Jonny May
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Sometimes when you listen to a cover version of a familiar song, you may notice instances in which it seems like the artist has inserted extra chords. But did you ever wonder how this is possible? In today’s Quick Tip, Passing Chords: 5 Levels (Beginner to Pro), Jonny May shares how you can develop this piano super power too! You’ll learn:

Intro to Passing Chords

The topic of passing chords is an exciting concept in music theory. Understanding what passing chords are and how they work opens students up to brand new worlds of harmonic expression. Moreover, familiarity with various passing chord techniques makes it much easier to recognize these harmonic movements when learning songs by ear.

Let’s begin today’s lesson by asking the most obvious question…

What are passing chords?

Passing chords are non-essential chords that occur briefly in a chord progression. Passing chords can be diatonic (from within the key) or chromatic (from outside of the key); however, all passing chords resolve to a diatonic chord. While passing chords can appear in any genre of music, certain passing chord techniques have strong associations with particular genres. For example, the tritone substitution technique is most common in jazz music.

Chromatic passing chords in particular create extra harmonic tension that makes the arrival of the target chord more pleasing to the ear. The most common chord types used for chromatic passing chords are dominant 7th chords and diminished 7th chords.

Example of a Passing Chord

Let’s check out an example of a passing chord to help you better understand what passing chords sound like. Remember, passing chords are non-essential chords, which means that the don’t contribute to the foundational harmony of the musical passage and do not represent a harmonic “goal” or “target.” Therefore, any progression that contains passing chords can be “essentialized” by removing the passing chords. Nonetheless, when included, passing chords often make the journey toward the harmonic goal more exciting.

To demonstrate this concept, we have two excerpts of “Amazing Grace” below. Both examples are in the key of C major. The first example features only the basic harmonic structure of the song. By contrast, the second example includes an added passing chord.

Amazing Grace with Basic Chords

Amazing Grace with Basic Piano Chords

Amazing Grace with Passing Chord

Example of a Passing Chord on Amazing Grace

What a minute…what is F♯7(♯11) doing in C major? Well, you might say it’s “just passing by.” By the end of this lesson, you’ll have a solid understanding of why this chord works here and which passing chord technique has been applied. Moreover, you can download the lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Must-Know Terms Associated With Passing Chords

Discussing passing chords often involves terms that are unfamiliar for some students. Perhaps you’ve experienced this already. In this section, we briefly define some important terms and concepts that are associated with passing chords.

Diatonic (adj.) – used to describe notes or chords that come from within the prevailing key.

Chromatic (adj.) – used to describe notes or chords that are not found within the prevailing key.

Tonicization (noun) – a compositional device in which a non-tonic chord is made to sound like a temporary tonic. This typically involves proceeding a target chord with its own dominant chord and/or other related chords, which are described as passing chords.

Leading Tone (noun) – the proper name given for the 7th tone of a scale when it is a half-step below the tonic note. The lead tone has a strong pull toward the tonic note because of this close, half-step proximity. Most passing chords contain the leading tone from the key of the target chord, which we call a secondary leading tone.

Dominant (noun) – as a noun, the term dominant is the proper name given for the 5th tone of a scale when it is a perfect 5th above the tonic. The term also applies to any chord build on this 5th scale tone.

Dominant (adj.) – as an adjective, the term dominant refers to a specific chord quality, as in a dominant 7th chord.

Lesson Context: Familiar Progression for Case Study

Throughout today’s lesson, we’ll explore 5 different passing chord techniques over a sample chord progression. The progression we’ll use comes from the popular Beatles song “Let It Be.” We’ll apply each technique to this progression as a sort of case study on passing chords. Let’s start by looking at and listening to this familiar progression.

“Let It Be” Chord Progression
Let It Be Chord Progression Piano

Chord progression from “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

Now that you have this progression in your ear, let’s proceed to the next section where we’ll explore how this progression sounds when different passing chord techniques are applied.

