Piano Chord Substitution – The Complete Guide
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“Variety is the spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.” These famous words were penned over 200 years ago by the 18th century English poet William Cowper. Ever since that time, this expression has continued to give voice to an innate aesthetic resonating within the human spirit. And when applied to harmony in music, Cowper’s intuition is impeccable. Therefore, as pianists, it’s imperative that we become fluent with a variety of harmonic conventions. In fact, today’s Quick Tip, entitled Piano Chord Substitution – The Complete Guide, is your definitive resource on this topic.
Inside this guide, you’ll discover 5 levels of piano chord substitution techniques for beginner through advanced levels. Within each level, we’ll first introduce a harmonic concept. Then, you’ll apply each concept to a familiar tune. In addition, each section contains recommendations for further study. You can use the following table of contents to navigate throughout the guide.
- Introduction to Piano Chord Substitution
- What is a chord substitution?
- Example of Chord Substitution for Piano
- Level 1: The Chord Family Technique
- 4 Steps to Apply the Chord Family Substitution Technique
- Level 2: The Secondary Dominant Technique
- What are secondary dominants?
- 4 Steps to Apply the Secondary Dominant Chord Substitution Technique
- Level 3: The 2-5-1 Chord Substitution Technique
- 4 Steps to Apply the 2-5-1 Chord Substitution Technique
- Level 4: Extensions & Alterations Techniques
- What are chord extensions?
- What are chord alterations?
- Level 5: 2-5-1 Series Technique
Are you ready to add some variety to your playing? Here we go!
Introduction to Piano Chord Substitution
When you purchase piano sheet music for a popular tune, an arranger has selected the chords for you…well, sort of. Typically, the arranger has made harmonic decisions to target a particular age, reading level or playing ability. As a result, the chords are really not selected for you in particular, but for a group of consumers that may or may not have similar interests and abilities as you. Therefore, the study of piano chord substitutions puts you back in the driver’s seat when it comes to your musical voice. By learning some simple principles of music theory, you can gain the freedom to personalize any song. In fact, you can even eventually outgrow your need for sheet music altogether!
What is a chord substitution?
In music theory, a chord substitution occurs when a basic or anticipated chord is replaced with an unexpected or transformed chord. The substitute chord usually shares one or more notes in common with the original chord. More advanced chord substitutions may replace a single chord with two or more chords.
Example of Chord Substitution for Piano
Chord substitutions are not necessarily complex. In fact, the following example shows how you can change a few chords in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” without adding much difficulty at all. If you were to perform this tune as a beginner piano student for a recital, which version would you prefer to play? If you were in the audience, which version would you prefer to hear?
Now that you understand what chord substitutions are and how they impact the sound of your piano music, let’s explore the first level.
Level 1: The Chord Family Technique
The most basic form of chord substitution for piano is The Chord Family Technique. This substitution technique treats diatonic chords sharing two common tones as interchangeable. This following illustration shows the C Major Chord Family according to this approach.
C Major Chord Family
As the illustration demonstrates, A minor (vi) and E minor (iii) share two common tones with C Major (I). This allows them to substitute for C major quite naturally. However, keep in mind that your ear should be the final judge on whether or not a particular chord substitution is effective.
You may sometimes hear the chord family substitution shown above referred to as a tonic substitution. That simply means that the tonic chord (the 1-chord) is being replaced with another chord. We can apply the same principle for the subdominant family—that is, the 4-chord. The illustration below shows the F Major Chord Family.
F Major Chord Family
In the key of C, the F Major Chord Family contains D minor (ii) and A minor (vi) because these chords share two common tones with F Major (IV). Therefore, D minor and A minor make natural chord substitutes for the 4-chord.
For the purpose of today’s lesson, we will not explore chord family substitutions for the 5-chord (G major). Since the 5-chord plays an important role in establishing the tonality, substitutions for the 5 chord occur less frequently with the chord family technique. However, it is common to add variety by using the 5-chord in 1st inversion.
Your ear should be the final judge on whether or not a particular chord substitution is effective.
As you can see, the chord family technique is simple and straightforward. Therefore, this technique is the perfect way for beginner piano students of all ages to explore chord substitution.
4 Steps to Apply the Chord Family Substitution Technique for Piano
You can transform any simple tune into a beautiful piano arrangement in 4 steps using chord family substitutions.
