Secondary Dominant: An Ode to David Bowie

“The clearest explanation of secondary dominants I’ve ever read!” – Brandon G., Ohio

Secondary Dominant Pop Music Theory

Secondary Dominant: An Ode to David Bowie

I got the news as soon as I woke up on Monday morning. David Bowie had passed away.

It goes without saying that David Bowie was an extraordinary and influential artist. Over the past week, many articles have been published celebrating his life and boasting his many achievements, which includes selling over 140 million albums. Here at Pop Music Theory, we are going to honor this great man in our own special way – by learning about secondary dominants using David Bowie’s “Starman” as our example.

Although secondary dominants are an advanced topic, I am going to try to present this information in a way that anyone with basic music knowledge can understand.

Before you begin this epic post (complete with audio excerpts), you may want to listen to David Bowie’s “Starman” in full. Here is the song in it’s entirety:

David Bowie’s “Starman” was recorded and released in 1972, and was included on the concept album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” The song has been widely acclaimed.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Songs in a certain “key” are generally made up of certain notes that belong to that key. “Starman,” for example, is in the key of F major. Here are the notes that belong to F major:

Notes of F Major Scale

do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti

Notice that out of the seven notes that belong to F major, only one of them has a flat. That’s why you will hear a musician say something like “We are in F major… one flat!”

If a Song is “In a Key,” What Does that Mean?

When we are talking about tonal music – whether that be a David Bowie song or a Mozart piano sonata – musician’s often say a song is in such-and-such key, like F major. So, what does that actually mean?

1. Being “in F major” means that that song is generally only using the notes that belong to the key of F major. We already talked about the seven notes that belong to F major

2. Being “in F major” means that the composer has used harmony to indicate that the note “F” is the tonal center of the song.

Helpful hint: Using the notes that belong to F major is not enough to establish “F” as the key (D minor, for example, uses the same notes as F major). Harmony needs to also be used to establish that “F” is the tonal center.

Harmony is what results from the interaction of two or more notes. Over centuries of tonal music, certain patterns and rules of harmony have emerged.

What is harmony

A Brief Introduction to Diatonic Triads

Remember our seven notes that belong to the key of F major? Well, below are chords that are made out of ONLY these seven notes – what we call diatonic triads. Think of diatonic to mean those notes that belong to the key.

Diatonic Triads Pop Music Theory

Diatonic Triads in F major. Just remember: Major-minor-minor-major-major-minor-diminished

To create these diatonic triads, we take each of the notes that are in our key, and upon each of them we add two thirds. For example, starting with our F note, we add another note which is a third above that (A), and then a third note which is another third above that (C). We repeat this process for each of our seven notes in F major.

These diatonic triads are some of the chords that we might see in our David Bowie song. (Allow me to foreshadow what is to come: Sometimes a song might use notes that are NOT in the F major scale. When this happens, it naturally challenges our ear and creates color and interest.)

Important Side-note: What is a Third?

In our key of F major, remember that our notes are F, G, A, B♭, C, D and E (in that order). The interval between F and G is a 2nd, between F and A is a third, between F and B♭ is a fourth, and so on. Interval is defined as the distance between two notes.

We will be getting MUCH deeper into the subject of triads another day. Let’s move on to our final foundational concept before we get into our topic of the day – secondary dominants.

Third Interval

V to I – A Progression that Sounds Correct and Natural

I mentioned before that there are certain “patterns and rules” in harmony – well, there are many, and we will cover more of them over the weeks to come – but let’s start with just one. Take a look at the diatonic triads again, and note two of the chords:

V Chord Dominant I Chord Tonic

The dominant: A Major chord built on the fifth scale degree. The tonic: A major chord built on the first scale degree.

Here is one of our rules:

When we hear the dominant chord (the V chord), it naturally leads the ear to the tonic (the I chord).

If you have listened to enough tonal music, whether that be David Bowie or Janet Jackson or The Microphones, your ear has been subconsciously trained to hear a V-I progression as natural and correct.

(This is true even if you are not AWARE of it. Consider someone who is a casual, everyday listener to music – someone who cannot identify chords or chord progressions. Even for this individual, this V-I rule has been subconsciously embedded into their mind.)

