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I have seen and heard a bVI -> I progression in quite a few scores to create an inspiring feeling (for example, from an F major chord to an A major chord) and was wondering how this could be justified with theory. Any clues on that?

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    @piiperiReinstateMonica, a correct theoretical justification could help one extrapolate to other scenarios or generate ideas for ways to apply the theory to different chords. For example, if the answer is 'FMaj and AMaj triads share a chord tone, and the other two chord tones are only separated by a half step' then this provides some ideas for creativity: one could try two shared chord tones, a whole step movement, etc. – jdjazz Apr 15 at 20:51
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    @jdjazz Yeah ok, I guess my point of view is that something as simple as F - A offers a large array of interpretations for creative uses. Many doors are open. Why does this generate an "inspiring feeling" to someone - and there should be a theory that describes this inspiring feeling? But ok, the validity of an answer is supposed to be checked by the OP by trying to extrapolate variations of the same theme. IMO, just about any change and ambiguity in harmonic feeling is very inspiring, and I can't get enough of that stuff. Sit at the piano and press down keys, it's hard to not get inspired. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 15 at 21:07
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    It is clear from the example that the OP means bVI -> I. Perhaps someone allowed to make one-character edits could make this change. – Max Apr 16 at 3:36
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    @Tim If the prevailing key is F, then A is the III chord. The typical move here would be to go from III to vi or perhaps IV, as you have analyzed it. However, the OP's description of the sound as "inspiring" makes me think the key center is A, where F is borrowed from the parallel minor. This device is used in a lot of popular music, e.g. "Gravity" by John Mayer (with a V in between, but that is not necessarily the case). At any rate, the best we can do is take the OP at face value, since he labels A as the I chord. – Max Apr 16 at 7:31
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    Or for a better example, the song "Love Theory" by Kirk Franklin vamps on something like Gb | Bb4 Bb. The tonal center is clearly Bb, but starting on the Gb chord invokes the tension associated with the parallel minor, and the resolution of the note D in the Bb certainly conveys a feeling of inspiration. I don't know if classical theorists have a name for this particular device, but jazz musicians often call it (I admit, vaguely) "the major/minor thing." – Max Apr 16 at 7:37
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The chord you are referring to is the ♭VI, F, not the VI, which would be F♯ in the key of A major.

This is one of several chords that are commonly borrowed from the parallel minor, in this case A minor. Some other commonly borrowed chords are the ♭III or C and the ♭VII or G. These chords are all very effective in major keys and can be found in hundreds of songs in all styles. Also, with the exception of the ♭VII there is a common tone between the two chords which tie them together in your ear.

Try playing an Am to an F and back a few times, then do it with an A major. You will hear the similarities and the differences between the two.

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    So far this is the more legible of only two answers that correctly address the OP's question. Others have interpreted the question as though F was the I chord, but the OP states explicitly that A is the tonic, and his comment ("I already 'know' how to use it") suggests that he is experienced enough in playing music to mean what he says. – Max Apr 16 at 7:50
  • Thanks ! I wanted to actually write bVI but somehow I had a brainfart and forgot to do it. Thanks for your answer, it is excactly what I was looking for. As @jdjazz put it, having such an explanation allows me to toy with this concept in different manners than just thinking of it in term of "that one cadence that sounds uplifting". – Johncowk Apr 16 at 9:23
  • @Max the trouble writing a short answer is the OP didn't give the key and only two symbols. Either F or A could be borrowed chords. – Michael Curtis Apr 16 at 12:55
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...justified with theory...

"Explained with theory" would be a better approach.

Really basic progressions like IV V or I IV are easy enough to explain in isolation, because they are such common fundamentals. Explaining VI I seems to be a problem only in the sense it isn't a common progression.

One technical quibble. If I is A major, then I suppose A major is the key: A: I. If that is the case, then F major is bVI. You could say the key was A minor in which case F major to A major would be Am: VI I. The point is about which chord is chromatically altered?

The real problem is VI I provides almost nothing to explain.

You can simply point out the two chords are chromatic mediants, and chromatic mediants are fairly common.

There isn't any surrounding harmonic context with only VI I so you can speculate about how it might be used.

The chromatic mediant idea can be expanded. Chromatic mediants could loop in a circle, ex. F A C#(Db) F all major chords where the progression is by ascending major third. All the chords are sort of "equal" in that loop and any one of them could get some treatment to become a tonic. Like: | F A C# C# | F A C# C# |A Dm A A | or A: bVI I III III | bVI I III III | I iv I I |. In that treatment the minor iv uses the lowered sixth degree but as the subdominant of A. You could tack on a cadence like 'iv V7 Ioriv V65/V Vfor a formal phrase ending. The point is theF(and theC#`) are just shifting around the tonic chord - explained as a tonic prolongation - then other chords solidify the key.

