Borrowed Chords

Once again, I will warn you this is a difficult lesson. If you are a beginner and you merely get a sense of this topic, you are doing well. You can come back to dig deeper later. It's necessary to introduce this lesson's topic for those of you analyzing and paying attention to the chords of songs. It will begin to explain many of the chords which “don't make sense.”

Diatonic, No Surprise

We've seen that songs are often completely diatonic—all of the chords and notes used fit within a single major or minor key. We've also looked at the idea of secondary dominant chords where a chord can be set up temporarily by its own V chord. And, we have discussed how some songs shift between relative major and minor.

These sounds are very comfortable to our ears and don't stand out as unusual. We expect them. Sometimes, however, a songwriter will want to use some unusual chords; they want a part to stand out, create tension or surprise the listener.

Since the diatonic chords are comfortable and predictable to our ears, they create a safe home base and point of reference for our ears. When the audience has expectations, the artist can then create surprise.

So, while many songs are strictly diatonic, some chord progressions will step outside of the key and come right back. You have heard these outside chords many times before. They are very common in most styles of music, and they are not as random as you might think. Where do these other chords come from?

Borrowed Chords

Many chords from outside of the key are chords “borrowed” from the parallel key. That is, a song may be in the key of C major, but briefly use chords from its parallel minor key C minor.

These chords from the parallel key are called borrowed chords. A chord is momentarily “borrowed” from the parallel key and then the song returns to its original key.

Other Names: Modal Interchange or Mode Mixture

You may see this “borrowed chord” musical concept explained under several names. Another name for using chords from a parallel scale is modal interchange—interchanging chords between the major and minor mode.

Yet another name for this idea is mode mixture.

Borrowed Chord Example

Let's look at an example of a chord borrowed from a parallel scale. When in a major key a commonly borrowed chord is the minor iv chord coming from the parallel minor key:

 
Minor four chord piano example.

The way this chord progression is analyzed is C is the I in the key of C major, F is the IV in C major, Fm is the minor iv from the parallel key of C minor, and then it returns to the I chord in the key of C major.

Borrowed Minor iv Chord Song Examples

Does this IV-minor iv-I progression sound familiar? It's used in thousands of songs in all styles of music. Since it has a wistful, melancholy sound to it, it shows up in a lot of pop ballads and moody songs. Here are a few examples:

The Crests - Sixteen Candles

Key of B♭. Listen for the E♭m minor iv around [0:22-0:24].

David Bowie - Space Oddity

Listen for Fm in the key of C major around [1:34]. "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear."

Radiohead - Creep

Borrowed chords show up in a lot of Radiohead songs. Listen for the minor iv (Cm) used here in the key of G around [0:15-0:16].

How Do Borrowed Chords Work?

I will be repeating this every chance I get: chord progressions sound good when the chord tones between them smoothly connect. (This is called voice leading and we will discuss it more and more.)

The IV-minor iv-I progression above is a perfect example. If you examine the chord tones of these three chords, you will find many smooth connections.

Minor four chord piano example.
  1. All three chords contain the note C
  2. The F root note repeats then steps down chromatically to E
  3. The note A in the F chord steps down chromatically to A♭ in the Fm chord which steps down chromatically to G in the C chord

These smooth connections makes this progression strong and satisfying.

Can Songwriters Borrow Any Chord?

Potentially, yes. If the notes of the chord progression smoothly connect, it can work. If it complements the melody and creates the desired harmonic effect, it can work.

Some borrowed chords are more common than others. Some are more dramatic than others. Sometimes they're easier to play on an instrument and people stumble upon them quickly. For example, E – G – A (I-♭III-IV in the key of E) is really easy to play on guitar and are some of the first guitar chords one learns.

The Expanded Harmonic Palette

This one simple idea of borrowing chords from the parallel key greatly expands a composer's palette of chords.

You will run into these non-diatonic chords in songs often. It's a big source of confusion as you try to get a grasp of diatonic chords in songs. You will find everything fits as you expect, but then there's this one strange chord which doesn't. Often it's a borrowed chord from the parallel key.

Major + Minor Diatonic Chords

When you combine the major and parallel minor diatonic chords, it expands the composer's potential palette of chords to 14.

Here are the seventh chords (triads work, too) of C major plus the seventh chords we could potentially “borrow” from the parallel key of C minor:


I/i

ii/

ii°

♭III

iii

IV/

iv

V/

v

♭VI

vi

♭VII

vii°

C Major

+

C Minor

Cmaj7/

Cm7

Dm7/

Dm7♭5

E♭maj7

Em7

Fmaj7/

Fm6

G7/

Gm7

A♭maj7

Am7

B♭7

Bm7♭5

This may seem like a lot to memorize. You don't need to memorize this as a table. Just continuing to learn your major and minor key diatonic chords will be enough. When you know your major scale diatonic chords well in each key, you will quickly recognize, “Oh, that's a flat three chord” or “Oh, that's the IV to minor iv trick.”

The same borrowed chord tricks are used the same way over and over in many songs. Soon the sight and sound of them will become familiar to you just like the plain diatonic chords.

Some of these borrowed chords happen often while others are rare. Most often you can expect the ♭III, minor iv, ♭VI and ♭VII chords from the parallel minor key. We will continue to explore these borrowed chords in other lessons.

Borrowed Chord Quiz

For those of you who are ready, don't miss the borrowed chords quiz for this lesson.

Lost? No Worries

Again, if you are lost here, don't worry. The main takeaway is that, while most music is often diatonic, some diatonic music uses occasional non-diatonic chords as a special effect. Often, these non-diatonic chords come from the parallel minor scale.

If you forget this or don't completely understand yet, relax and come back to the idea later. Just don't be surprised when you see some chords which don't perfectly fit the seven basic chords of the key. The key is still there; sometimes we slip out of it and right back in.

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