Pop Uses of the Altered Dominant Chord – by Nick Malcolm

Trumpeter Nick Malcolm writes about the use of altered dominant chords in popular music…

Surely the most seductive of all the dominant 7th alterations, the Altered Dominant Chord (b9 #9 #11 b13) is responsible for those little spine-tingling jazz moments in over-the-top pop songs.

After a lifetime of self-loathing and social rejection, we jazz musicians are too cautious to express our true joy at these brief seconds of harmonic grace. Yet upon hearing them we awake, shiver with the thrill of possibility and gaze on longingly with regret at the life not chosen.

After posting this on Facebook I was amazed at the response and gratified with my friends and colleagues willingness to confess to love and knowledge of some extremely camp music. Clearly this has tapped into a long buried need like some sort of jazz confessional. Thanks to all those willing to risk becoming personal and professional pariahs in the name of truth and honesty.

Here are the best ten examples that we came up with.

1) Isn’t She LovelyStevie Wonder


Probably THE textbook example. At Stevie’s surpassing encomium, ‘I never thought true love would be, making one as lovely as she’ the Altered Chord steams into the second bar of the bridge. Grab your harmonica bebop licks chaps.

2) Run AwayWhitney Houston


Whether it’s ‘run to you-hoo-hooooo’ or ‘come to you-hoo-ooooooooo’ in the fourth bar of the chorus, and annihilating Celine and Mariah on the way, Whitney blasts into orbit in the VI Altered dominant Space Shuttle from the Cape Canaveral of over-production. Cosmic!

The next three go together in what we’ll call the ‘Function Threesome’.

You’ve driven 764 miles down the M4. The sound check was at 11am so that you’ll be ‘out of the way’ when the guests arrive. The bride is asking if you wouldn’t mind just ‘hanging on for a couple of hours after’ so that the PA can be used by her cousin who is DJing and the band food stipulated in the contract is unremittingly beige. That postgrad at the Guildhall seems a very long time ago.

But fear not! A twisted redemption is possible. As you solo over one of the brief altered dominant moments in the following three songs, your jazz soul will soar with Bird, Trane and Dave Sanborn and you’ll guarantee an interrogation by the jazz fan uncle in the interval.

3) HornyMousse T

0.04’ (and throughout)

4) StreetlifeThe Crusaders & Randy Crawford


5) Sing It BackMoloko

0.10’ (and throughout)

6) All I Want For Christmas is YouMariah Carey


Nothing says Christmas like chromatic alterations to the mixolydian mode as MC reminds us here.

7) Watcha Gonna Do For MeThe Average White Band


Confirming Dundee’s reputation as a centre of harmonic opulence, AWB demonstrate the international reach of the altered dominant.

8) SenoritaJustin Timberlake

The machismo from Memphis passes the altered dominant onto the MTV generation in the first chord of his 2002 hit. Cheers Justin!

9) Out Of My LifeMichael Jackson


We’d like to, as they say, slow it down a little bit now. MJ may not know whether to laugh, cry, live or die but he does know that whatever he does will be accompanied by the altered dominant. Good choice Michael.

10) Love On TopBeyonce 0.49’

Bringing us right up to date with her 2011 chart topper, Miss Knowles knows that the altered dominant, like love, is always on top!


Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. A fun article. There are MANY other examples in pop/rock but the one most known to guitarists would be “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix. The Steely Dan/Donald Fagen catalogue will be a goldmine, “Do It Again” the biggest hit. How about another article on the use of upper structure triads in pop? You'd find many in the Carole King, James Taylor, Crosby Stills & Nash songbooks.

  2. Richard, greetings wherever you are (San Diego?), and be our guest! If “The use of upper structure triads in pop” needs to be written, then I don't know who apart from you is going to write it (?)

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