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I am using following chord progression: Eb major, C minor, Ab major and B major. My assumption is that I am in scale Eb major (first 3 chords belongs to this scale), but B major is not part of this scale.

According to the scale the last chord should be Bb major.

However the progression above sounds better to my ears and I am wondering harmonically if there is anything going on in terms of it being a possible transition to another scale or something else I am not aware of. In my opinion B major sounds good in this progression, why might it be?

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    What happens after the B major? Usually the understanding of a chord comes from what follows it, not what comes before it. – Michael Curtis Mar 27 at 16:50
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    @MichaelCurtis I'd say it's fair to assume in this case that it's followed by E♭, and the progression repeats indefinitely. Otherwise there's not really enough information, like you said. – user45266 Mar 27 at 18:53
  • You're using the word "scale" where you should be using key. – phoog Mar 28 at 12:39
  • @phoog I disagree. The OP doesn’t seem to fully understand the difference, and this misunderstanding is a necessary part of the question. Clearly the B major (or rather, C flat major) chord indeed is not part of the scale of E flat major. If the question were written from a correct understanding of the difference between scale and key it would answer itself. – 11684 Mar 29 at 10:09
  • @11684 no chord is part of any scale. A scale comprises individual pitches, not chords. – phoog Mar 29 at 13:38
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You are actually playing a Cb major, enharmonic equivalent of B.

It sounds good because Cb can be seen as borrowed from the parallel minor (Eb minor), so you get that juicy, unexpected sound.

It works because it resolves back to Eb (in second inversion) this way:

  • Gb -> G
  • Eb -> Eb
  • Cb -> Bb

You can notate the chord as bVI. Experiment in other keys as well! C -> Ab, A -> F, D -> Bb, etc...

Terms you would like to search for are chromatic mediants and modal interchange.


EDIT: of course this is not the only way to look at it. The borrowing chord idea is a framework that can be reused though, to analyse different pieces. It is pretty ubiquitous in the alternative rock scene of the '90ies, so for instance if I want to recreate that sound, this is one of the devices I would use.

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    Great explanation. The other reason this chord works so well going back to Eb is the WAY that the notes resolve. Each chord tone does something different. The Eb is a common note between both chords so no motion, the Cb resolves downward and the Gb resolves upward. – John Belzaguy Mar 27 at 19:16
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    I'd just like to add that whenever someone says something "is" something, for example "x is borrowed from ...", it should be read as "x can be seen as ...". A borrowing pattern can be seen here, but so could many other patterns. The chords themselves "are" nothing, much more depends on subjective imagination and past experiences than many people would like to admit. :) You could even play just the Cb and Gb notes individually there and ... "what did I just hear" ... a re-thinking or pattern-matching process starts in the listener's mind. More than one explanation or pattern fits the dots. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 22:28
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica of course, it depends from the information we have, and the one we want to convey. If it would have been followed by a E sort of chord, it would have been a V-I movement as you said in your answer ^^ The "borrow" idea opens the "I can borrow more chords!" pattern imo, more than "thou shalt not borow anymore!". – moonwave99 Mar 28 at 9:28
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    Your edits made it clearer, thanks. I just meant to say that after learning about borrowing, people seem to ask things like, from which scale did a chord or even an individual note come from, and that's a slightly misguided thing to ask IMO. The notes didn't necessarily come from anywhere, but you can treat them as if they came from somewhere, if you can find a suitable harmonic pattern where the notes fit. If it's a whole existing song, probably the composer or arranger did indeed have some specific pattern in mind, but even then you might find your own different patterns e.g. for soloing. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 28 at 11:09
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Play the same progression in C major and you will see the chord in question is Ab = bVI.

Transposing to C or a minor is what I always do if I don’t understand a degree or function.

Like moonwave99 says: bVI in E♭ is C♭, not B.

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Yes, something interesting happens when you bring in the B or Cb chord. What happened? Or maybe you should ask what could happen after that. Many things could happen! To demonstrate the "borrowing" idea in practice: you can use the Db chord as a short step to another key, for example Eb minor or Gb major. How short or long it is and how serious you make the borrowing is completely up to you. Remember, you only played two strange notes, Cb and Gb. The rest is imagination, but to be a good story teller, you have to imagine more than was actually shown, and you continue the story following the plot you planned in your imagination.

In the following video, I highlighted the "borrowing" bits with a key signature change. The tune first makes only a one-bar visit to Gb major (six flats), and comes back to Eb (three flats). But then the next time it makes the visit longer and starts using more chords from the "other side". How long would that need to continue to say that it's not borrowing anymore but an actual key change?

Normally, a one-bar visit to a different key wouldn't warrant a key signature change, but here I did that for highlighting what's happening.

That's not the only possible "story" to think. Since you get to decide what happens after the Cb or B chord, why not make it ... a B7, and then move to E major or minor in a V-I motion. Though if you want to come back after that, you'll have to have more tricks.

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First - and most important - there is no requirement to choose all the chords of a piece (or section) of music from the same scale.

But some people have a fixed idea that there SHOULD be. So they work out complicated systems of 'interchange' and 'borrowing' to justify 'outside' chords. They aren't in the home scale, but they're in some other scale. So that's all right then!

The trouble with this thinking is that it's hard to find a chord that CAN'T be justified!

There are degrees of 'outsideness' of course. The C♭ major chord isn't THAT alien to Eb major. So it adds colour, but doesn't jar.

Now, if the C♭ chord WAS used as a gateway to another key, there would be some point in considering it as 'borrowed' from that key. It's what it DOES that matters. (But sometimes an 'outside' chord isn't functional.)

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    Questioning fancy names for simple things is always good, but saying that it just "adds color" doesn't help much, unless you can show how to handle the different colors. Ok, let's say the Cb chord adds color. Which other chords would you say add similar color? When people say interchange and borrowing, they are trying to find tools and concepts for reasoning about different colors. Maybe when you're sorting your laundry it's enough to throw everything that isn't white/gray in a generic "colored" basket, but not everyone is happy with that level of handling harmony. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 20:54

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