(musicTheory2) Lecture Notes: Secondary Dominants 1

Hierarchy (high to low)

  • Key Change
  • Modulation
  • Tonicization
  • Chromatic inflection/embellishment

Chromatic Inflection/Embellishment

Any chromatic alteration of a pitch that does not fit the current tonal area (loosely, the “key”). Absent a “higher” function, chromatic inflections are just embellishments (chromatic neighbor, chromatic passing tone). Later on we’ll learn about “borrowed” chords, or modal mixture.


Tonicization is a process by which a scale degree other than tonic temporarily assumes tonic function. Assuming tonic function usually means that a scale degree has been approached by a dominant harmony. Although temporary tonicization is a redundant term, it may help you distinguish the process from modulation.

Secondary Dominants (Applied Dominant)

Major and minor tonalities each have one set of primary dominants: V, V7, vii°, and vii°7. All of these primary dominants lead directly to tonic (except for deceptive progressions and harmonic sequences). Secondary dominants are dominant harmonies that lead to a temporary tonic (other than the tonic scale degree of the current tonal area). Secondary dominants are necessary for the process of tonicization. Any of the scale degrees, other than the leading tone, can be temporarily tonicized by approaching it with its corresponding dominant (V or V7) or leading tone (vii° or vii°7) harmony.

Since there is only one dominant or leading tone relationship in any key, chromatic alterations of diatonic harmonies are necessary for secondary dominants. For example, if I wanted to tonicize the fifth scale degree of F major (C), I would need a dominant harmony built on G (G is a fifth above C). To build a V7 on G I would need the notes G, B, D, and F. The key of F major, however, includes a B-flat. So to create a secondary dominant (V7) of V in F, I would need to chromatically alter the B flat, making it a B natural. If I wanted to use a leading tone seventh chord (vii°7) to tonicize the same note (C in F major), I would need to build a fully-diminished seventh chord on the leading tone to C. The result would be B, D, F, and A flat. In F major, the B would have to be altered from the key (B flat to B natural), as would the A flat (A natural to A flat).

Secondary Dominants and Roman Numerals

Although secondary dominant V7 chords are usually built on diatonic scale degrees, the resulting harmony is not diatonic, nor does the original diatonic Roman numeral label accurately describe the harmonic function. In the above example, G is the second scale degree of F major. A ii7 chord would be G, B flat, D, and F. A secondary dominant of C, built on G, is G, B natural, D, and F. The Roman numeral for this V7/V, read as V7 “of” V. (the slash = of) The leading tone seventh on B (tonicizing C in F major) would be vii°7/V (vii° of V).

Be sure to properly label inversions of secondary dominants. For example, if B natural was in the bass of the secondary V7 of V, the appropriate indication would be V65 (imagine the proper vertical alignment).

Writing and Identifying Secondary Dominants (or how to do your homework)

Given a chord to tonicize, and a Roman numeral indication of the desired secondary dominant (like #1 of the current assignment), you will need to do the following:

  1. Identify the root of the secondary dominant. For V/ or V7/, the root will be a fifth above the root of the target (temporary tonic) chord.
  2. Spell the secondary dominant (major triad, or major/minor seventh chord).
  3. Make the necessary chromatic alteration.
  4. Voice the chord according to indicated inversion, and with tendency tones in the secondary dominant resolving correctly.

The above should be your thought process. The physical act may change the order, with 4 happening before 3 (the alteration). But you really need to think it about it in the above order. You’re spelling a harmony that will have chromatic alterations. Recognize what those alterations will be before you write the chord.

If you’re given a secondary dominant without a Roman numeral (like #2), use the following process:

  1. Identify the quality of the given secondary dominant.
  2. Use the quality of the secondary dominant to determine the temporary tonic.
    1. If the chord is a major triad, it is V/, and the temporary tonic is a fifth below the root.
    2. If the chord is a major/minor seventh chord, it is V7/, and the temporary tonic is a fifth below the root.
    3. If the chord is a diminished triad, it is vii°/, and the temporary tonic is a half step above the root.
    4. If the chord is a diminished seventh chord, it is vii°7/, and the temporary tonic is a half step above the root.
  3. Resolve the secondary dominant according to its tendency tones and partwriting guidelines. Depending on the inversion of the secondary dominant, you may end up with a root position or first inversion triad as the temporary tonic. Note: you should never end up with a temporary tonic in second inversion.
  4. Label both the secondary dominant and the temporary tonic with the appropriate Roman numerals, with proper inversion for the secondary dominant, and proper inversion of the resulting temporary tonic for its chord. For example, V42/V – V6 is the proper labeling of a chord sequence. We indicate the inversion of the secondary dominant and the temporary tonic, but we don’t have to bother with labeling the inversion of the temporary tonic as part of the secondary dominant. (V42/V6 is not necessary)
    The temporary tonic will be a diatonic harmony in the key.


Leave a Reply