SONGWRITING: the Dominant-Tonic Relationship

No matter what style of music you like, you’ve heard the Dominant-Tonic chord change SOMEwhere in the song, especially if it’s a catchy tune.

Just what IS the Dominant-Tonic Relationship? It’s when one chord wants to move to another SO BADLY… oftentimes at the end of a song section. It’s a predictable chord change, but a necessary one. It “wraps up” the melodies that came before it and brings the chord progression back “home”.


“So, which chords?”


Ah… well, you should re-read this post (the first one I made on this blog) that talks about chords that fit together in a song.

After you read that post, let’s give a few special names to certain chords in the key of C major.


Chords in C Major

C Dm Em F G Am & Bdim. The Bdim is hardly used in pop and rock music, so we’re going to “kill” it, and just stick with the first 6 chords in the key of C: C, Dm, Em, F, G, and Am.

Classical music and blues (and ALL rock/pop music) use the following three chords the most in a progression: the I, the IV, and the V (C, F, and G, respectively).

The I chord is called the TONIC. The IV chord is called the SUB-DOMINANT. The V chord is called the DOMINANT.


See where I’m going with this?


The Dominant-Tonic Relationship is when chord V resolves to chord I. Oftentimes, chord V is the last chord of a song section (such as a chorus)…¬† then, chord I is the first chord of the part that follows it. So in essence, the Dominant chord (chord V) precedes the Tonic chord (chord I) to summarize the melody/idea of the song… bring the chord progression back “home”…. and most importantly, it makes your ears very happy.


Perfect examples of chord V resolving to chord I:

  • the intro of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. It starts with a C to D sequence back and forth… then holding the D…. then FINALLY, when the verse begins, your ears are happy, and guess what… it’s chord I (the song is in G major, so naturally, G begins the verse).
  • (A lesser-known example): the fantastic song the mid-90s, “Soulmate” by No Use For A Name (one of the best melodic punk bands, ever)… the end of the chorus where he says “stuck by your side since you were born” is a chord V resolving to chord I (Eb to Ab). It happens at 35 to 37 seconds in… and also 1:11 to 1:13 “you thought that you were wrong… you were right.” And then, the very end of the bridge (and into the solo) is probably where it’s most noticeable, with the undeniable hook “What that means, you’ll never have a clue!” (1:37 to 1:39)…. Perfect punk song that drifts a little out of key here and there (adding chords that don’t belong) but also sticking to the tried-and-true I, IV, V which makes all the best melodic punk songs. All the best melodic punk songs do the V-I change…. the Dominant-Tonic Relationship… SOMEWHERE in the song (EVERY song!)
  • Colbie Caillat’s wonderfully bittersweet “Realize” also does it… from the end of the pre-chorus, to the start of the chorus is a fine Dominant-Tonic change. Capo on the 6th fret… it’s basically a D shape held for a bit… and then resolving to G when she starts singing the chorus (the actual chords are Ab to Db in that part). Happens for the first time at 47 seconds to 50 seconds:


So, to summarize… USE IT! It makes your ears happy.

About chriscaulder

Posted on March 17, 2012, in chord progressions, songwriting, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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