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Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 4: Altered III

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This post is part of a series called Getting to Know Altered Chords.
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 3: Altered VI
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 5: Altered VII

In this series we will learn about altered chords and how we can use them to add harmonic interest to our music. Part 4 of the series will continue with the altered III chord.


The Altered Chord Series

This is the fourth 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.

Part 1 looked at altered V chords, Part 2 at altered II chords, and Part 3 at altered VI chords. We will now continue the series by exploring various ways to alter the III chord.


Diatonic iii

The third diatonic chord in a major key is a minor 7th chord. In the key of Bb it's Dm7. It's harmonic function is as a tonic chord, because although it is much less stable than I it can still have a certain feeling of rest in a chord progression.

Because it's recongizable, an easy way to remember what iii sounds like is by thinking of the song Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's:

The first part of the verse just alternates between I and iii, D and F#m. Notice how the F#m chord feels like a shift in color but not necessarily like we're "taking off" in any new harmonic directions. This is partly because F#m shares so many tones in common with D.

In minor keys the third diatonic chord is a Major 7th chord. Functionally it is pretty similar to the major key equivalent in that it feels like a tonic chord, but you have to be careful. The major III chord can very easily sound like I and make the piece feel like it is in a major key.

For example, if we change Hey There Delilah to a minor key, thus making the progression Dm to F, our ear can very easily confuse the F chord as "home". Here's the example again, with F instead of F#m. I play a Dm chord at the beginning just to get the D major sound from the previous example out of your ears.


Altered iii

The more common alterations of iii in major keys are:

  • III (major instead of minor)
  • III7 (dominant 7)
  • bIII (borrowed from the minor mode)

Altering Each Chord Tone

As explained in the previous tutorials, a chord is "altered" by lowering or raising one or more chord tones 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.

We'll go through one chord tone at a time and examine the results of altering each of them.


Altering only the Root

If we lower the root of the minor III triad we end up with an augmented chord, or bIII+. To my ear it actually feels more like a color change than a functional one.

Here's a progression of I - iii - IV - V and then I - bIII+ - IV- V. Even with the lowered root the chord feels appropriate in the progression.

A slightly smoother approach might be to allow the bIII to resolve the way it's tendency is pulling: down to II. So perhaps instead we could try I - bIII+ - IIm7 - V7

Raising the root changes the chord entirely. If in the key of C an Em7 chord is E-G-B-D, raising the root gives us F-G-B-D. In other words, a G7 chord with the seventh in the bass. Thus it becomes an inverted V7 chord and is no longer a III.


Altering the Fifth

Lowering the fifth gives us a diminished chord. To my ear the E wants to resolve up to F while the Bb wants to resolve down to A, so the best place for this chord to resolve is probably F, or IV. This is probably because Em7b5 (E G Bb) is basically just a C7 chord without the C in the root (C E G Bb).

You could also add the seventh, creating a m7b5 chord, without changing the function greatly. Again this resembles a C9 chord (C E G Bb D).

Raising the fifth is kind of like raising the root: you no longer have a III chord. Raising the fifth of E-G-B gives us E-G-C, or an inverted I chord.


Altering the Third

Altering the third actually gives us something different to work with. Lowering the third gives us a sus2 chord which is a bit bland but could maybe serve some good neutral purposes.

Here it sounds slightly ominous without being as clearly dark or sad as a minor chord, which in a TV or film scoring context could work nicely for a short transition into a scene:

Raising the third changes the chord from minor to major. You could either let this alternate with I, creating a sort of magical/sci-fi effect:

Or you could change the function of III to actually be the V of vi, resolving to the vi chord. In the key of C this means changing Em to E7, resolving to Am:

The second chord in the jazz standard All of Me is E7, which functions as a secondary dominant to vi. But also notice that they've taken the secondary dominant approach a step further and changed Am to A7 to keep the energy pushing towards Dm:

Though the most common use of III7 is to resolve to vi, it doesn't have to.

A different use of iii changed to III7 is in Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song". In the chorus the chord progression repeats G - D - C three times. But the fourth time through, the D is replaced by B7 (III7).

The main purpose of this change is color; it breaks up the repetitiveness of repeating the same chords over and over. But the B7 also gives us an interesting pull into the final C chord. The root of the chord, B, pulls up up into the root of the next chord, C. The raised third of the chord, D#, also has a very strong urge to pull up to the third of the next chord, E. And the F# and A both pull into the G.


Altering the Seventh

Similar to what we found when we altered the seventh of the II chord, lowering the seventh of a minor seventh chord does little to change it's function. It can change it's coloring and mood, but there isn't anything particuarly unique to the iii chord when changing it to a iiimaj7 or iii6 chord.

If you're interested in what this sounds like, I encourage you to check out matching section of the Altered II tutorial.


Altering More Than One Tone

We found that altering the root or fifth alone didn't do much for us, but probably the most common substitute for iii is bIII. bIII is a major seventh chord borrowed from the minor mode. In other words, in C minor the third chord is Ebmaj7. So when we use Ebmaj7 in the key of C major we are essentially "borrowing" the chord from the minor.

bIII has a very upbeat and positive sound. It's not exactly "common" in pop music but it shows up once in a while.

One example is the Lenny Kravitz song Fly Away. The main progression is A - C - G - D:

If you're paying attention you'll notice that the major C chord immediately feels unqiue. It actually feels flatter or lowered, which of course it is.

This simple chord progression is interesting for a few reasons. One is that it's made up of all major chords. But the regular major diatonic scale only has three major chords, which is where the bIII chord comes in. By borrowing a major chord from another key (A minor in this case), we can increase our major chord options.

You may also notice the root movement of the chords. Besides the first minor third step from A up to C, every other chord cycles through the circle of fifths by moving up a fifth (or down a fourth depending on how you want to look at it). C - G - D - A is a constant pattern, the only place where it breaks is the A to C.


Conclusion

The third chord in the diatonic major scale seems to be one of the least useful chords to alter. I'll be honest that finding examples for this tutorial was far more difficult than any of the others so far.

The key takeaways from this tutorial should be bIIImaj7 and and III7, the two most useful and most common chords discussed.

Next up in the series will be the altered VII chord.

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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