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Replacing the diminished chord in a major chord progression?

Question by Daniel Duffy

I've been playing guitar for a while, but I'm just beginning to pick up theory (particularly chord progressions, with which your site has been extremely helpful), and at the moment I'm kinda analysing the chord progression in a piece I learned a while back, to figure out whats going on.

At one point, the key modulates from D minor to F major (the relative major I believe), and then plays a progression which goes Fmaj7add9, G5add9, Amin7 (which all makes sense), but then goes to a standard E minor chord, which is the is the 7th degree of the F major scale. Since this is F major shouldn't this be a diminished chord? How come it sounds AMAZING, even though the b note isn't in f major :)? And can you always, or is it common to (as I'm guessing this is what was done) raise the flattened 5th of that 7th degree chord to make it a standard minor chord and bend the rules this way? Thanks so much, any help much appreciated, and btw, you have an amazing, helpful site! :)
Daniel Duffy


Hi Daniel, first of all I do worry that some of my lessons may come across as overly dogmatic. I just want to stress that if something sounds good, use it. There is no right or wrong in music. There are no rules, just patterns and relationships that can be used as guides.

The diminished leading tone chord (the 7 chord) is just a "natural" occurrence in the diatonic scale. It is by no means a rule.

Sometimes you want your progression to sound natural, other times something completely outside the scale will sound more effective.

Secondly, let's look at your example...

Fmaj7 / Gadd9 / Am7 / Em

What we have there is a perfect example of the natural relationships of the C major diatonic chord scale.

C (I) / Dm (ii) / Em (iii) / F (IV) / G (V) / Am (vi) / Bdim (vii)

Look at the relationship between Fmaj7 and Gadd9. A whole step between two major chords implies a IV - V relationship.

So in fact, in this instance, E minor acts not as the 7/leading tone chord, but the iii chord.

This is confirmed by the fact that Em is a half step below Fmaj7, which is a natural iii - IV relationship.

It's further confirmed when the progression moves to Am7, which in relation to F and G major, implies it is the vi (6) chord.

I'd be interested to hear the piece to better gauge the context in which that original D minor chord is being played, because if we were to connect it to the Fmaj7 modulation, it suggests D minor is in fact the ii chord (if we're using C major as the diatonic key).

So just to recap...

Two major chords separated by a whole step implies IV - V.

A minor chord one whole step from the above relationship implies a vi chord (e.g. F, G, Am or C, D, Em).

A minor chord that occurs a half step down from a major chord implies a iii chord (e.g. Em, F or C#m, C)

Notice how I use the word "imply", because this is what you're essentially looking/listening for - a clue as to what relationships exist in a chord progression, which helps you decide what modes/scales can be used.

Let me know your thoughts using the comments link below. Cheers.

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By: Daniel Duffy

Thanks this helped- the piece in question is in drop d tunig and is "common ground" by Andy Mckee, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfODdLZuvBI&feature=related), which (again, since im new to this, i could be wrong) is in D minor, but there's a more upbeat strumming part, (starts at 2:17 in this video) where it sounds to me like the opening Fmaj7add9 chord is the root/tonic of a new key, the relative major(F major) of the d minor key used for (most of- there may be some other modulation) the rest of the piece, and the E minor he uses at the end of the little progression has a certain "leading chord" feel, where it "resolves" a semitone "up" to fmaj7 again, so perhaps I'm hearing something wrong, but it sounds to me that the F chord is the root, not the IV chord of a major progression as you suggest (unless I misunderstood you). I've you've got time to have a listen,I'd love to know whether I'm hearing wrong, or misunderstanding you. Thanks for getting back to me so fast, and I certainly take your advice that if it "sounds good, use it". Love to know your thoughts on this after hearing the peice (should have said what it was before- didn't want to sound like I was "plugging it" ), and thans for what you said about chord relationships etc.- whether that is or isn't whats going on here, it was interesting and may come in handy :)
All the best, Daniel

My interpretation...
By: Mike

Thanks for the link Daniel. Great piece!

To clarify, when I mentioned that the sequence after the key change was part of the C major diatonic scale, I didn't mean it was in the KEY of C major, i.e. the tonic chord is obviously not C major. However, the chords that are used reside within that chord scale...

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

He uses the chords F, G, Am, Em.

What I'm hearing is the Am7 chord as the relative minor tonic of this C major scale (so vi becomes i). Em, Fmaj and Gmaj are a natural part of this Am key, just as they are C major. As you know Am and C are relative minor/major keys respectively.

You can confirm this by playing A Aeolian over this entire sequence (after the key change) and it'll work because all these chords are part of that relative A minor key.

A natural resolution for this particular sequence therefore would be on that Am7 chord. Try playing that sequence - Em, Fmaj, Gmaj, Am7 - through a couple of times and ending on that Am7 chord.

But if you try and resolve on Fmaj, I hear an air of unresolve and, in modal terms, I hear Lydian (the related mode of the IV chord) as the dominant mode because of the move from Em - Fmaj.

In fact, I use the chord sequence Fmaj, Gmaj, Em, Fmaj as an example of a Lydian progression in one of my lessons.

But you could also play the C major scale, and you will essentially be playing the same notes as A Aeolian. This is because C major is the "parent" diatonic scale in which the above relative minor key (Am) resides.

So in my answer above, I was referring to this C major chord scale where Em is the iii chord, Fmaj the IV chord and Gmaj the V chord.

If it were to resolve to the relative C major tonic rather than its A minor tonic, the leading tone chord (vii) would in fact be Bdim.

If in doubt, look at the relationship between the chords as I mentioned earlier. Em - F implies iii - IV. Fmaj - Gmaj implies IV - V. Gmaj - Am implies V - vi.

The more of these relationships you see in the progression, the more likely it is they are all part of the same scale and you can then confirm their position in that scale.

That's my honest interpretation of it, I hope I haven't confused things for you!

By: Daniel Duffy

Glad you liked it- and my apologies- you are right, and its is in A minor, (don't know why i couldn't figure that out :/ ) so my original question was a little misguided! Thanks for your help in this- its nice and clear now,

all the best ,Daniel :) and thanks again for having such a great website as well!

By: Graham

I have a similar question on an old Police song I've been looking at. The song is It's Alright for You and the sheet music says the original published key is E Major. The chord progression is D E A7sus4 which I originally thought was just VII-I-V. However , in E the D should be diminished, but it's major as written. So based on your answers am I now right in thinking that this is heard as IV-V-I? In which case why isn't the key not A major instead of E major? Or am I getting lost? Either way, I really like the sound of the A7sus4 chord in this progression.

E Chord progression
By: Anonymous

Shouldnt it be D# diminished?

Major scale chords
By: Anonymous

The intervals of any major scale are:
1major 2 minor 3 minor 4 major 5 major 6 minor
7 diminished

Dim7 substitute
By: Se7en

I believe the heart of the question is can we(as a general practice in modern music) play another chord in place of the disonant dim7. Which I would also like to know the answer to. Thanks

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