5 Passing Chords Techniques

In this section, we’ll explore 5 of the most common passing chord techniques found across various genres of music. Even though we’ll be applying each technique to the chord progression from “Let It Be,” that doesn’t mean that all 5 techniques are equally effective for this particular song. We’re just using this progression for demonstration purposes. Keep in mind, within each genre there are certain passing chord techniques that are more common than others. Ultimately, composers and arrangers use their ears to determine which passing chord techniques to use and when to use them.

Alright, let’s dive into the first technique…

Level 1: Pedal Point 6ths

The first passing chord technique we’ll explore is called pedal point 6ths. Another way of describing this technique would be parallel 6ths over a pedal tone. When we use this technique, we’re not as much adding passing chords as we are applying passing motion to the existing chords. If you are familiar with the concept of inner voice movement or suspensions, this is a similar idea in that the bass note remains persistent while other notes move above it. To be sure, this passing motion implies or suggests certain passing chords. However, the passing chords that are implied will not contain all of their chord tones. Moreover, when this technique is used, it won’t necessarily sound like the chords are changing more rapidly. Instead, it sounds fairly similar to the original progression, except with some additional pretty movement. Pedal point 6ths are common in classical, pop and gospel music.

Here is an example of the pedal point 6ths technique applied to the chord progression from “Let It Be.” In this example, the implied chords symbols have been included.

Level 1 Passing Chords - Parallel 6ths Over Pedal Tone

The pedal point 6ths technique uses parallel 6ths to create passing motion over a static bass note.

Pedal Point 6ths Explained

So how do we create pedal point 6ths? Well, it helps to recognize that a 6th interval is the compliment of a 3rd interval. In other words, when you invert a 3rd, you get a 6th. For example, in a C major triad, you have two 3rd intervals—the interval formed by C to E and also the interval formed by E to G. If we move the bottom note of each interval to the top, we get E to C and G to E. As a result, these are now 6ths intervals. We can choose either 6th interval to create passing motion over the root of the chord.

Example 1 illustrates different pedal point 6th possibilities over a C major triad. The 2nd measure begins with the 6th interval of G to E and moves it upward two steps and then back down. On the other hand, measure 3 starts with the 6th interval of B to G and follows the same contour. In this case, the passing motion draws on the harmonic colors of the major 7th and the major 9th.

Example 1
Level 1 - Pedal Point 6ths Explained - Example 1

Demonstration of pedal point 6ths over C major.

Now, let’s look at Example 2, which features similar parallel 6th movement over an A minor chord. Notice in these examples that chord tones are placed on the downbeats. This anchors the harmony amidst all the passing motion.

Example 2
Level 1 - Pedal Point 6ths Explained - Example 2

Demonstration of pedal point 6ths over A minor.

Now, let’s proceed to Level 2 to learn a completely different passing chord technique.

Level 2: Diminished Passing Chords

Another common technique used to create passing harmony involves diminished chords. With this technique, each diminished chord is related to and resolves up to a target chord. For this reason, Jonny calls these “lift-in diminished chords.” Another name for these chords are secondary diminished chords. This technique has a traditional sound that is commonly found in classical music and traditional gospel. In today’s lesson, all of our demonstrations feature diminished 7th chords. However, this technique also works with diminished triads. In either case, it’s significant to note that secondary diminished chords are built on the leading tone of the target chord. Let’s take a listen…

Level 2 Passing Chords - Secondary Diminished Chords

“Let It Be” chord progression with secondary diminished 7th chords.

Initially, the harmonic analysis for the example above may look strange. Keep in mind that each diminished 7th chord is imported from the key of the target chord to which it resolves. Moreover, it’s important to note that fully diminished 7th chords occur naturally in the harmonic minor scale as a Ⅶº7 chord. Therefore, the G♯º7 in measure 1 comes from the key of A minor, which is also its target chord. The proper way to read this analysis is to say that G♯º7 is the “seven diminished of six” since Am is the Ⅵ chord in the prevailing key of C major.

