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3 Expert Chord Moves Every Songwriter Should Know: Borrowed Chord Edition

Feb 21, 2024

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In this video we are talking about three more chord moves I think every songwriter should know and this time we're doing something a little special because we're doing borrowed chord addition where we're not just talking about basic diatonic chords but chords that are actually borrowed from other keys or modes. Let's talk about it. So the first chord move to know is a major four to a minor four to a one. So naturally occurring in every major key is going to be a major four chord because we're going to have a major one, major four, and major five in every major key. Taking C major we have C major, F major, and G major. So our major four chord in the context of C major would be C, D, E, F, F major. So our transition here would be a major four to a minor four, F minor chord, to then a one chord. So this is probably one of if not the most used borrowed chord. It's something that can really sort of elongate that transition from a four chord to a one chord and really add a sense of tragedy to it. And in general a great hack to make something more interesting is often to add chromaticism. In fact a lot of times when borrowed chords are used it seems to often be connected to adding chromaticism. What is chromaticism? Basically it is just any time that you are going up or down by a semitone. And really it only sounds chromatic when you have at least three notes in a row that are moving up or down by semitones. And the reason for this is any major or minor key we at best have two notes in a row that are going to be just a semitone apart. So if we take C major we have a whole tone, whole tone, semitone, whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, semitone. And every major key is going to be exactly like that. So to have three notes in a row or more of just going up or down by a semitone, which if you don't know a semitone is just the smallest interval we have in music. So it's one note to the very next note. That adds an interesting color that we have all heard before and just happens to add a lot of intrigue. So going back to our chord transition that utilizes a borrowed chord, we have our normal diatonic major four, which for C major is an F major chord.


We have an A and then we have an F minor chord which flattens the A to an A flat. And then we go to the C major chord which has a G. So if you didn't catch it, we had this chromaticism inherent in that progression. We had A, A flat, and then we had G. So again that basically just sounds chromatic because it's not just one transition that has a semitone, which happens all the time in major or minor keys, but the fact that it's two in a row,


that's what adds that chromaticism that makes it interesting. So this minor four chord is simply borrowed from the parallel minor key. So if our song is in C major, we are essentially borrowing this chord from the key of C minor. If you're in G major, we are essentially borrowing this from G minor, etc. The next chord move utilizing a borrowed chord that I think every songwriter should know is a 1 to a flat 7. Now if I were to guess, this is probably the single most utilized borrowed chord, or if not, it certainly is in that top echelon of borrowed chords that are used all the time. So this chord is most often seen and utilized in a way that it is borrowed from the Mixolydian mode. This video isn't about modes, so we won't go too deep into that, but just know that a Mixolydian mode is basically just a major key with a flat 7. This just takes a major key and makes it one little shade darker. So this is actually very commonly used in rock music that is still major. Take a lot of, say, 70s, 80s rock. A lot of that utilize the Mixolydian mode or borrowed this chord from the Mixolydian mode because it just helps to make a song feel less oppressively bright and happy, which is sometimes what you get in major. So if we would take C major, we have these notes.


But if it were C Mixolydian, we would have...


So it is about one shade darker, but it is still major because the Mixolydian mode is still fundamentally major. This chord transition you probably will immediately recognize and maybe didn't even ever think about how it actually is a borrowed chord. So very often you will have a chord progression that maybe stays on the one chord for a while. [music]


And then it goes to that major flat 7.


Normally the diatonic chord there, if we were to go to the 7, would sound like this.