Step 1–Review the Diatonic Chords
The first step to applying the chord family substitution technique on piano is to review the diatonic chords is C major. The example below is from the lesson sheet that accompanies this Quick Tip: Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide. You can download the lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose the lesson sheet material to any key using the Smart Sheet Music.
Diatonic Chords in C Major
Notice that each diatonic chord above is assigned a Roman numeral. This identifies each chord’s relationship to the key. Once a student learns all their diatonic triads in C major, they can begin to apply this technique on many of the tunes in their existing beginner piano repertoire. This technique is also well-suited for giving Christmas carols and hymns a more contemporary sound.
If you need a refresher on diatonic chords, check out Diatonic Chords—The Complete Guide.
Step 2–Analyze The Original Chords
The second step to applying substitutions with chord families is to analyze the original chords to a tune. To do this, use the number system to assign a Roman numeral to each diatonic chord on your score or lead sheet. Here is an example.
If you want more practice with harmonic analysis, check out our full-length course on Bach Prelude in C Harmonic Analysis (Levels 1–3).
Step 3–Explore Chord Family Substitutions
Once you have analyzed the tune, explore substitution opportunities for the I and IV chords. (Note, if you discovered ii, iii, and vi chords in your tune analysis, these are essentially substitutions already! Therefore, you can apply the chord family principle in reverse. However, this will result in a more elementary sound. For example, a ii chord can be replaced with a IV chord, a vi chord with a I chord, and so on.) Here is one possible reharmonization of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for piano using the chord family substitution technique.
Step 4–Apply Piano Arranging Techniques
Late beginner and intermediate students may like the chord substitutions in the previous step but still feel like something is missing. In this step, we’ll apply some basic piano arranging techniques to come up with a version that sound a bit more pianistic. First, we’ll apply an 8th-note pattern in the left hand using the root and 5th of each chord. Secondly, we’ll apply 1 harmony note in the right had that is either a 6th or a 3rd below the melody note. The key here is to make sure that each chord tone (root, 3rd and 5th) is represented. Check out the following example.
To learn more about these piano arranging techniques and others, check out our Pachelbel Canon in D (Level 2, Level 3) courses.
Great job, you’re now ready for Level 2 piano chord substitutions.
Level 2: The Secondary Dominant Technique
So far, you have learned how to create intriguing piano chord substitutions with diatonic chords. However, many tunes you encounter regularly substitute chords from outside of the home key. In this section, you will learn an essential category of chord substitutions—secondary dominants. In fact, each of the subsequent levels expand on the secondary dominant technique.
What are secondary dominants?
A secondary dominant is a chord imported from outside of the primary key for the purpose of making a non-tonic chord sound like a temporary tonic. The imported chord precedes a targeted resolution chord and functions as its dominant. For example, a secondary dominant can be the V of ii, V of iii, V of IV, V of V or V of vi. Secondary dominants can be a major triad (V) or a dominant 7th chord (V7) and may even include chord extensions (9th, 13th) and alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13).
Example of Piano Chord Substitution with Secondary Dominants
Let’s listen to an example “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” containing secondary dominant chord substitutions.
As you can hear, secondary dominant chord substitutions sound much different than chord family substitutions. In the next section, you’ll learn how to add the sound of secondary dominants to any tune.
4 Steps to Apply the Secondary Dominant Chord Substitution Technique for Piano
You can add the secondary dominant chord substitution technique to your piano playing using the following 4 steps.
Step 1–Establish Target Chords
The first step to using secondary dominants is to establish “target chords” to which your secondary dominants will resolve. Any diatonic chord can be tonicized with the secondary dominant technique. The example below shows a harmonic sketch of what step 1 looks like. In the example, we have selected F major (IV), D minor (ii), and G major (V) as target chords.
Step 2–Think in the Key of the Target Chords
Once you have identified the target chords to which your secondary dominants will resolve, the next step is to think in terms of the key of each target chord. The following example shows a dominant-to-tonic chord progression (V to I) in the key of each target chord from step 1.
In the example above, each V to I resolution is expressed within the key signature of the target chord. In this sense, the V chords are shown as primary dominants. When we export these dominant chords outside of their native key and import them into our “Twinkle Twinkle” example in C major, they become secondary dominants. Remember, since we are using these dominant chords outside of their native tonal environments, we will need to add accidentals to preserve the correct pitches.