Secondary Diminished Chords Explained

The easiest way to understand secondary diminished chords is to actually think in the key of the target chord. For example, let’s imagine that we are in the key of A minor. In this case, Am is the tonic chord, which we analyze with the Roman numeral Ⅰ. In this setting, G♯º7 to Am is a perfectly normal progression, which we would analyze as Ⅶº7 to Ⅰ. The following example represents this scenario…

Example 1
Level 2 - Secondary Diminished Chords Explained - Example 1

Example of a typical Ⅶº7→Ⅰ chord progression in A minor. The secondary diminished chord technique utilizes this familiar resolution in the context of a key center in which A minor is any diatonic chord other than the tonic.

In the context of the example above, we could say that G♯º7 is the “primary diminished chord” of A minor. However, such terminology is somewhat overstated and unnecessary. Still, this manner of thinking prepares students to understand what we mean when we use the term “secondary diminished chord.” If we bring this movement of G♯º7 to Am into another key, G♯º7 is no longer the “primary diminished chord.”  For example, in C major, the primary diminished chord is Bº7. Therefore, if we use G♯º7 to Am in C major, then G♯º7 is indeed a secondary diminished chord…the Ⅶº7 of Ⅵ.

Let’s look at another isolated Ⅶº7→Ⅰ resolution in a different key. The following example is in the key of D minor.

Example 2

Level 2 - Secondary Diminished Chords Explained - Example 2

Example of a Ⅶº7→Ⅰ chord progression in D minor. We can import this tension and resolution as a secondary diminished passing chord into any key which contains Dm as a diatonic chord.

Suppose we were to use this sound of C♯º7 to Dm in the key of C major. Since Dm is the Ⅱ chord in C major, we would analyze C♯º7 as the Ⅶº7 of Ⅱ.

Are you ready to take it up a level?

Level 3: Secondary Dominants

Our Level 3 passing chord category covers the topic of secondary dominants, a pervasive passing chord technique that occurs in virtually all musical genres. Remember, the word “dominant” as a noun refers to the 5th scale tone in the parent key and also to any diatonic Ⅴ chord. For example, in the key of C major, the dominant note is G. Hence, a G major triad is the dominant triad and G7 is the dominant 7th chord. These, of course, are the “primary” dominant chords in C major. However, we can also import secondary dominant chords into C major to target any non-tonic diatonic chord. Therefore, secondary dominants have the sonic characteristics of a Ⅴ to Ⅰ resolution even though the target chord is not actually the primary tonic.

The examples in this lesson include dominant 7th chords, dominant 7ths with extensions and even altered dominant chords. However, this technique also works with basic major triads in genres that typically involve less harmonic complexity. On the other hand, secondary dominants can also incorporate various dominant sus chord techniques too.

Let’s take a listen to an example of secondary dominant passing chords on the chord progression from “Let It Be.”

Level 3 Passing Chords - Secondary Dominants

“Let It Be” chord progression with secondary dominant passing chords.

Notice that the harmonic analysis above follows a similar pattern to how we interpreted secondary diminished chords in the previous section. For example, E7(♭13) is functioning as the Ⅴ7 of Ⅵ. Similarly, C9 is the Ⅴ7 of Ⅳ. (Note: when analyzing secondary dominants, it is not necessary to annotate them with the precise chord extensions and alterations that appear in the music, although you can if you’d like.)

Secondary Dominants Explained

If you want to add secondary dominant passing chords to a song you’re working on, begin by choosing a non-tonic chord to target. For example, suppose you want insert a passing chord that resolves to an A minor triad. Then, thinking in the key of A minor, ask yourself “What is its Ⅴ7 chord?” The answer is E7. Therefore, E7 will work as a secondary dominant passing chord. The following example reflects this scenario…

Example 1
Level 3 - Secondary Dominants Explained - Example 1

Example of a typical Ⅴ7→Ⅰ chord progression in A minor. The secondary dominant passing chord technique utilizes this familiar resolution in the context of a key center in which A minor is any diatonic chord other than the tonic.

Now, if we use this same progression, E7 to Am, in the key of C major, then E7 becomes the Ⅴ7 of Ⅵ because Am is the Ⅵ chord in C major. Note that this example uses a basic E7 chord voicing. However, you can also use chord extensions and alterations in your secondary dominant chord voicings. Typically, there are several voicing possibilities. However, it is important to pay close attention to the melody. Often times, the melody note will wind up being a particular extension or alteration. You want to make sure your chord voicing agrees with the melody.

