The subdominant chord is just another chord relationship that occurs in
many progressions. It is often referred ot as the "4 chord"
(represented by the numeral IV) as it is built upon the 4th degree of
the major scale.
The 4 chord works in relation to other chords in the scale, for example
I IV V is
the staple of blues progressions.
Over the next two lessons we'll look at the basic theory behind the
subdominant and its function in major key chord progressions.
always, you don't have to use it in your songwriting, but knowing about
it will give you the option and help train your ear to hearing its
relationship with other chords (for example, when transcribing songs
So, just like other chords we've looked at in the main section, the subdominant
chord, represented by an IV
(4) numeral, is part of this major key chord
we're building. This chord, like the tonic and
dominant of major key chord progressions, is a major chord. We'll
look at what types of major chord are compatible with this position
To understand why the subdominant is numbered as the 4
it's helpful to take a quick look at the major scale...
So, we learned in earlier parts that we can build a chord on each
degree/note of the major scale (and it doesn't have to be layed out
like in the boxed pattern above - that's just for quick reference). The
tonic (I) chord is built on the
1st degree, which is why it determines the key of a progression. The
dominant (V) is built on the 5th degree. The subdominant (IV) is built
on the 4th degree.
Look at where the 4th note lies in relation to the 5th. It lies one whole step (W)
down from the 5th. One whole step is the equivalent of two fret spaces.
Therefore, using your knowledge of the tonic-dominantroot note relationships at
different fret positions from the first part, you should know where the
(blue square) would fit into that...
Tonic root note on low E string...
Tonic root note on A string...
Tonic root note on A string (but this time with lower octave
Tonic root note on D string...
As we learned before, we can build chords on these root/bass note
add to the chord scale. We now have a 3rd root
note upon which to build the
subdominant chord, in relation to the others. Remember,
these relationships are movable.
They keep their formation as you move
them up or down the fretboard - just like a scale pattern when changing
When the tonic chord changes key, the other chords in the scale move in relation to it.
This is why you can play the exact same song in several keys. It's why
we use numerals to represent these chords - they specify the
relationship between chords in a progression in ANY key.
Ignoring the dominant for now, if you play a tonic
major chord followed by its related subdominant
(use the root note relationships from above) you get what can best be
described as a "relaxed" state. Unlike the dominant, the subdominant
doesn't feel so "unresolved" or tense. As a result, musicians are able
to stick around on the subdominant as a break
within the progression, without the listener feeling too far "away from
Take a listen below to a very simple I - IV movement that showcases the
musical relaxation of moving to the subdominant...
So even though I hung around on that subdominant chord for longer
than the time I spent on the tonic, it still had that resolved feeling
when I returned back to the tonic. However, there was far less
unresolved tension than there would be if we tried the same with the
This is reflected in the fact that, in many songs you hear, the
subdominant resolves back to the tonic far less commonly than the
I IV V chord progressions
Let's play around with some typical 3 chord
examples involving the 4
chord, using the root note
positions from above. I'm simply building barre chords
on those root notes, but if one of the root notes is on D, for
example, you could play a D open chord. Same with a C root note - C
open chord. Barred or open - your choice! You just need to know how
to use chords
in different positions on the fretboard.
This commonly used progression highlights the role of the subdominant
used directly before
the more tense dominant chord. It acts as a natural lead-up to the
unresolved dominant chord.
could use any 4 positions
- IV Another commonly used progression,
just an IV - V
switch around of the above. The subdominant now becomes the unresolved
chord, yet still with less tension than when the dominant is used in
Position (remember, you
could use any 4 positions from above!)
progression alternates from the tonic between the sub-dominant and
dominant. From this, we can hear the distinction between the dominant
as a tension chord and the subdominant as more of a "relaxed" point
away from the tonic "home" chord.
You could also switch it around to I - V - I - IV for a similar relax -
amazing how many songs in the rock, pop and even classical genres use
just these 3 chords, in different combinations, with different
rhythms and tempos, chord extensions etc.
As far as rhythm and
timing goes... it's really up to you how long you spend on a particular
chord within a progression. Don't just count 4 beats for each chord -
mix it up, experiment and see if you can enhance the relationship.
As we progress further through the section, we'll build up an entire
scale (and beyond...) in which you can integrate
this I IV V relationship. In other words, it can either work as a chord
progression on its own, or it can be part of a larger musical
Next lesson, just as we did with the dominant chord,
we'll see how we can enhance the subdominant chord using its natural