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Tonic - subdominant

Tonic - subdominant Name: I-IV / V-I

The easiest way to modulate is counterclockwise around the circle of fifth. These modulations are sometimes called to "flow with the tide" around the circle: You go down in fifths. You take advantage of the fact that the root key, the key you are leaving, is the dominant key of the new key. The I chord of the old key is the V-chord of the new key. A change from the I-chord of the old key to the I-chord of the new key is a I-IV in the key you are leaving, but it is a V-I change in the new key you are arriving at. This is what I in another lesson has called "The double meaning of the I-IV change".

To firmly establish a key, you have to play a V7-I or V7-i change. If we are in the key of C-major, you establish the key through a G7-C change. If you will modulate to the subdominant key, F, you have to establish the new key through a V7-I change within the new key. The dominant 7th in F-major is C7. So the way to go is to play for instance C-C7-F. The easy way to go the the subdominant key is to make the tonic into the dominant 7th of the new key, by simply extending the chord from a basic triad to a 7th chord.

Play these chords, and listen to the effect: C - F - C - G7 || C - C7 - F - C. Even though you end on C, you don't feel quite a home. It is almost as if you are standing outside your home. The chords C-F-C-G7-C establish a solid C-major. But when you continue with C7 and F, something happens. Listen to how the C7 creates some tension, and how it is resolved when you change to the F chord. What happens it that you modulate from C to F. So when you end on the C chord, you are playing the root or the tonic chord. But you are not in the home key. The C chord function more as the V-chord of F-major than as a I-chord of C-major. Add a G7 and a C, and you are back home.

When changing from C to C7, the we add the Bb. By doing this, we destroy the tritone F-B by changing it to at the perfect fourth F-Bb. At the same time we establish the new tritone E-Bb, a tritone that is unique to F-major.

In this brief modulation to F, we did not introduce any new chords, except from the C7. It is rather typical for bridge parts that you have this kind of modulation to the subdominant key without introducing new chords, and often you will not realize the modulation. You are just changing chords. As long as we are using chords that are common to the two keys, there is some harmonic ambiguity, and the new key is not established in a very solid way. In our example, we could have used Dm and Am in our F-part, and still retain some of this ambiguity. The Dm could be a stepping stone on your way home. Add a third line to our example with the chords F - Dm - G7 - C. Now the C-chord is at home. When looking backwards to the F, the Dm is a vi-chord in F-major. But when you look forward to G7, it is the ii-chord of C-major. This little sequence takes you back to your home key through a ii-V7-I change.

We could reinforce the new key by repeating the C7 and/or by playing some chords of the new key that we do not use in the home key. Before returning through the F-Dm-G7-C sequence, play a few more bars of F, C7 and the two chords Bb and Gm. Both these chords have the note Bb, that belongs to F-major, but not to C-major. Then there is no doubt any longer: You are away from home, in F-major. If you try to include a G7 and an Em, then you will return home. You look out the door, think that it is dangerous or too cold out there, and go back in.

It takes some time to make a solid modulation and establish the new key firmly. And if you do that, it will take some time to reestablish the home key. In an 8-bar bridge, or a 2-bar passage, you will often not have enough time to establish the new key in a solid way, and then reestablish your home key. So you will often return to the home key while you and you're audience still may wonder what happened.

Have you ever felt that you are really taking of when improvising over a 12-bar blues, and then run into trouble because you cannot find the way home? The blues does not fit very well into these more classical based concept - the harmonic and melodic ambiguity of the blues is one aspect that make it interesting. But having said that: At the end of the first line, you will typically end on a I7 chord, before continuing with the IV7. This could be seen as a modulation from tonic to subdominant, although the use of the 7th chord in bar 5 and 6 prevent a firm establishment of the subdominant key. When you return to the I chord in bar 7, you are not really back home. The chord could still be the V-chord of the IV-key. It is the V7 chord in the last line that really reestablish and reassures the root. What might happen - and what has happened to me - it that you change key in your improvising without realizing it. And when the harmony settles the harmonic matters and reinforces the root, you are not prepared to follow. If you play in the key of E, you might modulate to A in the second line. But the A-scale does not work well over the B7 chord in the last line, so then you are in trouble. In his first public appearance, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker took his solo through several keys without really knowing what he was doing, and crashed because he could not find his way home. The other musicians laughed at this under aged boy who tried to improvise in the club he had sneaked himself into many times to listen to the music. But he went home and practised, and showed the world how to create a great solo ...

You can move with the tide (counterclockwise) around the full circle of fifth by this series of chords: C - C7- F - F7 - Bb - Bb7 - Eb - Eb7 - Ab - Ab7 - Db(C#) - Db7(C#7) - Gb(F#) - Gb7(F#7) - B(Cb) - B7(Cb7) - E - E7 - A - A7 - D - D7 - G - G7 - C. With this sequence of chords, you have played your way through all 12 major keys and returned back home to C-major. You have not taken the time to really establish any of the keys, as you are leaving them and moving on as soon as possible. But you could reinforce one of some of the new keys by repeating the V7 of the new key, play the IV and/or play the ii chord. You could extend the sequence in this way:

C-F-Dm-G7 | C - F - C- C7 |
F - Bb - Gm - C7 | F - Bb - F - F7 |
Bb - Eb - Cm - F7 | Bb - Eb - Bb - Bb7 |
Eb - Ab - Fm - Bb7 | Eb - Ab - Eb - Eb7 |
etc, until you come to
G - C - Am - D7 | G - C - G - G7 |
which takes you back to C-major.

A sequence like this, with two bars in each key with the same chord progression will soon become very predictable and boring. So this is not the way you should use this tonic to subdominant modulation. But it show you a way to move from a key to it's subdominant. And it is a good practise because it will take you through a basic chord progression in all 12 major keys.

A VIIb chord, for instance a Bb if we are in the key of C, might indicate that you have actually modulated to F. But that will not always be the case. Many popular and rock-songs are based in mixolydian mode, and the VIIb chord is one of the main chords in mixolydian mode.

Recordings with Tonic - subdominant modulation

  • Chet Atkins - Mister Sandman -
  • Chet Atkins - Yakety Axe -
  • Seth Austen - Coming Home -
  • The Beatles - Anna (Go With Him) -
  • The Beatles - Devil In Her Heart -
  • The Beatles - Do You Want To Know A Secret -
  • The Beatles - From Me To You -
  • The Beatles - Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da -
  • The Beatles - Octopus's Garden -
  • Lasse Johansson - Creole Belles march & two-step -
  • Lasse Johansson - Dixie Jass Band One-Step -
  • Lasse Johansson - Feeling My Way -
  • Lasse Johansson - Royal Garden Blues -
  • Lasse Johansson - Wild Cat Blues -
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan - Love Struck Baby -
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