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Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 6: Altered IV

This post is part of a series called Getting to Know Altered Chords.
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 5: Altered VII
Getting to Know Altered Chords Part 7: Altered I

In this series we will learn about altered chords and how we can use them to add harmonic interest to our music. Part 6 of the series will continue with the altered IV chord.

The Altered Chord Series

This is the sixth 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, Part 3 at altered VI chords, Part 4 at altered III chords, and Part 5 at altered VII chords. We will continue the series by exploring various ways to alter the IV chord.

Diatonic IV

The fourth diatonic chord in a major key is a major triad. In the key of B it's E major. If you add the seventh (a major seventh above the root), you get a major seventh chord (maj7).

It's harmonic function is considered that of a subdominant chord. In an earlier tutorial called The Basic Functions of Harmony, I explained that a subdominant chord is like moving away from home. In diatonic form it has a certain sense of stability, but as we will discover, in altered form it feels much more transitional and strives to resolve.

The IV chord is so basic and common that it doesn't require much discussion. Here's a very traditional I-IV-V7-I progression:

Altered IV

The most common alterations of IV include:

  • iv (minor, borrowed from the minor mode)
  • IV7 (dominant 7, borrowed from the dorian 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 maj7 chord that gives us four choices for tones to alter, 1 3 5 7.

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

Altering the Root

Lowering the Root

Lowering the root of a major seventh chord just turns the root into the seventh. Rather than an altered IV, it's more like a vi chord:

Raising the Root

Raising the root alone changes the chord to a #IV diminished triad or #IVm7b5 chord, which can serve several purposes.

It could be the IIm7b5 in a minor II-V progression resolving to iii:

Or for a voice-leading/line oriented progression you could use the #IV like a passing tone, notice the smooth chromatic line from G down to E:

You could also have a chromatic line going up in the bass, like this progression that uses #IV as a way to increase the tension between IV and V:

Altering the Third

Lowering the Third

By far the most common alteration of IV is to lower the third and get iv, or "four minor". It's been used so many times in so many styles that it's certainly a cliche, but I'll admit that I still love it.

It's a sound you are probably familiar with:

In a previous tut on Secondary Dominants, I used the Beatles song "In My Life" as an example with iv being used twice.

The first time IV plays for two beats before changing to iv, in essence depressing and saddening the chord by moving it from major to minor:

Later on in the song, iv is used as the landing chord for a deceptive cadence, providing us with a nostalgic and sad surprise:

Another Beatles song that uses a move from IV to iv is "If I Fell". Listen for the change in the bridge on the lyrics "And I would be sad," at about 1:00 into this video:

Raising the Third

Raising the third of a major chord changes it into a sus4 chord. In contemporary styles such as film music, sus4 is a great way to create a sense of neutrality. In the sense that "major is happy" and "minor is sad", sus4 is neither of these emotions, and thus gives you some more flexibility.

Here's a "film score" style example that goes from Isus4 to IVsus4 and back to Isus4:

Something else that helps with that soft and neutral sound is that the sus4 of the IV chord is the b7 of the key, which helps lend to that open and gentler sound.

Altering the Fifth

Lowering the Fifth

A maj7 chord with b5 is quite unusual and not something you'll run into very often. But I suppose it's possible that if you lowered the fifth and the seventh, you could actually think of them enharmonically as leading tones into the root and third of the I chord.

Meaning, if your chord is F A Cb Eb, think of it as F A B D#. The B and D# both resolve up a half step into C and E, and the F and A can both resolve by a whole step to G:

If you lowered the fifth and third a half step, and the seventh a whole step, you could change the chord to a IV diminished seventh chord, which when alternated with I has a beautiful and romantic sound.

This example from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, an excerpt of Waltz of the Flowers, is a perfect one:

Raising the Fifth

Raising the fifth creates an augmented chord, or IV+. Although useful for altering I and V chords, an augmented IV chord doesn't really serve much "functional" purpose.

Altering the Seventh

Lowering the Seventh

Lowering the seventh changes the IV chord from major seven to dominant seven, or IVmaj7 to IV7.

IV7 is most commonly found in the basic 12 Bar Blues, in which every chord is a dominant 7:

You can really hear the b7 of the IV chord on the guitar fill after the line "She's my sweet little thing" at 0:43.

Another place you can find IV7 is in the song "Brain Damage" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon:

The song is in the key of D. The b7 of the IV chord, lowering the third of the key from F# to F natural, helps create a sense of quirkiness. But it's especially tritone of B to F, non-diatonic to the key, that adds a sense of "lunacy".

Raising the Seventh

Raising the seventh of a major seventh chord is essentially meaningless because you just end up back at the root again!


IV is a great chord to alter because it's already functionally a little more free than I or V. It doesn't have to have a sense of firm stability like a tonic chord and it doesn't have to create a strong feeling of tension and need to resolve like a dominant chord. Instead it's a moment of transition, and thus you have more freedom to play with it's color by lowering or raising it's chord tones.

As mentioned, the alteration you'll hear quite often is iv minor. But as you can see there are a lot of other options out there if you're willing to experiment and be creative.

Next up and concluding the series will be the Altered I 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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