Lesson 3: Predominants and Subdominants

ok, let’s talk about minor.

Listen to the first 15 seconds of these two recordings:



The first recording is the first movement (“Prelude”) from JS Bach’s Partita no 3 in E major, and the second is the fifth movement (“Chaconne”) from Bach’s Partita no 2 in D minor, both for unaccompanied Violin. While any key (major, minor, or otherwise) can have many different moods and emotions, the first way we often differentiate between major and minor is by assigning major to “happy” or “bright” emotions, and minor to “sad” or “dark” emotions. These two pieces highlight that simplified binary pretty well.

Now last week, we introduced major solfège, do re mi fa so la ti do, to correspond with notes of a major scale, so we could talk about melodic function and relationships. In minor, we will use slightly different solfège. A minor scale is more flexible than a major scale, have a couple of notes that are more unstable due to a whole host of historical, psychological, and physiological reasons. The basis for a minor scale starts out as do re me fa so le te do, or A to A on the white keys of the piano (pronounced doe ray may fah so lay tay doe). Notice those three solfège names that are different from the major scale. These three notes are one half step lower than the parallel major scale (parallel keys start on the same do, but have different modes). Remember the Mozart last week was in A major? Those note names were A B C# D E F# G# A. A minor has A B C D E F G A. See how the third, sixth, and seventh solfège correspond to the changing scale members? So in minor, the tonic chord is do me so, instead of do mi so like it was last week.

Remember that dominant was so ti re in major. Try playing so te re, and then move to do me so. Doesn’t quite have the same sense of finality that it does in major, does it? Since that ti do half step is a big part of why we feel a pull from tonic to dominant, most composers in the European classical tradition have borrowed the ti, also called raised seventh or leading tone, into a minor key. If you’re a singer, you may have run into a situation where you had to try to sing from le up to ti (if not, give it a try). That’s F to G#, if we continue in A minor. That interval is bigger than a whole step, so we refer to it as an augmented second. It’s fairly difficult to sing in tune with other singers, so when moving melodically up to ti, it’s pretty common to sing/play la ti do, even in minor.

Therefore, solfège notes available in minor (under specific circumstances for each!) are do re me fa so le/la te/ti do. Some are more common melodically, while others are more common harmonically, so sometimes you’ll hear people refer to the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales or collections. I know I played three different kinds of minor scales as a kid in piano lessons!


On to the topic of the day: Predominants.

Notice how there’s a few notes in the scale that stay the same between major and minor? do re fa so are the same in both. We’ll talk more about chords built on re soon, but for this week, we want to talk about chords built on fa. Tonic and Dominant are the chords built on do and so. The chord built on fafa la do in major, or fa le do in minor – is the Predominant we are discussing today.

Listen again to the beginning of the Bach Chaconne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zvRWFD_1_M


(This score includes an analysis with some teasers for upcoming weeks: numbers and more letters!) A Chaconne is a type of musical piece that has a recurring chordal pattern. Notice that the last chord of each line/phrase is a dominant. Dominants are often easier to hear in minor, because the ti sounds a bit out of place. Visually, dominants are also quick to spot in minor, because the notation includes sharps for that raised leading tone. Since this is D minor, our dominant is spelled A C# E, and will sound most strongly as dominant when the A is the lowest note.

Notice that the chord preceding the dominant (on the first beat of the last measure), is based on fa. We usually describe predominant as have a feeling of transition, but it comes by its name by being before the dominant. If you can’t feel the transitory, predominant-ness of this chord yet, it’s ok. It’s definitely more vague of a feeling than the stability/instability spectrum of tonics and dominants. The predominant is built on fa, here fa le do because we’re in minor. These notes are G B♭ and D in this key. (The flat is in the key signature to the left of the line, indicating that every B should be ♭ unless otherwise noted.) I mark this with a p – lower case to indicate minor – when doing analysis.

Predominants, like tonics, can be both major and minor chords, usually matching the key (whereas a dominant is almost always a major chord, with a raised leading tone in minor). After some practice/experience, you can get a pretty strong feeling for fa based chords. Predominants are often modified, so we’ll talk lots about them later. Just remember for now that fa is involved, and it comes before the dominant. The stereotypical phrase progression that we’ll be working with is T P D T, starting on tonic, moving through predominant to dominant, dominant pulls back to tonic. While there are variations (half cadences where the phrase ends open, on dominant for one), a large amount of music can be understood around this framework.


That penultimate phrase position is not the only place that chords based on fa occur, however. Sometimes this chord appears directly before the tonic in a cadence, without the dominant in between. It’d be odd to call it a predominant in that case, if no dominant followed. So, when a chord based on fa goes directly to tonic, we’ll call it a subdominant – in these situations it acts a little like a dominant chord, pulling to tonic.[*] This type of cadence S T is called a plagal cadence because of some leftover pseudo-Greek conventions from medieval church modes.

