Borrowed Chords

When we’re in a major key, we can “borrow” chords such as iio, bIII, iv, bVI and viio7 from the parallel minor key, which means the minor key of the same name. Of these chords, iv is the most common. Borrowed chords in minor keys are less common, but we can sometimes borrow the I and IV chords from the parallel major.

In Chapter 1, we discussed the concepts of relative major and relative minor, which referred to major and minor keys that shared exactly the same notes. C major is the relative major of A minor because both keys have no sharps and no flats, for example.

Two related concepts are parallel major and parallel minor. Two keys are parallel when they share the same tonic. So the parallel major of C minor is C major, and the parallel minor of E major is E minor.

That was easy, right? Now, the reason that matters here is that, especially when we’re in a major key, we can use borrowed chords from the parallel key. For example, if we’re in C major, we can “borrow” chords from C minor. Here are some possibilities.

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Theorists also sometimes call bIII and bVI chromatic mediants, depending on their context. We will not worry much here about that distinction. Note that we label them “bIII” and “bVI” rather than just “III” or “VI” because their roots are altered — in C major, the third scale degree is E, but the third scale degree of C minor is Eb, so borrowed chord based around the third degree has a root of Eb.

To find borrowed chords we might use in a major key, we will pretend like we’re in the parallel minor key, then think through what the iio, III, iv, VI and viio7 would be in that key. In E major, for example, we would look to E minor, which would give us the following chords.

iio = F#o (F#, A, C)
bIII = G (G, B, D)
iv = Am (A, C, E)
bVI = C (C, E, G)
viio7 = D#o7 (D#, F#, A, C)

The Minor iv

Used in a major key, the minor iv chord can be an especially effective tool to tweak the listener’s expectations. A simple example of a borrowed iv chord occurs in the intro to Radiohead’s “No Surprises.”

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The song is in the key of F major. The Bb minor chord would not normally be a part of F major, but it is native to F minor – it contains a Db, which is in the key of f minor but not the key of F major.

Now let’s look at the opening lines of another Radiohead song, “Creep,” which is in the key of G. (Borrowed chords are a big part of Radiohead’s sound – probably no other currently popular artist uses them as frequently or as effectively.) There are only four chords, but figuring out how to analyze them isn’t easy.

G / / / | G / / / | B / / / | B / / /

C / / / | C / / / | Cm / / | Cm / / /

The first chord is G major, which poses no problem – that’s I. But then how do we analyze the B major chord in measure 3? It contains a D#, which should be a clue that something strange is going on. It’s not a borrowed chord, and here’s how we know. If we’re in G major, our borrowed chords will come from G minor. D# isn’t in the key of G minor, and B major isn’t a chord we recognize from the key of G minor.

We might, then, consider that the B chord could be a secondary dominant. D# is the leading tone to E, so we can label the B chord as V/vi – a secondary dominant pointing at E minor. But the B chord doesn’t resolve to vi (E minor), as we might expect. Instead, it resolves to C major, which contains two notes in common with E minor (E and G). So the B chord is a secondary dominant with a deceptive resolution. So the first three chords are as follows:

I     V/vi     IV

So far, the progression is similar to that of “Build Me Up Buttercup,” which we discussed in the last chapter. But Radiohead throw another curveball with the C minor chord at the end of the progression. This is our borrowed chord. It’s the iv chord from the parallel minor key, G minor. So here’s our entire progression.

I     V/vi     IV     iv

Radiohead repeats this progression over and over, so this is a great song to listen to in order to appreciate how these chords (secondary dominants, deceptive resolutions, and borrowed chords) sound.

The I – V/vi – IV – iv progression is unusual, but common enough that it’s led to disputes. Radiohead has pointed out the similarities between “Creep” and Lana Del Rey’s “Get Free,” which uses the same I V/vi IV iv progression. And Radiohead has already conceded partial publishing rights of “Creep” to Mike Hazlewood and Albert Hammond, who wrote the Hollies’ 1974 song “The Air That I Breathe,” which uses the same progression.

Other Borrowed Chords In Major Keys

iv isn’t our only borrowed-chord option. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” contains a lovely bVI. We’re in the key of F major, and the song borrows the Db major chord from F major.

