The Dominant is Daggy

For readers from the northern hemisphere and non-English speaking backgrounds, “daggy” is a wonderful word used in Australia and New Zealand to denote that which is embarrassingly out of fashion….

It was back in 2005 when I attended a Rolling Stones concert (for the first time in my life) that I realised what made the Rolling Stones so ‘cool’:  the almost complete absence of the dominant chord in their tunes.  More than that, in fact, because this absence of the dominant was accompanied by an abundance of the subdominant.

This is all classical-speak for saying that the Rolling Stones use chord I and chord IV (C and F, for instance) and almost no chord V (G).

Now, I haven’t sat down and catalogued the occurrences of the various kinds of chords in Rolling Stones numbers to be able to support this assertion, but certainly in the play list the Rolling Stones for that September 2005 Madison Square Gardens appearance the dominant didn’t get much of a look in.

This experience made me start listening to contemporary music of all kinds with a new ear.  How prevalent is the dominant in contemporary composition, and how does it work as a marker of degrees of ‘cool’ (or its reverse)?  I was unsurprised to find that whenever the dominant made an appearance the street-cred value of the music was at least a little diminished.

You may well disagree with me – but before you set your opinion too firmly go out and listen to whatever music comes your way in the next 24 hours.  Do you find any examples of the dominant creating a ‘cool’ vibe? (If you do, please leave comments listing these pieces – I really want to test my hypothesis, which also includes an assumption that the Beatles used the dominant much more widely than the Rolling Stones ever did).

The dominant is, of course, an incredibly important chord in classical music. All the main structural patterns in music of the Classical period (as compared to the wider category ‘classical music’) need the dominant as the midway point, or a destination tonality in the process of themes unfolding.  The dominant chord followed by the tonic chord (V-I, or G-C) is called the “perfect cadence” (or more recently and in North America, as an “authentic cadence”).  The sound that this chord-combo makes is one that proclaims: THE END.

Now a lot of the music of the Rolling Stones uses the styles and structures of the blues as either a template or as an inspiration, and if you take a quick look at the statistics of a basic blues pattern you begin to see how they come to use the dominant so little.  For the uninitiated, a blues is traditionally in a 12-bar format, and the chords, in their most fundamental realisation, go like this:

I      I      I      I

IV   IV   I      I

V     IV   I     I

Notice how we get a 8 repetitions of I, 3 repititions of IV, and only 1 appearance of V.  The function of the V is definitely to signal the the end is nigh, but the effect is softened by the interspersing of the IV between the V and the I that would otherwise create a ‘perfect’ or ‘authentic’ cadence.  The combination of IV to I in a classical setting is what is called a ‘plagal cadence’, and (again for the uninitiated) you’ll be able to imagine it if you think of a choir singing “amen”.  This is a much softer way of concluding your musical statement, and it communicates none of the bombastic ‘because-I-say-so’ that the V-I combination exudes.

Having listened to the Rolling Stones simply ignore the dominant for the best part of their concert I then started listening to every other pieces of music I came across: pieces for piano students to learn, new orchestral compositions, poppy pop songs, jingles for advertisements, you name it – that dominant is a killer.

And can I say again, please do leave me any and all examples you can find from recently composed music to counter my hypothesising (but note that there’s not much point telling me that Mozart uses the dominant – he’s well dead, and therefore permanently ‘cool’ being from his own time and place and all).

Here’s my theory: it’s not cool to take a cut-and-dried, there’s-nothing-more-to-say-about-it approach to life or conversation anymore.  In the 21st century you have to leave some room for new information, for new experience, and certainly for changing your mind, and the dominant doesn’t communicate any of that openness or ability to negotiate.

So what does this mean?  For starters, if you are a composer do a quick street-cred check on your use of chords!  Hit the dominant too frequently or with too much enthusiasm and you’re in instant and inescapable fuddy-duddy-land.

And even more seriously, it’s time for piano teachers and piano examination boards to start looking at the kinds of new cadences that express the meanings of the 21st century.  Nearly every piano tutor on the market explores the oh-so-200-years-ago I-IV-V7-I chord sequence.  On a very simple (almost beginner) level I would suggest that the major key pattern I-vi-IV-I is a much more relevant harmonic experience.  And then, if you do want to explore the dominant in a contemporary setting, try I-iii-V-I.  These two chordal patterns sound fresh, relevant and, most importantly, interesting to our students.

More on this topic anon!

11 thoughts on “The Dominant is Daggy

  1. You remind me of my unforgettable high school music teacher (is that a tautology?) She inspired because she was inspired.

    I too learned the ‘traditional endings’ you mentioned (i was in AMEB system for 8 yrs). But I now feel comfortable working around those conventions and just improvising with muso friends (on an electric violin). Music often seems to have a mind of its own..

    Regarding the “daggy” Dominant (V), you’ve raised some really interesting points. I didn’t know the Stones avoided the Dominant, and instead focused more on the subdominant (IV)! [I’ll listen out for that now in other bands!]

    I think one of the key problems with V relates powerfully to the 7th or “leading note” of the Dominant triad. The fact that this “leading note” is only one semitone away from the Tonic is the reason, I feel, why it always seems to be ‘dragging’ or ‘drawing us’ toward the Tonic, V -> I.

