Send In The Subs

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on July 13, 2011

Do you ever find yourself picking up your guitar and playing the same old chords that you’ve been playing for years? Bored much? It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut and take the path of least resistance when it comes to chords. Maybe it’s time to change up the batting order and send in some substitutes.

There are three basic types of chord functions: tonic, dominant and subdominant. Good songwriting, like a good book or a good movie, takes the listener on a journey filled with tension and release, conflict and resolution.

• A chord with a tonic function feels at rest. You could play it on a piano and walk away from it feeling fulfilled. Basically, the I chord (based on the first note of a scale) is called the tonic.  But the iii and vi chords, though not as restful as the I, also have a tonic function and can be substituted for the I chord.

• A chord with a dominant function, because of its inherent tension, feels as though it needs to resolve to a place of rest. Thus it creates motion. The V chord is called the dominant. The viim7b5, though rarely used today, is also dominant in its function. Beethoven’s friend once got him out of bed by playing a dominant 7th chord on the piano. He lay there and took it as long as he could, then jumped up and played the resolution to the tonic chord.

• A chord with a subdominant function is sort of in between—you want to hear it resolve but you feel no great urgency for it to do so. The IV chord is called the subdominant. The ii chord has a subdominant function and can be used in place of the IV.  Chord progressions consist of an interplay between these three types.

Substitution 101
For starters, try to exchange ii minor or vi minor in place of I. In place of IV, play a ii minor. In place of V use vii diminished or a bVII.  Technically, any chord can be substituted for another with which it shares a common tone. But to be realistic, not every chord sounds right in every situation. Let your ear be the final “decider” when you’re making chord substitutions.

Why bother? Mainly for color, for spice, for variety, sometimes to match the feeling of the words better. Let’s say you’ve written an eight-bar A section and now you’ve writing the next A section with the same, or nearly the same melody. To create more color and interest, you change a couple of chords by substituting other chords that have the same function. The result is a new and fresher sound instead of just an exact repeat of the previous section. A case in point would be the original “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”. Try the example below as we take that familiar chord progression and change it from  1-2mi-4-5  to  6mi-5-2mi-4

Basic Progression: |E        |F#m7   |A2        | Bsus |
Substitutions:       | C#m7 |Bsus     |F#m7    | A2    |

What a difference in mood! Get familiar with this concept by subbing chords to simple, well known choruses. Lets change up the verses to “The Heart of Worship” from 1-5/7-2mi-5 to 1-5mi-4-b6MAJ.

Basic Progression: I D    I A/C#   I Em7   I Asus I
Substitutions:      I D   I Am7    I G       I Bb    I

The Bb is considered a non-diatonic chord in this progression. Unless we’re jazz musicians, it may be easier to limit our harmonic creativity by using chords and melodies built only on the scale of the key we’re in. But non-diatonic chords can add beauty and pathos to our music. We’re not talking about something avant garde or weird sounding. It can be very simple, logical and natural sounding.

If all this sounds greek to you, check out the DVD “Music Theory Made Easy” from Leadworship.com. Understanding the basics of music theory will equip you to add so many more colors to your songs and open up endless possibilities to be more creative with your ideas.

Some of this article is excerpted from the book “God Songs” written by Paul Baloche and Jimmy and Carol Owens.  Available at www.leadworship.com