In fact, in our David Bowie song “Starman,” the V resolves directly to the I chord 12 times! (Granted, several of those times are in the “outro” section). Over the years, I’m guessing I’ve personally listened to the song “Starman” at least 20 times. That means that just from listening to this one song, I’ve been exposed to the V-I chord sequence 240 times. Talk about brainwashing!

Secondary Dominants: Capitalizing on the V-I Instinct

The instinct for V to resolve to I is so strong, that songwriters are able to capitalize on this – using it as a tool to temporarily break away from the key (which, you may remember, adds color and interest).

So, What is a Secondary Dominant?

A secondary dominant is when you play a chord which is a temporary, almost “pretend” dominant (V Chord) which will resolve to a diatonic chord which is our “pretend” tonic (I Chord)*. Here’s a chart:

Secondary Dominant Chart

V/ii chord, which is our “pretend” dominant, resolves to the ii chord, our “pretend” tonic

*Important side-note: Sometimes secondary dominants do not resolve to the chord of which it is the dominant. We will save this for another lesson.

To really understand this, let’s finally take a look at “Starman,” our David Bowie song, so we can see a real life example.

David Bowie’s “Starman”

Here is a 0:22 second clip from “Starman” – an excerpt of the chorus. Listen to the clip by clicking the play button – and follow along with the lyrics below:

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie”

(Lyrics from David Bowie’s “Starman”)

David Bowie Chord Progression

After listening to that clip you are probably thinking:

– Wow, David Bowie is amazing.

– Where is this supposed secondary dominant of which you speak?

Below I will be presenting a chart that will really break it down. But first, let’s explain something. In the chart below, along side each lyric will be some different information. First, the name of the chord that is playing during that lyric (for example, F major) and second, the harmonic analysis. <— Whoa! Sounds fancy! What’s that?

The harmonic analysis is when we listen to a song, and do our best to analyze what harmony has emerged from the instruments that are playing within the song. It is written out in roman numerals, which represent each chord. UPPER CASE represents major chords, and lower case represents minor chords.

Really important side-note: Harmony is not always created by multiple notes being played at the same time (like the strumming of a guitar chord for example). Sometimes, harmony is created over time by a single instrument playing notes consecutively. Also, multiple instruments blend together to create harmony (like in “Starman”). It can become confusing at times!

The Chord Progression (and Harmonic Analysis)

Back to our example. Let’s listen again to our short clip, and this time, follow along with the graphic below. Click the play button to begin:

Secondary Dominant Bowie

The gray arrow indicates our secondary dominant, which is a V/ii resolving to a ii.

The gray arrow in the chart above points out a very interesting chord, D major. If you take a look at our diatonic triads chart above, you will see that the six chord in F major is supposed to be D minor, not D major. This D major is our secondary dominant.

The D major chord acts and sounds as if it is a “pretend dominant” to the ii chord (G minor), leveraging the strong instinct for five to resolve to one. The D major then resolves to the G minor chord, which is the chord of which it is a dominant. This role/context allows for and smooths out the D major chord – which would otherwise be wacky and out-of-key-signature. As previously stated, as a non-diatonic chord, the D major adds color or interest to the song.

Also, because of the voicing of the chords, the raised F, (F) in the D major chord, makes for a “walking up” effect from F, to F, to G.

What is harmony

Bonus Music Theory Topic: Minor iv Chord

Earlier we spoke about adding interest to a song by using notes that are not in our normal key. Notice the B♭ minor chord in the chart above during the lyric “children lose it.” The B♭ minor chord, with it’s D♭ in the third, is certainly not in our normal key of F major. If you take a look back at our diatonic triads chart, you will see that we are “supposed” to have a major IV chord.

When you are in a major key, and a minor iv is used, it is a very dramatic and potent chord. It is a great chord – but if you are a songwriter, you should be careful not to overuse this chord in your songs.

We will stop here for now – as I am planning to write a full post about the minor iv chord, where it comes from and how it is used in songs. So, stay tuned for that!