    The SubDominant, by contrast, already has the Tonic (I) within its triad. Thus there’s no ‘scale-tension’, and nothing to ‘resolve’. What really fascinates me from a neurophysiological perspective, is why the brain is structured so as to ‘resonate’ to octaves, and other musical intervals. [I’m interested in that, but that’s another story]

    In the Dorian scale the 7th is flattened by a semitone, making it a full tone away from I. This reduces the gravitational attraction of the Tonic (I). It seems surprising that this scale hasn’t been explored more.

    Your students are lucky to have you as their teacher! Thank you for this enlightening and thought-provoking post.

  2. Dave Brubeck’s classic, ‘Take Five’, has a famous repeated bass motif that stretches only as far as *the fourth*! So ‘high fives’ to you about ‘the fourth’ again! Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ has established an almost iconic status for some, and has certainly gained “street cred”. Moreover, in the longer term.

    Even if only anecdotal, I thought it’s an interesting take on the fifth (or fourth)..

  3. Well, Wayne, “Take Five” actually does hit a kind of dominant chord throughout its now iconic riff – but it is a minor dominant chord, not a major dominant chord, so…. it’s not a ‘perfect’ or ‘authentic’ cadence, and it’s not in the slightest bit daggy.

    In your previous post you talk about the function of the leading note in that dominant chord, and the way that the semitone difference between the leading note and tonic might be key to the dogmatic sound that is created in a perfect/authentic cadence. I think that’s entirely right…

    In the diatonic keys (whether major or minor) the dominant is always a major chord, and so maybe we need a different term for the function played by chord v as compared to chord V.

  4. Hi Elissa
    I once read an analysis of John Lennon’s songs, which pointed out his heavy dependence on IV – I

    I’m certainly going to look out for cool dominants.

    What about songs that sound like they have begun on the tonic, but you end up realising that the first chord was actually chord V?

    Roy Orbison’s Dream Baby is one of these.

    It sounds like the very few chords used are I – IV, but then when you hear the last line, you realise that the very first chord was not I but V, and the sogn is ending quite respectably on I.

    I think it’s a cool song.

    And I think songs that end on the dominant are cool. But the only one I can think of at the moment is Geoff Bullock’s hymn “Have Faith in God.” A few times I’ve heard people add a chord I at the end, which spoils what he was trying to do, I think.

  5. Hi Elissa,
    Thanks so much for responding to my brief reply above regarding the Dominant chord as being ‘in’, or ‘out of’, Take Five. Yes you’re quite right; and after my first post I rechecked the original, and, sure enough found the ‘jazzy’ V (minor dominant)! [I can see I’ll have to be very sharp when it comes to commenting on your thought-provoking posts or, better still, absolutely in-tune!!] Also please accept my apologies for a delay in getting back to your kind reply..
    I think your idea of a notation change: small “v” for minor/jazz dominant, versus a large “V” for traditional (major) Dominant, is a *very* good one and most creative! I think it’s quite brilliant, with many benefits not only to practising musicians but also students. [Perhaps for hand-written chord charts one could indicate the same thing but with say a stroke about the v, or similar?]

    As an aside, but nonetheless relevant to “Take Five” and the topic of teaching music, I found it fascinating to read about Dave Brubeck’s college training: refer to brief section “Early life and career” in Wiki He had problems reading music. Could his intuitive piano playing have led him away from an over-emphasis on the daggy (major) dominant? (Just a thought.. )

    • I tend to think the link proves the dagginess of the dominant! These predictable harmonic progressions are not exactly the essence of ‘cool’. Songs that avoid V altogether have a much higher street cred than any of the songs quoted in the link – seriously!

      A good example of a very cool pop song is Silverchair’s Straight Lines from 2007. A very cool pop song if ever there was one. Chord V makes an extremely delayed and transitory appearance just once in the entire chord progression, and even then it is hardly a straightforward appearance when it finally does show up. One example doesn’t prove a theory, but I put this forward as alternative to the plethora of generic pop which relies on the tried and true progressions (which in turn rely upon the dominant!).

  6. Elissa,

    What a wonderful observation and pleasant read! Your explanation of “dagginess” proves very useful for somebody like me.

    The article is thought provoking. Out of all the thoughts provoked, I could not find a cool V as yet 😦

    But I found one song … the coolness (and its mysterious pull on me ever since I heard it) may have just been perfectly explained by your article. Pink Floyd’s Mother. The only time a dominant chord appears is before a sub-dominant chord (just like in the 12-bar blues progression).

    I once wrote an article (in Chinese unfortunately) about its unique arrangement of different time signatures at different parts, and the key changes. In that article, I did point out that the whole song ended on a subdominant chord. But now we have whole lot of something else to add to it!

    Jeff Hao

  7. Hi Elissa. Love the theory… What about sub-V’s? John Lennon’s “Imagine” springs to mind – it uses V/vi in an extremely iconic way, and it’s a dominant chord…

    Also, what about the amazing opening of this tune by Freddie Mercury?

    (and the repeated use of chord V and related sub-V’s)….


  8. Sally – love the Freddie Mercury clip!

    I think what’s interesting about both examples is how augmented chords and intervals moderate the dagginess of the dominant. In Imagine the dominant to tonic resolution in the second half of the verse is mitigated constantly by that mediant that is augmented into a major chord, and in the clip above you’ll notice the opening dominant is really an augmented chord.

    I don’t have time this month to tease this out further, but thank you so much for these two examples! I think there’s some interesting theorising to be done in terms of the use of augmentation alongside the dominant in the final 30 years of the 20th century, and I’m relishing it in advance!

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