Step 3–Insert Secondary Dominant Chords
Once you have identified the dominant chord that is associated with each target chord, you are ready to insert these secondary dominants into your tune, but…
🛑 Make Sure the Secondary Dominant Supports the Melody
In this step, it is important to check to make sure the secondary dominants are compatible with the melody! The melody note must fit as a chord tone, chord extension or chord alteration of the secondary dominant chord. Let’s inspect our secondary dominants one by one.
The first secondary dominant we inserted was C7 on beat 3 of measure 1. The melody note on this beat is the note G which is the 5th of C7. Therefore, C7 is a compatible chord substitution here.
The next secondary dominant we inserted was A7 on beat 3 of measure 2. The melody note here is also G, which is the 7th of A7. Once again, our secondary dominant chord substitution is compatible with the melody.
The final secondary dominant we inserted was D7 on beat 3 of measure 3. The melody note here is E. Did you notice that E is not in D7 (D–F♯–A–C)? However, E is the 9th of D7, which is a compatible chord extension. Therefore, this secondary dominant also works. However, it is appropriate to revise the chord symbol to reflect the presence of this chord extension. Notice in the example above that the chord symbol indicates D9.
Step 4–Apply Desired Chord Voicing Technique
The final step is to take the harmonic sketch from step 3 and voice the chords in a more conventional manner. For example, you can use chord shells, rootless voicings, block chords, drop 2 voicings, quartal voicings and so on. In this case, we will simply spread out the chord tones between two hands for a more balanced sound.
To learn more about various chord voicing techniques, check out Jazz Piano Chord Voicings—The Complete Guide.
To explore secondary dominants in greater detail, check out Lesson 2 of our Passing Chords & Reharmonization 1 course.
Great job! Are you ready to take it to the next level?
Level 3: The 2-5-1 Chord Substitution Technique
So far, you have learned to apply basic piano chord substitutions using chord families and secondary dominants. If you have a more intermediate knowledge of music theory, you can expand on the concept of secondary dominants by including another chord from the secondary key…the 2-chord. This technique, also called tonicization, is especially common in jazz repertoire.
Example of Piano Chord Substitution with 2-5-1 Progression
Let’s check out an example of chord substitution using 2-5-1 progressions.
Let’s examine how to add chord substitutions with the 2-5-1 technique.
4 Steps to Apply the 2-5-1 Chord Substitution Technique for Piano
The 2-5-1 Chord Substitution Technique follows the exact same steps as the secondary dominant method: (1) establish target chords, (2) think in the key of the target chords, (3) insert secondary 2-chord and 5-chord, (4) apply desired chord voicing technique.
Step 1–Establish Target Chords
Just like the secondary dominants technique we explored in Level 2, the first step to adding 2-5-1 progressions is to establish target chords. The target chords you establish will serve as the “1” in each 2-5-1 progressions you insert. In fact, we will use the same target chords here that we used in Level 2—F major (IV), D minor (ii), and G major (V).
Step 2–Think in the Key of the Target Chords
Once you have identified the target chords, the next step is to think in terms of the key of each target chord. The following example shows a 2-5-1 chord progression (ii-V-I) in the key of each target chord from step 1.
In the example above, each 2-5-1 resolution is expressed within the key signature of the target chord. Remember, when we bring these chords into our primary key, we will need to add accidentals to preserve the correct pitches.
Step 3–Insert 2-5-1 Progressions
Once you have identified the 2-5-1 progressions that are associated with each target chord, you are ready to insert these progressions into your tune. However, just like we emphasized in Level 2, be sure these chords are compatible with your melody.
Notice is the example above, Jonny has opted to use Em7 instead of Eø7 for the 2-chord of Dm. The Em7 in this case comes from the parallel major—D major. This is does not pose any problem even though our target chord is D minor. In fact, it is common to use a IIm7 or IIø7.
Step 4–Apply Desired Chord Voicing Technique
The final step is to take the harmonic sketch from step 3 and voice the chords according to your preference. In the following example, the notes have been spread between the two hands.