Third Interval

Other Secondary Dominants

Today we saw an example of the secondary dominant V/ii. Here is a list of other common secondary dominants: (not an exhaustive list)

– V/V (very common)
– V/vi
– V/iii (personal favorite)
– V7IV

I am absolutely in love with secondary dominants. So, you can be 100% sure that I will eventually post examples of each and every one of these different types of secondary dominants. In the meantime:

  • What did you think of this post?
  • Do you have an example of a secondary dominant you can share with your fellow readers?
  • Have you ever written or performed a song with a secondary dominant? (Feel free to share in comments via YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.)
  • Is there a music theory topic which you would love to learn more about?

Thanks for reading, and please share in the comments below!

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53 Comments

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  • This is in my opinion, one of the best PMT lessons to date. Obviously terrific subject matter, and presented in such a way that even I, a percussionist who could never quite wrap my head around tonal music in any meaningful way, could finally kind of understand. Thanks PMT, and thank you Eric Strom

    • Nate,
      You are very welcome. And, thank you for your thoughts and feedback. I am truly happy to hear your reaction, because it was exactly what I was going for. Please continue to let me know how you feel about future content, as I want all of the PMT readers to help shape what topics we discuss and what direction we end up going in.

      Thanks again,
      Eric

  • Eric: I just discovered your blog through the quiz you posted. I really enjoyed this article. Very clear information. Thank you.

  • What’s really remarkable is that Bowie did all this without knowing the theory. In fact, this is the case for most really creative musicians. I dare say, the more you know theory, the less likely you are to do something unusual and creative. (If you’re trying to be creative from a theory-driven side, you end up all Stockhausen.) It’s as if people like Bowie or Lennon just move forward with the principle of be: 1.) different and 2.) good; and let the ear decide what qualifies. It’s strange that so many people admire Bowie, but so few are willing (not able, but willing) to just pull a different chord than what’s expected. It’s not that complicated.

    That’s the great mysterious thing about music; that it is so complex, so powerful, and so intuitive in how it is made. Unlike physics, you don’t need to know the math to “play with it.” I’m sorry if this point of view doesn’t go down well with people in the business of theory. These are two sides of a coin, both marvelous.

    I enjoy these posts. I hate to say it, because there are enough youtube videos in this world, but it would be a lot easier to follow if you just talked through it on a keyboard, like those legendary Leonard Bernstein chats you can find on youtube. Might be worth a shot. Look forward to your post on the minor iv — we used that a lot in 80s punk!

    • Dear Szegedin,

      How are you so sure Bowie was not versed in MT? He was an British artist who often combine genuine creativity with a profound knowledge of their art form. Often they mask their emotions using ingenious forms, and rarely fall into the trap that creativity and intellect weaken each other, quite to the contrary. Besides they can be emotional, too!

      @Erik
      The format you use is very well suited to your topic, I would say, and much clearer then the talking-head-above-keyboard that others have used. Thanks for taking the effort to explain all this to us.

      KR — Jaap

      • Szegedin and Jaap-

        I think there is no doubt that David Bowie had a mastery of songwriting – and either a subconscious or conscious ability to craft compelling melodies and chord progressions.

        Whether he was able to express this in concrete and defined terms as we do in music theory —- I don’t know.

        On the topic of YouTube videos, I would very much like to get into presenting some lessons in video form. I believe that it would offer a different avenue that would allow me to present lessons in different ways, and could be a more effective teaching strategy in some cases. I hope to do this at some point.

        Thanks to both of you for your comments!

        Eric

      • Szegedin and Jaap-

        I think there is no doubt that David Bowie had a mastery of songwriting – and either a subconscious or conscious ability to craft compelling melodies and chord progressions.

        Whether he was able to express this in concrete and defined terms as we do in music theory —- I don’t know.

        On the topic of YouTube videos, I would very much like to get into presenting some lessons in video form. I believe that it would offer a different avenue that would allow me to present lessons in different ways, and could be a more effective teaching strategy in some cases. I hope to do this at some point.

        Thanks to both of you for your comments!

        Eric

        • I second this idea. Understanding the concepts on a keyboard truly cements nature of the theory being discussed. As for Bowie and musical knowledge, I too find it interesting how those who study music can comprehend it at a technical level but don’t always pick out the truly emotional aspects of it.

    • It’s a myth that more knowledge (of theory in this case) hampers creativity.

