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How to apply borrowed chords


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Each time you borrow a chord, it's a specific sound and context that it works best.  Generally, when you use a borrowed chord it is to suit that context.

For example, using a tritone substitution to go from something like Dm7-G7-C could be substituted as Dm7-Db7-C.  You could apply that any time you had what would be a 5-1 movement, but it wouldn't sound right in many different places.

The same thing goes for things like a lowered 6 degree, like having an Ab chord in the key of C.  It sounds nice, but if you just throw it in there without wanting that particular sound, it will just sound weird.

Basically, know all the borrowed chords you can, know what they sound like to the point that you can recognize them without thinking when listening to things, then use them in places where you think that kind of sound would work well, and also where it can still make sense.

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Borrowed chords, like 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree mixture, right? JohnStacy's points are correct - if you substitute one chord for another that functions similarly you'll rarely go wrong. I'll expand on this topic a bit, though, since there are other interesting ways to move into mixture and borrowed chords (and even beyond that, sometimes).

Being a counterpoint junkie, I'll start there: if the counterpoint works, the chord progression works. Thus, if you transition into unique chords using solid voice leading the chord won't feel out of place. This is why there's a notable amount of Rennaisance music (Palestrina, Gesualdo) that has some pretty strange chordal patterns, and yet sound pretty natural in context - they never worked one music harmonically, only contrapuntally. If all else fails, good voice leading will smooth everything out.

There's another related point of view (Neo-Reimannian) that dictates that the fewer notes that are changed, the less jarring the transition will be. Thus, if you only change one note from one chord to the next, no matter how much mixture is involved it will not sound out of place. Change two notes and it's a middle ground between jarring and not jarring. It's a logical yet interesting manner to get some cool mixture involved - lots of Romantic composers used this method of generating some pretty unique mixture.

Those are a bit heavy on the theory, so one final rule of thumb: just use the chord in question, and if you don't like it, change it to something you DO like. You'd be surprised just how poignant an effect some of this can have if you just experiment with them; the 'hard and fast' rules on how to use them are a bit dated, anyway. It's nice to know that there are rules on the use of mixture, but really the only 'rule' you need to know is that there isn't really a restriction on their use.

Hope that helps!

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Like John said, each kind of thing/possibility you can do will kind of have an unique emotional effect. You just need to gain the experience seeing all of them used in different music (or trying them yourself) to gain the ability to match an effect you want for your music to what kind of borrowed chord achieves that.

The end of this rabbit hole (specifically borrowed harmony) is gaining a mastery of being modally fluid; you can just mix and match different harmonies around a tonal center without any regard for sticking to a specific scale structure. Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian, etc. going from wherever to wherever. A path to achieving this mastery is what Gario was talking about, having a strong understanding of counterpoint. If the counterpoint works, the progression works, and that's a path to this fluidity. It's like unlocking a whole new spectrum of color.

Remember, being a learned composer is not about writing down rules for what to do in specific situations, it's about expanding your options for what to do in specific situations.


Here are some pretty common borrowed harmony sounds you might hear in soundtracks or pop music. Play the listed scale and then try the chord after having the scale in your head:


In minor, IV. So in C minor, play Cmin then Fmaj.

In major, iv. So in C major, play Cmaj then Fmin.

In minor, V. So in C minor, play Cmin then Gmaj. 

In major, III. So in C major, play Cmaj, then Emaj (then Amin to resolve, it's a secondary dominant).


These are just a few small examples. Like you said, the possibilities are endless.

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