Secondary Dominant Chords

We’ve already been over dominant chords.  If you missed that make sure you get up to speed here. Today we will be taking the next step and look at some secondary dominants.


First lets recall some things about dominant seventh chords:

  • A dominant seventh is made up of a major triad with a minor 7th added.
  • In a major scale the fifth tone of the scale can become the root of a diatonic dominant seventh chord for that key.
  • In minor keys we sometimes will raise the seventh of the key by one half step (harmonic minor) so the the seventh chord build on the fifth of the scale is in fact a dominant seventh (if not it would be a minor seventh).
  • The diatonic dominant seventh contains the key defining tritone, the third and seventh of the chord  (seven and four tones of the key respectively)

An Analysis of Brahms’ Lullaby

The easiest way I can explain what exactly secondary dominants are are to give an example.  So we’ll start with an analysis of a piece you have all heard: Brahms’ Lullaby.  It’s in A major, so lets quickly break down all the diatonic chords in A major:

A Major Diatonic Chords

G# A B C# D E F#
E F# G# A B C# D
C# D E F# G# A B
A B C# D E F# G#
Amaj Bmin C#min Dmaj E7 F#min G#dim7
I ii iii IV V vi vii

Now lets start the analysis:

Measures 1-7


It starts out simply enough.  The first to measure establish the tonic as A Maj (A C# E).  In the fifth  measure  it moves onto the vi chord, F# min (F# A C#). Then in the 7th measure it starts to get a little weird.  The first chord is a iii chord, C# min,  but the the chord on the third beat of the measure is a mystery (its not that big of a mystery if you read the previous paragraphs).

Lets break down that chord a little.  It contains four notes: [G# B# D# and F#, hint- remember the key signature].  That would make the chord a G# dominant 7 chord.  But the dominant 7th of A maj is E dom7, so how can that G#dom7 be in there?  Look at the next measure for the answer:

Measures 7 and 8


The next chord is also a iii chord.  So we have a C# min chord, then a G#dom7  chord, then a C#  min chord again.  If we think about the C# harmonic minor scale [ C# D# E F# G# A B# C#],  we see that the dominant 7th in this key is G#dom7.  So the mystery chord is in fact the dominant 7th chord of C#min.  We would write this as V7/iii or V7 of iii ( said “five seven of three”).  In the piece it is as though for a moment C# becomes the tonic for. The chord is called a secondary dominant chord because it is a dominant chord that is borrowed from one of the notes of the A major scale.  In this case Brahms’ barrows the dominant of C#, the three of A maj.

Measures 8 – 15


In measure 9 we move back to the tonic, A maj, with a simple V7- I progression.  Then comes another mystery chord [A C# E  G].  At first glance this chord may look like a I7 chord.  But if it was an Amaj7 chord  it would have a G# not a G natural.  It is instead an Adom7, the V7 of DMaj.  If we look at the next chord it is in fact a D major chord which is a IV chord in A maj.  So mystery chord “A” is V7/IV.  It is the dominant of the fourth tone in the A maj scale, which makes D a “mini-tonic” for a few measures.  Next comes mystery chord B, [B D# F# A].  At first glance it may look like a ii chord in A maj.  But it contains a D# so it is not.  It is instead a Bdom7, which is the dom7 of E Maj, the V of A maj.  So mystery chord B is V7/V.  I’ve posted a complete analysis of the first 15 measure below (click to enlarge).

If you want to listen to the piece you can do that here

NOTE: the analysis is on a later variation than the audio


Things to Know about Secondary Dominants

  • They are make from the dominants of of the notes in the “home key”
  • They are normally followed by the chord they are the dominant of
  • They always contain some kind of accidental
  • They are written as V7/(the chord in the home key they are dominant of)
  • They briefly tonicize a note other than the tonic.

If you have any questions or comments or are confused about anything email then to me at

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting article, I’m going to experiment with using these types of chords. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. thanks a lot for sharing this music knowlege your site is the best!

  3. Great stuff. I will study this stuff. This stuff adds relevance. I will try to change the key and see what happens since the formula is relative.

  4. […] Secondary Dominant Chords […]

  5. Thanks for sharing, i’m also a guitar tutor.

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