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Notice the way the inflection of the song seems to change when the Db chord arrives. The mood of the song then seems to return to normal as the Db changes to Gm7, a chord that fits squarely within the key of F.

Borrowed Chords In Minor Keys

It will be somewhat rarer for us to use borrowed chords when we’re in a minor key. When we do so, we are borrowing from the parallel major. We’ve already discussed some chords in minor keys, including V and viio, that effectively borrow from the parallel major, in that they use the leading tone. We do not call these borrowed chords, however. Also, a number of chords from major, such as iii, will simply not sound good if used in the parallel minor. (Try using a C#m chord in a chord progression in A minor. It will sound sour.)

Chords borrowed from the parallel major do occasionally occur in minor keys, however. The easiest to understand is I. Classical music from the Baroque era frequently used I to end a piece or movement in a minor key, a technique called a Picardy third. For example, here’s Bach ending a fugue in C minor with a C major chord.

Pop songs in minor can also contain Picardy thirds, as in this example from the Zombies’ “Time Of The Season.” The song is in E minor, but its chorus ends with a prominent E major chord.

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I chords in minor keys can appear in a variety of other contexts as well. Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” (there’s no official version on YouTube, regrettably, but it’s a great example) is in B minor, but frequently uses B major chords at the ends of phrases. This B major chord is borrowed from the key of B major (which probably feels silly to read, but is worth stopping for a second to consider), and its use in “Exit Music (For a Film)” creates a sense of ambiguity, as if the song is bouncing back and forth between two different keys.

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Another chord that can be borrowed from parallel major while in a minor key is IV. So, for example, in a song in B minor, you might see an E major chord, even though the E chord contains a G#, which is not in B natural minor. (The astute reader might notice that G# is in B melodic minor, and there are cases in which the IV chord is used in a way clearly connected to melodic minor. We will not worry much about that here and will instead focus on how best to use the IV chord in a minor key, whether or not it relates to the melodic minor scale.) In addition to borrowing the I chord, “Exit Music (For a Film)” borrows the IV chord as well.

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The first three chords are i, V and III, which seems straightforward enough. The fourth chord, though, is a borrowed IV. Feel free to ignore the “add9” portion of the chord and just think of it as an E/G#. We expect iv here (E minor) rather than IV (E major), so the arrival of E major comes as a small surprise, particularly with the rogue note of G# in the bass.

Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” features a prominent IV chord in the verse, which is in F minor. We would normally expect the chord built around the fourth scale degree to be Bb minor, but Green Day instead uses Bb major, a chord borrowed from the F major scale. This chord contains a D natural, which does not appear in the F natural minor scale (F G Ab Bb C Db Eb F).

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We might also hear a progression like this in the F Dorian mode, which would consist of the notes F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb and F and contain all the notes of Bb major (Bb D F). But nothing else in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” indicates that it is Dorian. The melody comes exclusively from F minor, and the verse is a straightforward VI-III-VI-i progression in F minor. The song also includes a few C major chords, which are V in F minor and make perfectly clear we are in minor, not Dorian. The Bb major chord stands out, then, as an element that is simply borrowed from another key.

An even clearer example of what an effective device the borrowed IV can be occurs in Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go,” from Disney’s Frozen. (I’m grateful to YouTuber Dean Olivet, who made a video about this song.) The song’s first four chords form a i-VI-VII-iv progression in F minor.

Fm / Db / | Eb / Bbsus4  Bbm |

The second time through the progression, though, the fourth chord suddenly changes to Bb major, a IV chord.

Fm / Db / | Eb / Bbsus4  Bb

The effect is striking, particularly since both the Bb minor and Bb major chords are preceded by suspensions.

Quick Quiz 15.1

Name the notes of the following chords.

iv in B major
bVI in D major
bIII in F major
IV in D minor
I in A minor

 

Songwriting Exercise

Write a verse that includes a borrowed chord.

Next Chapter: Other Harmonic Concepts

Quick Quiz Answers

15.1

iv in B major: E minor (E, G, B)
bVI in D major = Bb major (Bb, D, F)
bIII in F major = Ab major (Ab, C, Eb)
IV in D minor: G major (G, B, D)
I in A minor: A major: (A, C#, E)