Plagal cadences are sometimes referred to as the “Amen” cadence,[†] because one of the places the frequently appear is as an addition at the end of a hymn, so the congregation can sing “Amen” after the final authentic D T cadence, called a plagal cadential extension, or plagal tag. One example of this appears at the end of Franz Schubert’s “Wandrer’s Nachtlied I,” about 1:23-1:34 in this recording (the recording goes on to a second song): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYK1JjZjyh4 Hear how after the voice closes, the piano answers with the plagal extension, which should definitely call to mind the implications of “Amen” or prayer. The German text,[‡] with my own translation:

Der du von dem Himmel bist, (You who are from heaven)
Alle Freud und Schmerzen stillest, (you quiet all joy and pain)
Den, der doppelt elend ist, (He, that doubly so miserable is)
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest; (you fill twice as fast with refreshment)
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde! (Ah! I am tired of pushing!)
Was soll all die Qual und Lust? (Why all the agony and desire?)
Süßer Friede, (Sweet peace)
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust! (Come, oh come within my breast!)

Clearly the poem’s author is yearning and praying, making it appropriate to reiterate the final cadence with one last prayer, Amen, plagal cadence.

If you’d like to look at the musical score for this song, here’s a link from the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), a free online library of scores that are out of copyright. (But feel free to donate if you use it a lot!)



Another song that uses plagal motion frequently is Hugo Wolf’s “An den Schlaf.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2nbUkGv6WI The first several chords are alternating between the tonic and subdominant, to set up the expectations for this song. Wolf is a composer from a little bit later in the European tradition, so his music is more chromatic and complicated than some of the things we’ve looked at up to this point. The final cadence in the piano is also plagal S T, but the cadence at the end of the vocal line (1:45 ish) is more ambiguous. We might use this as an example of a stand alone plagal cadence, tho it’s probably open to argument. To look at the music check out IMSLP here:

http://imslp.org/wiki/M%C3%B6rike-Lieder_(Wolf,_Hugo) choose the second complete score, and the song is on pgs 120-121. The text is similarly praying/yearning for sleep or maybe death, depending on interpretation (the score has one English translation).


Subdominants and plagal progressions/cadences are also fairly common in more recent music; some interpretations of the 12-bar blues form include strong plagal cadences. “Sweet Home Chicago” is one example of this (Blues Brothers movie version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79vCiXg3njY 12-bar blues is a song form that repeats a chord structure (with or without variations). The stereotypical one is (one chord per bar)




This particular recording includes the variation of D S T T in the last line.[§] Although at that point, when D doesn’t go to T, we probably wouldn’t call it Dominant… but that’s for another time. For now, let’s say that both S and D go to T from different directions.


Next week: Additions to triads


Main Ideas:

minor key – a scale, collection of chords and functions, etc that make a piece sound more sad or dark (stereotypically). Use solfège do re me fa so le/la te/ti do as well as minor tonic and minor predominant chords.

parallel keys – keys that have the same do but different modes or collections. Ex: A major and A minor

leading tone – ti, this week importantly as the raised seventh scale member in minor

augmented second – the interval between ti and le, hard to sing.

natural minor – do re me fa so le te do, the notes in the key signature for minor keys. All white keys from A to A.

harmonic minor – the collection most often used with harmonic thinking in minor keys: do re me fa so le ti do (not really helpful as a scale, but oh well)

melodic minor – the collection used to describe the probability of various minor usages in melody writing, different on the way up and down: do re me fa so la ti do te le so fa me re do

key signature – the collection of sharps or flats that appear on the left of the staff to indicate which are going to be used frequently.

predominant – triad based on fa, moves to dominant. P: fa la do, p: fa le do

phrase progression – stereotypical chord motion through a standard phrase T P D T or t p D t in minor

subdominant – the chord based on fa when not moving to the dominant, but moving to tonic instead. S or s.

plagal cadence – S to T (s to t in minor). Also known as “Amen” cadence. frequently occurs after an authentic D T cadence.

cadential extension – repeating a cadence or adding more chords to extend the phrase after it’s already complete. One way is to add a plagal cadence: D T S T

12-bar blues – popular song form, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Repeating chord structure. Common place to find plagal motion.

[*] The reason it’s called subdominant is either for being a step below dominant or the fifth away from tonic in the opposite direction, depending on who you ask. There’s a not inconsiderable amount of disagreement over this type of thing (both naming and implementation), whether the scholars involved are using functional vocabulary similar to mine or not. If you read some of my previous posts on extensions such as https://functionalanalysis.blog/2016/11/08/extended-harmonies/ there’s some discussion of non-so based dominants for the music literate.

[†] One example of this type of Amen in literal congregational singing at 0:42 of this recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFFqLwpdcX8

[‡] found on Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandrers_Nachtlied

[§] There’s also argument over whether this counts as a plagal cadence, but in this case (and many others) I think it does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: