Saturday, September 20, 2014

Anti-Dominant Harmony - The Minor IV (4) Chord

Have you ever heard a rock, blues, or jazz tune that went to the minor 4 chord before ending the song on the 1? How about a sweet orchestral ballad that did the same, choosing to ignore the traditional authentic (V-I) cadence or other popular cadences, by lowering the “IV” to a “iv” before resolving to the tonic? Well, perhaps you've never thought about it, but if you are a super music nerd like me, you may find a study on this peculiar, yet, pleasing way to resolve a song to be very interesting.

Perhaps you have no music theory background, or perhaps yours is basic or limited. If you weren't trained in the more classical side of theory terms, getting familiar with them will help you to understand and appreciate anti-dominant harmony more. A very brief explanation for the purpose of this article is that basically, the word tonic describes the “one” note in a scale and the triads (three-note chords) built off of it. Subdominant describes the “four,” and dominant describes the “five.” They are all written with Roman numerals in the upper case. Minor chords get the lower case numerals. In other words, in the key of G, your three major chords that naturally fall into the G scale—your 1, 4, and 5—are G, C, and D, written as I, IV, and V in classical theory. “7th,” “9th,” “sus,” and other such chords are simply additions or alterations to regular major and minor triads.

You may then be wondering what the title of this post is all about, regardless of your theory knowledge. In short, it is something I discovered to be the opposite, yet the same as the dominant (V or 5) chord in any key or scale. Of course, there are books and studies that go into uncommon and odd scales, chords, and other musical ideas, most likely including the ones I will mention here, but they are not necessarily the easiest to find. Plus, using what I call the anti-dominant, the iv or minor 4 (Cm in the key of G), is common in both popular/studio music and traditional/orchestral music. As far as I have seen, studies don't really seem to connect the ends of the musical bridge I would like to create in your mind, and since this concept is so unconsciously common, it should be explored more regularly. So, here's my story:

During the early part of my graduate school studies in composing, I was given an assignment to come up with a way to use an 11th or 13th chord—correctly and tastefully—in an original piece. I began to develop an outer space-themed score for an imaginary video game, though I had the galactic Super Mario series in mind. Because of the mystery of space and the unknown of the “far beyond,” I decided to write in a mode (type of scale) that I was unfamiliar with. In fact, this mode, though discussed in those studies of uncommon musical tendencies, is not any one of the common Greek-named modes. For those who are interested, I will discuss the scale more in-depth at the end of the study.

I would recommend looking up modes too if you really want to follow along with this whole article, but it isn't necessary to understand the anti-dominant jargon. Again, briefly, modes refer to the different possible scale types, and the Ionian mode—all white keys on a piano from C to C—is our very familiar major scale and is also pretty much the only scale beginners or musicians with little theory knowledge use. If you've ever heard a pop song, chances are, you've heard the Ionian mode.

Anyway, enough confusing lecture and back to the story about Super Mario themes. As I said, the scale was very uncommon. In fact, unlike most songs, in which the dominant (V or 5) chord is everything due to its ability to naturally and pleasantly lead back to the tonic (I or 1), this mode had no true dominant. It had a “v,” or minor 5 chord, but that doesn't sound at all like a dominant and isn't super effective in leading you back to the very major-sounding tonic. So, I played my melody over a few times and began to experiment with other chords built off of notes only in the scale I was using. Everything kept pointing for me to go to the minor subdominant (iv or minor 4) if I wanted to have that feeling of resolution when I returned to the tonic. I didn't argue it at all because it sounded great, but I grew very curious. How could it be that I had the exact same satisfaction of resolution without a dominant?

Remember how I said the objective was to write a score that used 11th and 13th chords? Well, I noticed that when you add so many extra notes to a chord, you actually get two or more different chords stacked on top of each other. Again in our G example, a D11 chord would start with a single D note as its personal “1” and build the chord off of the 1-3-5-7-9- and 11th notes, which, since D is the 5th note and chord in G, would actually be (from lowest to highest) the 5-7-2-4-6- and 1 notes of the G scale. Those notes are D-F#-A (D triad)-C-E- and G (C triad). Now depending on what type of 7th, 9th, 11th, etc. chord you want, those extra notes can sometimes be flattened or sharpened to give off the desired effect. For example, you may have heard of a “major” 7th chord, which is different from the most popular “dominant” 7th, or simply 7th, chord.

I began to wonder if the minor version of the subdominant felt right because it was an extension of something else too. So, the first thing I did was count backwards. As we all know, in music, you count from low to high, left to right. Therefore, because there are seven notes in a regular scale system, if you go up a fourth (remembering musical movement always counts where you start as the first step) from a G major chord to a C major chord, you would have to go down a fifth to get from the same G major to a lower C major, even though the tones play the same harmonic roles. What this meant for my piece was that instead of referring to the chord as the subdominant (IV or 4), I gave it the role of the negative dominant (iv or -5) because counting right to left turns takes five steps to reach the fourth note in the scale. I'm sure somewhere along the way I thought that this was unconventional, like anti-music or anti-harmony, and that's probably how the actual term anti-dominant was born in my mind.

