Songwriting tricks – Secondary Dominants / Metallica and The Beatles case studies

02 May

Hi there,

In previous blogs you’ve started to grasp how chords and scales can link together and how you can start to write your own songs.

You may have come across chords in songs that don’t fit within the standard Maj,Min,Min,Maj,Maj,Min,dim or Maj7,Min7,Min7Maj7,7,Min7,min7b5 rule

There are certain exceptions to these rules which songwriters use that can really add some depth and variety to your songs.

You can also be aware of these tricks when listening to music that you love, to see how other people use it.

What dominant substitution does is introduce another 6 possible chords that you can add to the 14 above.

Let’s take the key of A major for example:

The notes are:


  • Your chords/triads would be Amaj,Bmin,C#min,D,E,F#min and G#diminished
  • 7th chords would be Amaj7,Bmin7,C#min7,Dmaj7,E7,F#min7,G#min7b5

With dominant substitution you could now include:

  • A7,B7,C#7,D7,F#7 and G#7

But in order for it to really work properly you need to resolve back to a chord that’s a FOURTH (2 and a half tones) above your substituted chord.

Let’s take an example:

  • A major, Amajor7  Bmin7, B7 then E

What the B7 does is reinforce the next chord (E) which is a perfect 4th above B

Some very popular songs you’ve heard over the years use these techniques.

Let’s take Nothing Else Matters by Metallica which is in the key of Em/Gmajor

The chords in G major are

  • G,Am,Bm,C,D,Em,F#dim or
  • Gmaj7,Am7,Bm7,Cmaj7,D7,Em7 and F#min7b5

In the verse you have a nice picking pattern which uses the following chords:

  • Em, D, C, G, B7 and Em (with a few chord extensions)

As you can see the B7 isn’t in the usual harmonized key of G major but works as a dominant substitute as it reinforces the Em that comes after it

The prechorus to Hey Jude by the Beatles also does a similar thing.

It’s in the key of F so the chords would be:

  • F,Gm,Am,Bb,C,Dm and Ediminished
  • or Fmaj7,Gmin7,Amin7,Bbmaj7, C7,Dmin7 and Emin7b5 in 7th chords

The end of the verse goes:

‘The minute, you let you under your skin, then you begin, to make it better.’

Bb                                            F                     C7                       F

Then it goes:

‘And anytime you feel the pain, Hey Jude, refrain, don’t carry the world upon your shoulders’

F7                                     Bb         Bmaj7 Gm7                            C7                      F

As you can see the F7 that precedes the Bb is the dominant substitution which works really well to reinforce the Bb

Hope you enjoyed reading this blog and feel free to ask any questions.

You can find other useful tips via twitter @jsmusicschool which is updated daily


Many thanks


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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Songwriting skills


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