canon harmony): I-V6-vi-iii6-IV-I6-V6-I (and many variants). In minor one gets i-v6-VI-III6-iv-i6 or (I6) etc. The other is in the cycle of fifths, i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii0-v-i -i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii0-V-i. The first time through, the v chord does not have a strong cadential effect (more like a secondary dominant) thus contrasting with the V in the last time through to achieve strong cadential effect.

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I'm sure there are more insightful answers than "it sounds good"

Not really. You can have a functional V with the leading note included, or a less functional v with the b7 of the key. Because it sounds good.

Popular music lives in a sort of modified Common Practice harmonic world, where even in a major key the b7 almost counts as diatonic, probably because the Blues is constantly in the background.

  • The question is about minor, so the b7 is not only "almost" but completely diatonic. – Matt L. Dec 31 '18 at 20:22
  • Not in the 'harmonic' form of the scale, and we ARE discussing harmony! But point taken. I've clarified my reply. Thank you. – Laurence Payne Dec 31 '18 at 21:23

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