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Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 2: Altered II

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This post is part of a series called Getting to Know Altered Chords.
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 1: Altered V
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 3: Altered VI

In this series we will learn about altered chords and how we can use them to add harmonic interest to our music. Part 2 of the series will continue with the altered II chord.



The Altered Chord Series

This is the second article in a seven part series on altered chords. In the first part I explained that by lowering or raising a tone of a chord by a half step you can change the color and function of a chord.

We will continue the series by exploring various ways to alter the II chord, with examples from Pink Floyd, The Beatles, John Williams, and more.


Altered II

The second diatonic chord in a major key is a minor 7th chord. In the key of G it's Am7. It's main function is as a subdominant chord. It lacks the solid stability of the tonic and the strong pulling tendency of the dominant, which makes the role of the chord more like a point along the way from one chord to another.

A common progression using the II chord is II-V-I. Just to get it in your ears, here is a simple I-II-V7-I progression, using a version of II that has not been altered:

The Most Common Alterations of II:

  • IIm7b5
  • II7
  • bIImaj7
  • #IIº7

Altering Each Chord Tone

As explained in the previous article, a chord is "altered" by lowering or raising one or more chord tone by a half step. Since there are four pitches in a minor 7th chord (1 b3 5 b7), that gives us four choices for tones to alter.

Here we'll go through systematically and examine the results of altering each tone of the chord.


Altering the Fifth

If we raised the fifth of the chord, for example in the key of C giving us the pitches D F A# C, we lose the sense that D is the root and instead it feels more like an inversion of a Bb9 chord (the A# respelled to Bb gives us the chord Bb D F C).

The progression sounds like C Bb/D G7 C:

Much more common, and keeping D as the root of the chord, is to lower the fifth chord tone. The result is a m7b5 chord which has a very dark sound.

IIm7b5 is a chord borrowed from the parallel minor key (The parallel minor of D major is D minor). The b5 of the chord is the same as the b6 of the minor key. We can alter the II in the major key to still achieve that dark "minor" sound.

Here is how a IIm7b5-V7-i progression sounds:

John Williams uses a IImb75 chord in Marion's Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Notice that the 7th stays in the bass of the chord as a pedal point to maintain stability as the progression moves through C Dm7b5/C Am/C:


Altering the Third

If we lower the third of the chord we get a II7sus2. It's sort of unique in it's neutral character, but it doesn't really do anything for us in adding color or interest:

A much more interesting route to take is to raise the third, which gives us a II7 chord. In the key of C that would be D7.

You may have noticed that D7 is the V chord of G, which itself is the V chord of our tonic key C. Thus The II7 chord is also known as V7/V.

The F# of the chord makes an incredibly distinct mark on the chord progression. Not only does it have a very strong tendency to resolve up to G, it also adds a bright and uplifting quality.

Pink Floyd use the II7 chord in the song "Brain Damage" from Dark Side of the Moon (we'll look at this example again when we discuss altered IV):

Something very important to notice about this example is that the 7th of the chord is in the bass (like the John Williams example before). This keeps a common bass note between I and II7 which makes the II feel like even more of a "lifting up" and build in tension.

Although II7 usually resolves to V (seeing how it is V7/V), it doesn't have to.

In the Beatles' Eight Days a Week the major II chord goes to IV instead, making the progression D E G D. You can hear it in the intro and the verses.

We still get the bright and uplifting feeling from the E major (II) but without the strong pull into V.


Altering the Seventh

If we lower the 7th chord tone we end up with a m6 chord. Although it doesn't change the role of the chord, it does add a very mysterious quality because of the tritone between the b3 and 6.

This chord could also be looked at as an inversion of VIIm7b5.

If we raise the 7th we get a minor major 7 chord. Again, this doesn't change how the chord functions but it does add a heightened sense of tension.

The opening bars of Bernard Hermann's score to Vertigo alternate between an Ebm6 and Ebm(maj7).


Altering the Root - bII

Unlike altering the 7th, altering the root can make some significant changes to the role of the II chord.

Lowering the root without changing any other tones would gives us bII+maj7. A much more common approach is to lower the 5th as well to create bIImaj7.

bII usually resolves either to I or to V.

If bII resolves to I it can have a very positive and happy feeling cadence, such as the ending to "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from Disney's Cinderella:

Notice that the Am7 D7 progression sets you up to expect a G chord. Although the melody does resolve to G as expected, the chord actually resolves deceptively to bIImaj7 (G being the maj7 of the bII chord) before then finally finding home on I.

Another use of bII is to go to V. This can most smoothly be done by using bII in first inversion (with the 3rd in the bass). For example in the key of C that would be Db with F in the bass. That way the progression has a familiar F G C bass line.

In classical harmony this is called a "Neapolitan 6th" chord, which is basically a bII chord with the third in the bass. It's more often used in minor keys than major.

Using the "Neapolitan 6th chord can be a nice way to spice up a typical II-V-I or IV-V-I progression.


Altering the Root - #II

If we go the other direction and raise the root of II by a half step we actually end up with a dominant 7th chord.

In the key of C our II chord is built with D F A C. By raising D to D# (which is the same as Eb) we have Eb F A C, or an F7 chord. This changes the chord from a II function to more of a IV function, so we're going to discard it.

In order to still be a "II" chord, we can also raise the 3rd. That way we have D# F# A C, or a diminished 7th chord.

In most cases #IIº7 will resolve up to IIIm, especially because of the climbing tendency of the raised II.

The chord has a certain "old time jazz" quality to it, as you can hear in this progression of Imaj7 #Iº7 IIm7 #IIº7 IIIm7.


Conclusion

While the altered versions of V were more about affecting the tension and dissonance, you can see that altering the II chord can have a more profound affect on the way the chord functions and how it wants to resolve.

Next up in the series will be altered VI.

Please leave your comments and questions below and we will continue to discuss them in the future parts of the altered chord series.

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