MUS 211

Analyzing Altered Tones / Chords

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Following is a checklist which may be helpful (ha) in music analysis when chromatically altered tones are present:

  1. Well, shucks, the first step would have to be figuring out the key of the piece, or the key area of the particular portion of the piece under scrutiny.  Dang it, some composers flat like to modulate right in the middle of an otherwise perfectly acceptable key area.  If you determine a work to be in a minor key, you may expect certain accidentals, such as the #6 or #7 scale degrees (ascending).  Heck, the 7th scale degree is normally raised, anyway, to accommodate the major V chord ... guess that's why they call it harmonic minor.  Naturally, these alterations will affect chord analyses, but the resultant chords are still considered diatonic.  Just be sure your Roman numerals reflect chord quality (upper / lowercase), as applicable, and that you indicate inversion, as necessary.

  1. Okay, so you happen to spot a single accidental.  "What gives??" you say to yourself.  First of all, examine the passage to determine if the altered note is simply a steenking nonharmonic tone, such as a passing tone, neighboring tone, etc. (you know the rest).  If the altered tone is of the rhythmic duration of the other chord factors, however, by golly, you just may have yourself a ... a secondary embellishing chord ... or a borrowed chord ... or a Neapolitan chord ... or an Augmented Sixth chord ... or who knows what else.  But not to worry, you can handle it.  Read on.

  1. If the accidental truly does result in a nondiatonic chord analysis, first determine the chord type.  (Spell the chord in close position--stacked thirds.)  Is the chord a major triad or a major-minor 7th that is normally not of that quality in that particular key?  If so, then you're very likely looking at a secondary dominant chord.  (Of course, if the accidental results in a major chord with its root built on b2, then it's a Neapolitan chord--usually N6.)  If the chord is a secondary dominant, all you have to do is count down a P5 to determine which diatonic factor is being "tonicized" (V/? or V7/?).  If the chord being tonicized (the "?" chord) is not a diatonic scale degree, then you are looking at an altered factor as the tonicized chord, e.g., V/N, V7/N (N=b2), or maybe V/biii, or V/#III, or whatever the alteration of the following diatonic factor happens to be.

  1. Borrowed chords may also produce major chords, however, so you must consider this possibility as well.  If the altered major chord does not appear to be a secondary dominant, check out its relationship to the parallel minor key.  Perhaps it has been ripped off from its parallel universe?  As we all know, borrowed chords can also be minor, too.  Check it out.  And as we all certainly know, a minor chord cannot be a secondary dominant chord, as secondary dominant chords are always major animals.

  1. If the altered chord type is o7 or 7 (other than viio7 in minor and vii7 in major), then you've probably got yourself a mama of a secondary leading tone seventh chord.  To determine what diatonic factor is being tonicized, simply go up a half-step from the root of the o7 chord, and voila!  For example, F#o7 would tonicize a G major or G minor chord.  The analysis would depend upon the key.  In C major or minor = o7/V.  In D major or minor = o7/IV, etc.

  1. Should the o7 chord not seem to conveniently tonicize a diatonic factor, consider the possibility that the o7 chord may be spelled enharmonically just to confuse you ... or due to local musical circumstances.  If the apparent root of the o7 chord does not lie a half-step below a diatonic factor, check each of the other chord factors to see which one does.  (This would be a good time to pray that one factor does.)  Examining the following (tonicized) chord can often provide a clue as to the real root of such o7 chords.  And remember that the tonicized chord in inversion may function in another capacity.  For example, in the key of G major, C#o7-G6-4 is common due to the D in the bass.  the o7/V- I6-4 analysis is perfectly acceptable.

  1. Oh no!  Exceptions to the diminished 7th chords as secondary embellishing chords:  Do not forget about the nondominant usage of o7 chords in major (only) keys:  #iio7-I6 and #vio7-V6 or V6-5.  Analysis of these two chords depends entirely upon the resolution.  For example, in C major, D#o7-C6 would  be analyzed as #iio7-I6, but D#o7-Emi would be analyzed as o7/iii-iii.  Likewise, A#o7-G6 would be analyzed as #vio7-V6.  The A#o7 would not likely tonicize the Bdim chord (leading tone chord), unless it were a cohort in some demented o7 chord sequence.

  1. Summary:  There are only two basic categories for secondary embellishing chords:  V/? V7/? or viio7/? vii7/?.  That's it!  Five of something, or seven of something ...

  1. Lastly, one does not want to forget about the possibility of Augmented 6th chords (It., Gr., Fr.), which tend to produce their fair share of accidentals.

  1. The above should just about cover the analytical possibilities of altered-tone harmonic analysis in music of the so-called common practice era.  One final reminder, do not neglect to indicate the appropriate inversions, if applicable, of secondary embellishing chords.

Mental gymnastics in a nutshell when analyzing altered chords:

  • Simple diatonic alteration, such as #6 or #7 in minor?

  • Borrowed chord?

  • Chord type:  
    Secondary Dominant chord?  V/?  V7/?
    Secondary Leading Tone chord?  o7/?  7/?  Spelled enharmonically?

  • #iio7?  #vio7?  (in major only)

  • Neapolitan Sixth chord?

  • Augmented Sixth chord?

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