Next, I tried to discover what other chord it might be a part of, although I could kind of guess as you might have already done. Tracing back three notes, I found that previous possible notes were the same as the notes in a major dominant (V or 5) chord. Although my scale had a minor dominant, this excited me greatly, and I immediately stopped to test out the simultaneously forming theory in other situations. I was writing in a difficult key, so I switched to something simple like good 'ol C major. We'll stick with G though for the fluidity of the article. You may or may not know this, but it isn't always required to play every single note in a chord, especially when they get thick and complex like these stacked chords, so that is another reason I was so excited.

I began to play different chord progressions that would be accepted in popular/radio music, making sure the last three chords would be 4-5-1. The first time, I resolved to the final 1 from the 5 normally, but the second time, I substituted that 5 for a minor 4. Both sounded great and gave the full satisfaction of a resolution. That was it. The 4 was still the subdominant and the minor 4 was not a cool subdominant—it was still the dominant! The first three notes were just left out. And it made sense too, since this anti-version of the dominant was found to the left of the tonic five steps, just like the dominant itself was to the right five steps. Of course, I then tested the theory again, this time playing the final progression as 4, 5(11), 1. It still worked, and it sealed the creation of the anti-dominant in my mind. Rather than calling those notes the 1-3-5 of the subdominant, or 4-6-8(1) in the scale, I could also call them the 7-9-11 of the dominant, and that is why this is the only other chord that brings full aural satisfaction of a traditional, authentic ending (cadence).

Ok, so Super Mario never really showed up again for the rest of the article, but wasn't that fun? I've since used this chord (and scale for that matter) in other works, not as a strange subdominant (IV or 4) chord as a minor variation of a plagal cadence (IV-I), but on the basis that it carries the full weight of a dominant (V or 5) chord. I've also discussed it with a few professors and other academics to continue to work it out in my mind and to gain as much new information as possible about this chord. Hopefully you can see why—even if you are not that interested in musical technicalities—this chord, concept, or theory of the anti-dominant should be further studied and developed by whoever writes and preserves musical history. Perhaps this article can inspire a few academics/professionals to consider it including a study in the next edition of their theory textbook or pop artist magazine (just call it the anti-5 in a spot about why so many artists choose to go to a 5 before resolving to the 1). I've never read any higher level books or articles that have quite explained the iv/minor 4 this way, as being an extension of the V/5. I've never read any blogs posts or other such publishing for that matter either. Perhaps, I will have be the first to write about it and maybe even dedicate an entire book to an in-depth analysis.


Exciting news! I recently was studying some jazz techniques I was not familiar with on the piano (an instrument I pretty much loathe unless I am composing or am in a room playing by myself), and, of course, I immediately saw the opportunity to convert what I was learning just enough to apply the theory of the anti-dominant. What I found further supports this idea of the minor subdominant (4 or IV) being more of a cleverly masked dominant chord, and it also secures the idea that the cadence might authentic as opposed to plagal... especially since what I found could easily be argued as a non-plagal ending, despite the semi-professional argument that it too is plagal.

While studying the jazz techniques, my lesson was using a basic I-vi-IV-V pattern with the V only being in the bass and the right hand staying on the subdominant (IV). In modern terms, that is a 1-6-4-4/5. Using the key of C as the starting point, my chords were C-Am-F-F/G, and grew in complexity as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and lead notes were added.

My brain saw all of those back-to-back F chords and had to begin experimenting with the different resolutions possible. My left hand could play as little as a single bass G note, while the right hand covered notes from the FMaj7 or 9 as was traditional in the exercise... Or, the right hand could instead use the anti-dominant in any of the root or extended forms. It sounded pretty nice, but that wasn't the focus. I heard other things—things I liked better. The first thing I noticed is that the G as the bass with the anti-dominant Fm or Fm7 was what was keeping it pretty nice instead of very nice. But, the idea of something else for the bass note instead of F, Ab, or C, seemed like it was on its way.

Naturally, my next choice for a bass note was D for a few reasons, most of which I won't get into right now, and it was magical. The main note to understand about the D, however, is that it is the 5th note in a G scale, making it the 3rd or highest note in the root position G triad. When that D is in the bass instead of the G, a G chord is considered to be in second inversion. Note, though, that it is still a G chord.

I could switch to this D immediately upon moving from the F in the bass, or I could do G with the regular F chord(s) for half of the measure and then jump to D and the anti-dominant F for the second half of the measure. Both worked. So, let's look at the actual chord. D-F-Ab-C. I preferred a triad in the right hand as opposed to the 7th, though the 7th didn't necessarily sound bad. For analysis purposes, less is usually better.