      More knowledge allows one to manipulate & craft musical tools at hand (similar to a builder, who hopefully has knowledge of how to build a house rather than rely on inspiration only).

      Whether Bowie had this knowledge or not is neither here nor there – we can accept that he was “great”. Others can aspire to his greatness by gaining knowledge & having the skills to analyse what he & other great artists have done in their compositions, as these posts do.

  • Hi there! I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a while now. Thanks so much for these articles that make learning music theory much more interesting.
    One question on this particular article – can you explain the principle of why the harmonic analysis of D maj in this case ends up being noted as V/ii ? If I just read the harmonic analysis of a song and I saw V/ii and knew that the song is in F maj, I’d just play Cmaj and would try to turn it into E min at the same time… :)
    Thanks in advance!

    • Jaanis,

      Secondary dominants are a very advanced topic in music theory, so it can take some time to wrap your head around the concept…

      It may help to think of it this way: When a secondary dominant is being used, it is almost like you are VERY BRIEFLY changing the key of the song (which is sometimes called tonicization). It is almost like you are momentarily leaving the key of F Major and going to the key of G minor (just for two chords). The D major is the V chord in your “new key” of G minor, and then that chord resolves to the temporary “one chord” of g minor.

      Notating secondary dominants as V/V, V/ii/, etc… is the standard notation in harmonic analysis.

      I hope this helps somewhat. Stay tuned to future my posts about secondary dominants. As they say “repetition is the mother of learning.”

      • OK, now I got how to read this particular kind of chord notation.
        V/ii means that there’s a secondary dominant involved and you can read it by taking the value behind “/” as the new key and the value before “/” as the chord you actually play in this new key. This makes everything really simple, thanks! :)

  • I’m confused. Isn’t D major the dominant chord (or V chord) of G major, and not G minor? I was actually under the impression Bowie played a Dm7 in that part, not a Dmaj, but I’m pretty new to all this so I don’t necessarily trust myself.

    • Gary,

      In popular music, when you are in a minor key, it is very common to use either minor v or a major V. Both are perfectly acceptable and frequently used. This is why when you study minor scales, different versions are taught to reflect the flexibility we have in different scale degrees (particularly the 6th and 7th scale degree).

      I am pretty clearly hearing the F♯, so I’m sticking by my analysis as presented in the article.

      Thank you so much for the comment. I hope this helps!

      • Thanks, that’s some useful info. I didn’t realize both were frequently used when in a minor key. I love finding all this stuff out and expanding my creative abilities.

      • You are correct, California is a non-judicial FC state and their is no recourse (deficiency judgment) as long as it was a purchase-money loan.I have a feeling it may not have been purchase money.He needs to speak to an attorney. If he’s in San Diego, I can recommend someone he can speak win.fReheretces : +3Was this answer helpful?

    • Jaap,

      Very sorry about this technical problem. I tried to “send to Trash” your first two replies to Gary, but when I do that, it trashes all three. For now, I will leave all three (better than having none of them). If anyone is knowledgeable in WordPress and can explain to me how to allow comments to be edited, I would really appreciate it.

    • Las 4 ó 5 veces que he estado en su tienda de Clifford street han sido muy amables y el trato ha sido estupendo. El ambiente,la decoración y la música del establecimiento fueron de 10.Además de las corbatas, los acabados de tirantes, chalecos de cashmere o pañuelos han dado un resultado excelente hasta el día de hoy. El servicio de venta online ha sido rápido y sin ningún problema por lo que personalmente recomendaría a cualquiera la maardSaluaosMcrcos

  • Ty for information. Feel free to explain adbanced things like theese. Basic theory is available in everywhere. Time to time you gotta “try us” in hi-fi theory. You obviously have a good understanding in theory and this makes you explain easily even more cpmplicated things. For this reason i am awaiting advance theory tales from you. Like i said “try us” :)

    • “Try us”…. I love that!

      For now I am moving forward with a mix of beginner topics and more challenging ones as well.

      I am planning a survey to see how I can be most useful to you and your fellow readers. I will be sending it to everyone on my email list to try and assess toward what direction I should evolve my posts. Probably sometime in the next month or two.

      Thanks for the comment and glad you liked the article.