[music] So you probably can see why a lot of songs opt not to utilize that diminished 7 chord, which is what is naturally occurring in major keys. It often sounds pretty gnarly and is borderline unusable in some genres, and certainly it can be made to be usable, but in a lot of cases a great way to sort of redeem the 7 chord and make it so that it's not that you just have the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 chords, but you actually have the 7 chord as somewhat more usable is really just to borrow this flat major 7 chord. Seen another way, every major key has exactly 3 major chords and 3 minor chords, and one diminished chord, which is often not seen as very useful in the context of a major key. This allows us to still have those 3 major chords, those 3 minor chords, and then when we do want to use the 7, we just happen to use a flat 7 instead, and that makes it a fourth major chord we have to use. Because we aren't talking about this as a whole song in the mixolydian mode, but a true borrowed chord, that means that throughout the rest of the song, in C major, you are going to have a B natural, but when we are borrowing this flat 7 chord, that is when we're going to be utilizing a B flat instead of the normal diatonic B that we would have in C major. And this is what allows us to still have a G major chord using a B natural rather than the G minor chord we would have if we kept that B flat for the entire song. A third chord move utilizing a borrowed chord that I think everyone should know is the flat 2 to the 1. Now this flat 2, which by the way is a major flat 2, is actually borrowed from the Phrygian mode. We said the mixolydian mode is basically major, but one shade darker. This would be basically natural minor, but one shade darker. Because not only does it have the flat 3, 6, and 7 that we would have in minor, but it also has the flat 2. So of note, this is a borrowed chord that you probably would use in a minor key song. In fact, in a lot of hard rock songs, especially in metal or post-grunge, you will see this quite a lot. And the reason for this is that the Phrygian mode tends to sound very aggressive. If you think of minor and natural minor as more sad, maybe angry, depending on how it's used, obviously you can draw away more emotions than that, but by default it kind of isn't that more sad, more angry sound. Phrygian tends to add a tad bit more aggression to that anger. So if you listen to a lot of hard rock music, you may have heard a transition that's something like this before. [guitar music] And that more aggressive sound, which admittedly doesn't come out quite as much with a keyboard, really comes from the fact that this is just a half step away from our 1. So one way that this is actually pretty similar to the previous borrowed chord, where we were talking about a flat 7, is with the flat 7, we said it could be a way to sort of redeem a diminished chord and actually make it usable again. And in this case, it's actually doing the same thing. In a natural minor key, your diminished chord is actually going to be your 2 chord. So this helps to take that diminished 2 chord, which isn't always super usable, although it certainly is, especially more in minor keys, and it can be a way to sort of redeem that and make it a little more usable by making it actually major. And this is actually a great example of where technically this major flat 2 chord versus the diminished 2 chord that we would normally have, the major one actually sounds darker, even though it's a major chord. This is a great example of how the idea that major chords sound happy and minor chords sound sad is just not true. It has some truth to it by itself, with no context that's true. Alright, the second one sounds a little bit sadder, a little bit darker, but that's because it doesn't have any context. In context of songs, major chords can sound really dark, minor chords can actually sound fairly happy, so it really depends on how they are used. Something else this borrowed chord transition gets us is essentially a leading tone that goes down, because a leading tone is always basically when you have two notes that are a semitone apart, and one really wants to go to the other. Normally you think of this as a 7 to an 8 in a major key, like that, in C major, although technically the E to the F in C major, which would be the 3 to the 4, also technically is a leading tone, because people don't think about that as much. But this is essentially adding another leading tone to your minor key song, if you are borrowing this, because you have this C minor chord, but then you have that now semitone apart, because you're adding that flat 2, rather than the natural 2 you normally would have.


This just does not have the same darkness and aggression and drive as...


So especially if you're doing a darker or more aggressive song, or especially if you're doing some rock music, this can be a great way to go. If your song is normally a natural minor, think about borrowing that flat, technically major 2 chord


to really get that awesome aggressive sound. Also last note on this, if you didn't know, the Phrygian mode is actually where we get that Jaws soundtrack sound, which is from this exact same transition really. That whole theme is...


Which is that same in the context of C, we would have C to C sharp, or in this case D flat, C D flat, C D flat, C D flat, which is the same as just the opposite direction. So that Jaws kind of aggressive, really kind of scary sound is actually coming from the Phrygian mode. So hopefully this was helpful to you. If it was something you'll likely find helpful, is my free Keys cheat sheet. Maybe you don't know that much about keys, and when I talk about 4 chords and 7 chords, and all that, you're just like, "What? Even? I don't even know what keys are, or what chords I have, and what key? I know I have a song that has a G major chord and an A minor chord, I don't know what key it's in." If you are someone like that, be sure to check out my free Keys cheat sheet, because it gives you every single key, all the notes in every key, and all of the main chords, aka the main triads, that are naturally occurring in that key. So it's really easy to figure out, "Oh, I have a G major chord, an A minor chord, and a D major chord. Oh, it appears that this song is almost definitely in the key of G major." This can be helpful in a whole bunch of ways. If you have a melody, you can figure out your melodic notes, and figure out what different chords you should use, because you can figure out, "Oh, it seems that my melody is in the key of C major." So that means your chord progression has to be in the key of C major, or maybe the opposite. You've written some music, you have some chords, you have your chord progression, and now you're trying to figure out the melody. If your chord progression is in E major, then you want your melody to use the notes in E major. And it's also really important to know the main chords that we have in every key, and you can apply what we learned today. You can basically take, "Okay, I see that in the context of G major, my C major chord is my four chord." So if I'm going to use my major four chord to a minor four chord to a one chord transition in the context of G major, I would go C major, C minor, and then G major. So with that cheat sheet, you can apply what we learned today to any key, so be sure to check that out, songrath slash keys. Thank you so much for watching, I appreciate every single one of you, and I'll talk to you in the next one.

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