Having this D in there changed everything. What do I call this chord? Fm/D? G11 no root no 3 b9? Dm7b5? What was it's function? It's function was to lead me back to the tonic (I or 1), and with this particular chord structure, the role of the D didn't feel as though it was part of a D minor chord or really even that is was a part of the famed 6th chord on the IV (F6). It did, however, feel like it belonged to the G still in that rare second inversion. Most importantly, the resolution felt complete. Because of that, the idea of the anti-dominant grows even stronger. After all, D is directly related to the G chord and only indirectly related to an F chord (these are some of those other ideas I didn't want to get to deeply into a couple of paragraphs ago).

Finally, as a fun experiment, I decided to lower the C a half-step to a B and add the 7th back in, this time on the high D, making the chord in the right hand a true Fdim7. It resolved just as well as the previous chord. This is interesting because now, all of the notes in the chord were a part of the G7 with no root, minus the Ab. That would extend it to a Gb9 chord. Even though the root wasn't present, the chord was clearly way closer to a G than to an F, and both G and D sounded strong as bass options. So, if you considered it in anti-dominant terms, the 11th note (C) would have to be a b11 instead of just a regular 10th (3rd an octave higher) as well as the 9th being a b9, hence the diminished chord. Either way, because it sounded great and was fun to experiment with over a D bass note, it is useful information to share.

In general, this whole section is a bit less structured and planned out as the main part of the article (especially since it was written shortly after the experiments), so it will be updated and revised to be more eloquent as it takes shape in my crazy musical mind.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, you can see some of my works and reach me through www.natecombsmedia.com. Keep reading if you want to learn more about the scale I used in the first section.


I have no idea what the super scholars are calling this mode, but I did discover that it can stand alone as its own family with full-fledged “major,” “minor,” and “relative” concepts.

Basically, each scale in the family is half a major scale and half a natural minor scale. The “major” concept then begins with the first four notes from the major scale and the last four notes from the natural minor, while the “minor” concept is reversed—the first four notes are from the minor scale while the last four are from the major scale. Now, the middle two notes are the same in both scales, so you could count it as taking 3 notes from one scale and 5 from the other or even 3 from one and 4 from the other if you don't like counting the tonic twice. It doesn't really matter which way you do it, but let's take a look at a new set of examples in the key of C.

In C, the major version of this mode would consist of the following notes: C-D-E-F-G-Ab-Bb-C. In the minor version, they would change to: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B-C. We already know that the dominant in the major version of this mode is the same as a minor subdominant, effectively earning the name anti-dominant. The minor mode does have a dominant, but that version is something I haven't extensively tested yet, so that is open for you to play with and perhaps discover new, hidden “antis” of your own.

Other chords work with both scales, though the major version lends itself to and has a large number of diminished chords. They must sometimes be “overcome” by leaving certain notes out of the chord, by layering with 7ths, 9ths, and stacked chords, or by using other additional/borrowed notes in order to function properly. The v chord, when used appropriately, can even function as a sort of anti-subdominant, as it would be the “negative” (minor when counting from right to left) version of a major dominant in a regular scale.

Finally, there is a relative minor to every major key, and it is always a perfect fourth forwards (or fifth backwards) from the tonic, thus cycling through the circle of fifths in almost in reverse. It truly is a backwards key. So, taking the same notes from our major version of the C key and starting a fourth higher, we get the minor version of the F key. Then, by parallel movement, we can change the F key to its major mode, which consists of the following: F-G-A-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F. From there, you could of course move to Bb, and from there to Eb, and so on. Going a fourth backwards from C's minor mode to the relative major, you would pass through G, D, A, etc. just like you would in the circle of fifths.

If you wanted to create a new type of relative major for each minor in this mode (going forward a fourth instead of returning back a fourth), that is also possible, and the hybrid you would get is the same as playing the Lydian and Mixolydian modes simultaneously. This would be like keeping all of the parallel majors and minors separate and only creating new scales based on the relatives of every major mode and then creating a separate group of relatives for all of the minor modes. Of course, you can't really cycle through the circle of fifths this way. So, our F Mixolydian-lydian mode (which I think I actually wrote in once, calling it either the Mixomixolydian or something cheesier like the super mixolydian), would have the following notes: F-G-A-B-C-D-Eb-F because it is based solely on the minor version of our other mode in C, neither of which now have any relation to the major version of the C. C's Mixomixolydian (I like that name), by the way, would be based off of minor version of G and would consist of the following notes if you want to compare the three styles: C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C. Yes, a key with both a sharp and a flat (because otherwise, you'd have to double the name of the G or A and eliminate either the F or B).

Obviously, if you keep pairing relatives and parallels like I just did, you will slowly make your way through the circle of fifths run through countless other new types of scales, some of which probably sound amazing, but that's not this study. I hope you enjoyed this second explanation if you stuck around. Perhaps, you will even find it aids you in the creation of new types of music.

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