  • Stumbled upon this while looking for resources for my High School Theory Class. This is great!

    Thank you so much! I’m looking forward to checking out the rest of your posts – keep up the great work and thanks for sharing!

      • Superb website you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get responses from other kngbledoeawle people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Kudos!

  • Great blog! I wanted to make sure I understand completely. So the secondary dominant is the dominant in the scale of whatever chord position you select. For instance, if I wanted to find the sub dominant of the iii chord in F, it would be the V of the A minor scale which would be E? Is that right?

    • Victoria,
      Glad you like the blog. In your example, you did arrive at the correct answer. If you are in the key of F, and you were looking for the V/iii chord, first identify what the iii chord is, which you did (A minor). At this point, you mentioned minor scale – but I wouldn’t think about it as a major or minor scale. Once you have identified your iii chord, count up a fifth, which you did, to get to E, since a fifth above A is E.

      So overall, you’ve pretty much got it!

  • Amazing post, I started a jaaz school this year and we’ve been studying secondary dominants, it’s a pleasure to listen David Bowie using it in this beautiful song. As you say repetition is the mother of all skills! I look forward to your next posts! Thanks for your amazing work on this website! Can you recommend any resources like books to study pop music for composition the way you explain it to us? I would love to study more in depth those topics. Thank you Erik

    • Guillaume,
      I personally don’t know of any resources that are quite like the way I explain things here on PMT. That is in fact why I started this site and I think that I bring a unique voice to this topic. I do have some resources in the works which I am working on. Please subscribe to my e-mail list here and you will be notified when they are available:

      https://popmusictheory.com/subscribe/

      Thanks for your comment and kind words :)

  • This is one of the best explanations of a rather complicated concept. looking forward to the iv post, too!

    btw, just found this site and I love it! great graphics and tone!

    • Nick –

      Wow, big thank you for saying this is one of the best explanations, I’m honored that you found it useful.

      Glad you like the site and the tone – thanks for taking a few seconds to share your thoughts with me.

  • Eric,

    I just found your site via reddit and I have to say I really enjoyed this article. I have been playing casual guitar for years but just now have I been interested in learning music theory (I’m trying to self-learn piano atm). Thanks for providing easy to digest information. Also, good thing my question about V/ii construction got answered in the comments section. Cheers!

    • Hey Chris,

      I’m thrilled you found my site and enjoyed the article. I’m happy for you that you are learning piano, both guitar and piano are so helpful to learning music theory, so with the combination of the two – you will be a force to be reckoned with!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope you stick around and read some more!

  • Hi,

    I like the post but I don’t understand how to calculate the secondary dominants for other keys. What is the rule?

    Thanks

      • Hey David,

        Calculating any secondary dominant can be done right from the name. Take V/V for example (pronounced “five of five”). If you are in C major, the V of C major is G major. The V of G major (which is our V) is D major, so the “five of five” is D major. The shortcut for a V/V is just going up a major second from the key, C major to D major.

        For V/vi or V/iii, etc…. just repeat the process above. Hope this helps!

        Eric

  • I believe I’m more than likely completely wrong on this, especially seeing as I’ve just proved my past self wrong by actually assessing it properly, but it’s just a thought you might find interesting:
    I’ve been playing a G (or G7) after the V/ii, which in itself would be a secondary dominant in this context, as a V/V.
    I can’t really make out the guitars from the near 50 year old recording, but I can now hear the minor 3rd of the G chord in the string section.
    I’ve also been playing a G where your iv chord is, denoting a chromatic raise to the fifth note of of the following tonic chord via the major 3rd; I had always just assumed the Db in the strings was a raised 11 from the G (i.e. an enharmonic C#) but trying to play that as an extended chord on one instrument just doesn’t sound right…but the straight G chord does.
    The same goes for the V/V.
    Either way, it’d be great to hear your opinion on the matter in order to get to the bottom of this mind-boggling disparity.
    That was a long post…

  • I enjoyed the lesson above ever so much- because I understood it! Delighted with “THE BOWIE” example.
    Not so sure I’ll get an ‘A’ on the quiz, but am going to look for it amongst your pearls, Eric!
    With sincere thanks.

    Barth.

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