Tag Archives: major harmony

the “dominant shape” – part 1: major and melodic minor 🇬🇧

A multifaceted structure

The “dominant shape” is extremely versatile. It can be used to voice chords that are derived both from major harmony, and from melodic minor harmony. The degrees on which each chord mentioned here functions are indicated in the captions below each example. Some of those chords work better in modal contexts (or when one has a vertical approach on each particular chord within a tonal context), and some also sound fitting in various tonal contexts. Let your ear be your guide!

Transposable formulas (specific arrangements of chord tones and tensions, e.g. “3 13 b7 9”) are also given in the captions for each chord (in each caption, position B is listed first and position A second to be consistent with the music notation). By position A/B, it is meant “dominant shape (voicing used for the V chord) extracted from the major II-V-I progression in position A/B.”

The dominant shape is comprised of the following intervals (listed from the bottom to the top of the voicing): major third, major second, perfect fourth in position A / perfect fourth, minor second, major third in position B.

Use cases

The mixolydian (dominant) chord is listed first, since it is, naturally, the one from which the thought of using the dominant shape to play other chords comes from. Then we have the altered chord, and it is interesting to note that there is a sub V (tritone substitution) relationship between the mixolydian and the altered dominant chords. Eb7 and A7alt, for example, indeed share the same guide tones (G and Db/C#), and their roots are indeed a tritone apart. As a result, one chord can be substituted for the other following the tritone substitution rule.

Works on degrees: V (major), IV (melodic minor).
Position B: 3 13 b7 9; Position A: b7 9 3 13.
Works on degrees: VII (melodic minor).
Position B: b7 #9 3 b13; Position A: 3 b13 b7 #9.

I have then chosen to list the locrian and minor 6/9 chords, since they are also widely used. In fact, a minor II-V-I can be played entirely using the dominant shapes presented here (e.g. Emi7(b5) = E A Bb D, A7alt = G C Db F, Dmi6/9 = F A B E).

Works on degrees: VII (major), VI (melodic minor).
Position B: 1 11 b5 b7; Position A: b5 b7 1 11.
Works on degrees: I (melodic minor), II (major).
Position B: 6 9 b3 5; Position A: b3 5 6 9.

Next up are the lydian and phrygian sounds, which also come in handy, albeit arguably more sporadically than the ones mentioned previously.

Works on degrees: IV (major), bIII (melodic minor).
Position B: #11 7 1 3; Position A: 1 3 #11 7.
Works on degrees: III (major), II (melodic minor).
Position B: 5 1 b9 11; Position A: b9 11 5 1.

The mixolydian b13/aeolian sound is probably the least common of all (moreover, it is rather tricky to find an adequate chord symbol for it, so the space has been left blank).

Works on degrees: V (melodic minor), VI (major),
Position B: 9 5 b13 1; Position A: b13 1 9 5.

Finally, if the same voicing (G C Db F in position B / Db F G C in position A) were to be played over an Ab root (tonic of the Ab major scale), the “avoid note” Db might stand out and create havoc, particularly in a tonal context… In a modal/vertical context however, the voicing can be used and sounds quite unique and intriguing.


Practice tip

Internalize both shapes by taking them through the cycle of fifths (using different roots in the left hand for example; that way you’ll get the different sounds described above). It’s fine if you have to think about the formulas at first, but try and gradually shift towards using your ears and muscle memory exclusively. It is without question a challenging exercise… But trust yourself in the process: it will be way more fun!


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away from the roost: reharmonizing the “Chicken”!

This article is also available at www.lessonface.com/content/away-roost-reharmonizing-chicken, along with a downloadable Reharm Worksheet (PDF).

Here are a few notes about Flavio Lira‘s “THE CHICKEN Travels the World,” a cool multi-groove arrangement of “The Chicken.” Flavio invited me to record it over at Lessonface’s studio in New York’s West Village earlier this year, along with some fantastic musicians, most of whom teach on the platform as well. Each of us also got to record a short tutorial (see right below) to showcase something we played in the video. Fun times!

Now, let’s try and make the most of the present article and focus on things I did not mention in the tutorial video…

  1. The original piece (“The Chicken” by Pee Wee Ellis) is a funk tune with a bluesy feel. Although its chord changes don’t follow the most common 12-bar blues format, the tune does possess one of the foremost features of the blues: the appearance of the IVth degree as a dominant chord (Eb7) in its 5th bar. Besides, blues scales and minor pentatonics (Bb minor in particular, as in the famous break in bar 12 for instance) suit the chord grid perfectly (for more on the use of blues scales, take a look at this post, an in depth analysis of a solo by one of Mr. Ellis’ close fellow funkateers!);
  2. Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 3.10.51 AM

  3. Where the keyboard solo starts in the arrangement, Flavio deliberately penciled in a BbMa7 chord (instead of the original Bb7), which gives this section a more “tonal” feel (as opposed to the original “bluesy” feel, characterized by some amount of ambiguity and crunchiness caused by the presence of both the major third – from the Bb7 chord – and the minor third – from the Bb minor pentatonic or blues scale frequently used to improvise over Bb7). Flavio further enhances that sense of tonal harmony with a II-V resolving to Gmi7, the VIth degree in the key of Bb major. D7 is what we call a secondary dominant resolving to that Gmi7, and the Ami7(b5) is D7’s related II chord (incidentally, it is also the VIIth degree in the key of Bb major). The Bb7 preceding Ami7(b5) is a sub V of VII (in other words, the tritone substitute of E7, which would have been a “regular” secondary dominant to Ami7(b5));
  4. Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 3.19.40 AM

  5. By now, our ears may well have been accustomed to a Bb major tonal context… And when the Eb7 chord finally hits (at the pinnacle of a nice rhythmic ascending chromatic motion), it can quite plausibly be heard as a modal interchange chord (the IVth degree of Bb dorian) rather than the characteristic IV7 blues chord mentioned earlier.

To sum up, we have a deliberate choice of Flavio’s to depart from the original blues context of the tune and delve into a more tonal realm for this section of his arrangement. Our chicken is, at the very least, cage-free, and at best truly multi-dimensional, traveling through various grooves and harmonic devices! More seriously though, this classic reharmonization technique has in fact been used since the bebop era. Take a jazz standard like “Au Privave” for example: it is a perfect illustration of how Charlie Parker departs from a simple F blues progression to get to a tonal 12-bar form in the key of F major, complete with II-Vs, secondary dominants, and modal interchange.


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