Now, let’s check out another isolated Ⅴ7→Ⅰ resolution in a different key. Let’s use the key of D minor.

Example 2
Level 3 - Secondary Dominants Explained - Example 2

Example of a Ⅴ7→Ⅰ chord progression in D minor. Anytime we come across Dm as a diatonic chord in another key, we can precede it with A7 as a secondary dominant passing chord.

Since A7 is the Ⅴ7 in D minor, then A7 is a valid passing chord that we can use to approach a Dm chord in other keys too. For example, in C major, an A7 that resolves to Dm is the Ⅴ7 of Ⅱ. However, if we are in B♭ major, then an A7 that resolves to Dm is the Ⅴ7 of Ⅲ. Can you think of any other possibilities? How about the key of F major?

Now, what if we were to integrate the idea of chord substitution with the concept of secondary dominants? Well, that happens to be Level 4!

Level 4: Tritone Substitution

In the previous level, we learned all about secondary dominant chords. In the process, we suggested that we can apply any of the standard dominant voicings and techniques to the concept of secondary dominants as well. For example, secondary dominants can include extensions, alterations and even suspensions. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we can also apply the concept of chord substitution to secondary dominants. To that end, the most common substitution approach for dominant chords is the tritone substitution. Therefore, we can use a “tritone sub” in the place of any primary or secondary dominant chord. This passing chord technique packs a lot of tension and is most often heard in jazz music.

Let’s listen to how the chord progression from “Let It Be” sounds when we add tritone subs in place of secondary dominants.

Level 4 Passing Chords - Tritone Substitution

“Let It Be” chord progression with tritone substitution applied in place of secondary dominants.

Tritone Substitution Explained

Yikes! What’s going on in the example above? Let’s take a closer look at some of these passing chords. The first passing chord is the B♭13 in measure 1. Notice that the analysis describes this chord as the “subⅤ of Ⅵ.” This implies that B♭13 is substituting for the Ⅴ of Ⅵ. Well, what is the Ⅴ of Ⅵ? In C major, the Ⅵ chord is Am and its Ⅴ7 chord is E7. Therefore, B♭13 is substituting for E7. Now, let’s consider the relationship between B♭7 and E7. These chords happen to be a tritone (3 whole steps) apart. Therefore, we call this technique tritone substitution. We’ll talk about why this substitution works in a minute, but first, let’s look at another passing chord in this example.

In measure 2, we have G♭9(♭13) as a passing chord, which is identified as the “subⅤ of Ⅳ.” In C major, the Ⅳ chord is F major and its respective Ⅴ7 chord is C7. As a matter of fact, we could have used C7 here as a secondary dominant passing chord to resolve to F▵9. Instead, we have substituted the dominant 7th chord that is a tritone away from C7, which is G♭7. Then, Jonny voices this chord with D on top. Often times, it sounds best when the top note of a tritone sub is a diatonic note in the parent key. This D happens to be the ♭13 of G♭7, so our voicing with the D on top is G♭7(♭13). In addition, Jonny has included the 9th for added color. Hence, we have G♭9(♭13) as the subⅤ of Ⅳ.

Now, let’s isolate these two examples of tritone substitution and take an even closer look.

Example 1

In measure 1, we said that B♭13 was a tritone substitution for E7. But why does this substitution work? Well, the reason is because B♭7 and E7 share the same guide tones. The term guide tones refers to the 3rd and 7th of a seventh chord. In E7, the guide tones are G♯ (the 3rd) and D (the 7th). Next, the guide tones of B♭7 are D (the 3rd) and A♭ (the 7th). However, G♯ and A♭ are the same note! You see then that E7 and B♭7 do indeed share the same guide tones! Consequently, the voicing leading of B♭7 to Am works just as well as the voicing leading of E7 to Am. Of course, the sound is not identical, but the resolution is satisfying nonetheless.