Great job, you have completed Level 3. However, there is an important related topic to this level—the tritone substitution. Be sure to check out our related Quick Tip on Tritone Substitution—The Complete Guide to learn more about how to insert 2-5-1 progressions with tritone subs.
What if you want to play the example above with richer-sounding jazz chords? Then you are ready to take it up to the next level! However, if you need more practice with 2-5-1 progressions in major and minor, check out the following courses from our library:
- 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Minor 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with 7th Chords (Level 2)
Level 4: Extensions & Alterations Techniques
Once you are comfortable using 2-5-1 progressions, you are well on your way to creating beautiful jazz piano arrangements. However, to really get that classic jazz piano sound, it is important to color your chords with extensions and alterations. Let’s listen to an example of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” harmonized with 2-5-1 chord substitutions employing extensions and alterations.
Example of 2-5-1 Chord Substitutions with Extensions and Alterations
What a fantastic sound! Let’s unpack each of these important techniques.
What are chord extensions?
Chord extensions are any of the three additional chord tones above the 7th that pianists can add to enhance the harmonic color of their chords. Available extensions for major 7th chords and dominant 7th include the 9th and the 13th. On the other hand, minor 7th chords use the 9th and the 11th.
To take a deep dive on the topic of chord extensions, check out our Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2) course.
What are chord alterations?
Chord alterations are notes added to chords create rich and complex jazz harmonies. There are four potential alterations in all: the♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. Simply put, a chord alteration is a chord extension with an accidental. Alterations are most commonly used on dominant chords. In fact, a dominant chord that features a chord alteration is referred to as an altered dominant. Therefore, you will also hear chord alterations referred to as altered dominant tones or altered dominant extensions.
To take a deep dive on the topic of chord alterations, check out our Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2) and Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3) courses.
Are you ready for another level? Then let’s press on to the final section.
Level 5: The 2-5-1 Series Technique
If you really want to push your arrangement to the limits with advanced chord substitutions, then you will love The 2-5-1 Series Technique. Let’s look at an example of this advanced arranging technique.
Example of 2-5-1 Series
This technique uses a long string of 2-5-1 chords that eventually lead to the very last chord in the chord progression. Therefore, the trick in applying this arranging technique is to work backwards from the last chord.
Analysis of 2-5-1 Series
Let’s look at a harmonic sketch of Jonny’s final harmonization.
Since Am7 is the final chord, it is preceded with its own 2-chord and 5-chord—Bm11(♭5) and E7(♭9♯11) respectively. Next, the Bm11(♭5) is treated as a target for another 2-5: C major 7 and F major 9. Notice in this case, the 2-5-1 progression of Cmaj7→Fmaj9→Bm11(♭5) does not employ the typical minor→dominant→major chord qualities that we generally expect to find in a 2-5-1 progression. The actual 2-chord and 5-chord that target the note B are have roots of C♯ and F♯. In fact, Jonny has opted to go with a more diatonic sound here by drawing on C major 7 and F major 9 instead. However, the root movement here still follows a cycle progression.
As we continue to work backward, we see that the C major 7 in measure 3 is approached by its own 2-chord and 5-chord: Dm11 and G7 (♭9♯11) respectively. Next, the Dm11 becomes a target chord and is approached with Em11 and A7(♭9)…another 2-5-1 progression. Continuing further backward, the Em11 becomes the target chord for F#m11 (♭5) and B7(♭9♯11)…another 2-5-1 progression still!
Finally, Jonny uses a Gm7 and C7(♭9) to approach the F#m11. This is an example of another modified 2-5-1 progression. While the pure 2-5-1 movement here would be G→C→F♮, the actual root movement of G→C→F♯ still presents cycle movement. Jonny intentionally lands this 2-5-1 on F♯m11 to kick of the entire 2-5-1 series.
Congratulations, you have completed today’s Quick Tip on Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide. Regardless of which level you currently find yourself, be sure to consider William Cowper’s timeless insight and apply some of these chords substitution techniques today, because variety is the spice of life!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out our other in-depth guides:
- Diatonic Chords—The Complete Guide
- Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide
- Jazz Piano Chords—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings—The Complete Guide
- Block Chords—The Complete Guide
- Tritone Substitution—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Scales—The Complete Guide
- Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment Guide
- Jazz Piano Accompaniment—The Definitive Guide
- New Orleans Blues—The Complete Guide
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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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