Another possibility is some kind of deceptive cadence structure. We need barlines to make that clearer. Instead of VI I we show ... VI | I ... that could be elaborated into Am: i V7 VI (d.c.) | A: (mode change to major) I...

Mode change and color (chromatic harmony) are one way to approach it. That can create a dramatic mood, or as you put it "...an inspiring feeling."

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This progression was quite usual in early renaissance before there existed a major/minor tonic system. There were just chords triads in root position, a later theory could explain that F is the III of dm and A the V. So if you just ask about F and A out of context this could be ♭VI - I in A or iii - V in dm or it could be I V/vi in F.

In A major F is the ♭VI and is also called the mediant chord but it the progression is usual in the opposite direction: I - ♭VI.

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Maybe not theory per se, but consider how V7 moves to I. The M3 moves a semitone up to the tonic, and the m7 moves a semitone down to M3 of that tonic. The 5 note of the tonic has remained the same - as the 1 of the dominant. Small movements all round.

Think about F major. F A C. Going to A major, the A remains, while the F moves a semitone down to E, and the C moves a semitone up to C♯. Small movements all round. There is often minimal movement of a set of notes to produce an inspiration.

It could be considered as VI>I, but if the prevailing key is F, then it's more likely to be called I>III. Or - I>V/vi.

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In a key of F the A major chord is a dominant for VI (Dm).
However, since IV and VI share two chord notes, A could flawlessly go into B♭.

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I don't know how anyone might use a theoretical justification for anything, but in practice, a motion from F to A can be handled or utilized like this

  • If the song is prominently in A major, the F chord can be used a bit like a Dm. Instead of A - D - Dm - A you use A - F - A.
  • Repeat A - F/A - A as a moody coda.
  • Played rhythmically F - A sounds like a fanfare. Or F - G - A. It's kind of an antithesis of F - G - Am.
  • If the song is prominently in A minor, F - A is a nice or cheesy happy ending
  • For soloing or melodies, switching between F and A can be handled like a switch between A minor and A major. Or a bluesy A mixolydian on the A. A minor pentatonic makes a nice bluesy feeling over the A major as well, it exploits the mixture "is this A major or A minor".
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    I'd have said in key A, an F chord is more likely to herald a key change up a semitone to Bb. Not a lot like going to relative minor. – Tim Apr 15 at 18:56
  • @Tim Interesting! To me F is obiously a switch to Am as a first choice. I use that all the time for a moody harmony change without really going anywhere, which can be done whenever there are a few bars with suitable "empty" space and no incoming traffic from other musicians. Jumping to Bb with a plain F ... I'd use something stronger for that. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 15 at 20:23
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IF the F chord acts as a pre-dominant, it could be explained as the b5 substitution for B7, the dominant-of-the-dominant of A. This would be a stronger argument if it were F7, which shares the A - Eb(D#) tritone with B7.

Otherwise, we could just point out that A major and F major triads share a note - and it's a pretty important note in the key of A major, the tonic! Any triad that contains that note isn't going to sound TOO 'left field'.

Any chord can lead to any other. When there's a unifing factor - perhaps notes in common, or the resolution of a tension - the progression can sound smooth. That's good. When there isn't, the progression may sound dramatically unexpected. And that's good too!

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Smooth Move

A Maj = A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯
F Maj = F G A B♭ C D E

Phrygian Mode = 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
A Phrygian = A B♭ C D E F G

Make F the root, and that's the F Maj scale. Take 1 3 5 7 and you have FM7... or just the basic triad = FMaj.

So in other words, the phrygian mode has an interesting, elusive, aetherial, somewhat diminished feel (by the various subtle nuances obtained by flatting the 2nd of the natural minor mode. But that doesn't matter... if you just want to think of the phrygian mode sounding cool and unusual... always a cool way to intermix major and minor feels {ala Jimi and others!}. BUT... since you asked the question, you must also see the beauty in the theoretical connections! So YES!!! To you and I, it does!).

So in short, introducing an F Maj chord into an A Major context suggests a rather smooth move from the A Ionian to the A Phrygian context!

As we all know, music is subjective. Context defines just about everything.

So I believe this is the answer you are looking for.

But as a test, instead of F Maj -> A Maj, try F Maj7 -> A Major. Also try A Phrygian melodies (A minor with a ♭2 aka B♭)... perhaps some 1/2 step tensions (tritones, diminished chords)... or even C7, and see if they fit your desired feel.

If so, then I am correct. (Or better yet, this connection is correct).

If not... then sorry!

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  • Thank you for your very appropriate edits Glorfindel. Question: How does one access musical symbols such as those sharps and flats? – user68739 Apr 16 at 19:14

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