Level 4 - Tritone Substitution Explained - Example 1

The tritone substitution technique allows us to replace a regular Ⅴ7 chord with the dominant 7th chord that is a tritone away. Therefore, instead of E7→Am, we can play B♭7→Am.
Example 2

Now, let’s look at C7, which is the Ⅴ7 chord in F major. In order to apply a tritone sub for C7, simply find the note that is a tritone away from C. (Hint, it will always be a half step above the Ⅰ chord.) Since G♭ is a tritone away from C, then G♭7 can replace C7 when resolving to F major. Let’s take a listen…

Level 4 - Tritone Substitution Explained - Example 2

Using the tritone substitution technique, G♭7 can substitute for C7 when F major is the target chord.

Now, let’s check out one more passing chord technique in Level 5.

Level 5: Mu Chords as Passing Chords

The Mu Chord is a chord quality that you don’t hear about in most music classrooms. That’s because the term “Mu Major” was coined by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, co-founders of the American rock band Steely Dan. They used the term “Mu Major” to refer to a major chord with an added 2nd. For example, C Mu Major contains the notes C–D–E–G. This chord quality is more commonly known as an “add2” chord and is usually expressed with the chord symbol Cadd2 or Cadd9.

Although Becker has admitted that he doesn’t remember why they chose this name, it has stuck nonetheless. However, it is commonly shortened from “Mu Major” to just Mu, which is the twelfth character of the Greek alphabet. Since many academic fields use a lowercase mu (μ) as a special symbol, some Steely Dan song books even use μ as a chord suffix to represent a major chord with an added 2nd (i.e. Cμ).

While Steely Dan’s earliest usage of Mu Chords appeared in root position, their later works frequently used Mu Chords in 1st inversion. Placing a Mu Major Chord in 1st inversion gives it a distinctly unique character that sounds more modern and jazzy. Nowadays, the term Mu Chord is most often used to refer to the distinct sound of a 1st inversion add2 chord. Therefore, in the following example, we’ve labeled all 1st inversion add2 chords with the special Mu (μ) suffix. On the other hand, root position add2 chords are labeled with the standard add2 suffix.

Let’s listen to how the “Let It Be” chord progression sounds when we use Mu Chords as passing chords. In fact, this example features so many Mu Chords that Jonny describes it as “Mu Magic.”

Level 5 Passings Chords - Mu Major Chords

“Let It Be” chord progression with secondary dominants voiced as Mu Chords.

Passing Mu Chords Explained

Although the example above sounds much different from the previous levels, it is closely related to the secondary dominant technique that we explored in Level 3. The only difference is that now we are using Mu Chords to voice our secondary dominants. For example, instead of “Ⅴ of Ⅵ,” the last chord in measure 1 is now “Ⅴμ of Ⅵ.”

Let’s look at an isolated Ⅴμ→Ⅰ resolution in A minor. In A minor, the Ⅴ chord is E major. However, we’re not going to voice it as a Ⅴ7 chord, which would be E7. Instead, we are going to voice it as a Ⅴμ chord. Therefore, we need to covert the Ⅴ chord into an add2 chord (Eadd2) and then place it in 1st inversion (Eadd2/G♯) for that distinctly modern Mu Chord sound. Let’s take a listen…

Example 1
Level 5 - Passing Mu Chords Explained - Example 1

We can use the Mu Chord Eadd2/G♯ to resolve to A minor for a modern dominant-to-tonic sound, which we analyze as Ⅴμ→Ⅰ.

Now, if we take the progression Eadd2/G♯ to Am and bring it into the key of C major, then Eadd2/G♯ becomes the Ⅴμ of Ⅵ.

Let’s consider another example…this time we’ll use the key of D minor. The Ⅴ chord of D minor is A major. To get the Mu Chord sound, we’ll use Aadd2 in 1st inversion, which is Aadd2/C♯. Let’s take a listen…

Example 2
Level 5 - Passing Mu Chords Explained - Example 2

Example of a dominant Mu Chord voicing resolving to tonic in D minor (Ⅴμ→Ⅰ).


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Passing Chords: 5 Levels (Beginner to Pro)As a result, you are now more equipped to understand many of the harmonic subtleties that you hear every day. Better yet, you can even begin to personalize your favorite tunes by adding passing chords yourself!

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Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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