Are you a songwriter looking to spice up the chord progressions of your songs?
Sometimes a song will feature a “borrowed” chord. It can sound really fresh, adding a welcome surprise that grabs our attention.
This is a cool technique for making songs that are accessible but not too predictable!
But where do you borrow these magic chords from, and how can they help you?
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Do you want to make money from your music?
You don’t need expensive gear, connections, or god-like knowledge to kickstart your career.
This free Masterclass reveals the key steps you ACTUALLY need to make a reliable income doing what you love in 2021.
Catch the full Masterclass here:
But if you just want to learn about Borrowed Chords specifically, keep reading.
What Are Borrowed Chords?
Borrowed chords are chords from a key that’s parallel to your song’s key signature.
So if you’re writing in a major key, you could use a chord from its parallel minor. These non-diatonic chords can spruce up a predictable chord progression.
Instead, the borrowed chord comes from the key that is parallel to your song’s key.
A parallel key has the same root note as the key of your song but a different scale. This generates different yet completely compatible chords.
If your song is in a major key, you can borrow chords from the parallel minor. And if you’re in a minor key, you can borrow chords from the parallel major.
Check this out.
If your song is in the key of C major, here’s the full set of seven chords that can be made from the scale of C major. This makes them diatonic (chords built from the notes in the scale).
You can use any of them in a chord progression and they’ll sound right.
|C major||D minor||E minor||F major||G major||A minor||B diminished|
The parallel minor key of C major is C minor. See how it’s got the same root or starting note as C major (C)?
C minor has different notes in its scale. So it creates a completely different set of seven chords.
|C minor||D diminished||E♭major||F minor||G minor||A♭major||B♭major|
The wild thing is that you can borrow any of these chords from the key of C minor for your song in C major. They will all work!
But there’s a catch. You can only borrow them for a short time.
When you borrow a chord from a parallel key, you’re momentarily stepping out of the original key. By making it temporary, you get a sense of surprise, but the chord still feels like it belongs in the song.
It’s a passing chord rather than a big change in tonality. But it’s awesome news for songwriters!
Instead of thinking you’ve only got seven (diatonic) chords to work with, you can potentially choose up to fourteen chords in your song’s progression!
Here’s all fourteen possible chords for our song example in C major.
But How Do I Use Borrowed Chords?
In pop music, you’ll usually see songs in a major key borrowing from their parallel minors. And some borrowings are more common than others.
Here are the top five chords major keys regularly borrow, with some wicked examples.
1. Minor 4th – iv
This song, Space Oddity by David Bowie, in the key of C major (I) borrows an F minor (iv). It is right after the diatonic F major (IV) at the line “and the papers want to know whose shirt you wear” around 1:36.
You can see him playing these chords on his guitar.
IV iv I
F Fm C
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
The trick is the borrowed chord is in for a blink of an eye. Plus, it’s embedded between two solid key-defining chords, the IV and I (aka the root note).
Here it is again in Creep by Radiohead. This time, the key is G major (I).
But at 0.15–0.016 s in the intro, you’ll hear C major (IV) followed by a C minor (iv) borrowed from G major’s parallel minor key G minor. Then it reseats us in the tonic, G major (I).
The pattern of roman numerals will let you know what borrowed chords will work for any of the twelve major-minor key pairs.
This borrowed chord progression is the most common in contemporary pop. It adds a subtle twist and is frequently seen in alt rock, alt pop and alt country.
2. Flat Major 6th – ♭VI
Here’s a real doozy of an example: Louis Armstrong borrowing the flat major 6th (♭VI ) in What a Wonderful World.
The song is in F major. Right on the underlined lyric in the chorus is a borrowed ♭VI—in this key, D♭ major—from the parallel minor key of F minor.
ii I vii° vi
Gm F E° Dm
I see them bloom, for me and for you
♭VI ii IV I
D♭ Gm C F
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
The ear-catching ♭VI D♭ major sits between the parent major key chords of vi (D minor) and ii (G minor) in this progression. It’s a real surprise to hear, but the surrounding chords keep us firmly rooted in the key.
3. Flat Major 3rd – ♭III
The Beatles were the absolute masters of this one.
I ♭III IV I
G Bb C7 G
We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
IV IV I I
C7 C7 G7 G7
We hope you will enjoy the show
The borrowed chord B♭ from G major’s parallel minor, G minor, is only in for a moment and is solidly held up by G major’s I and IV chords.
It adds emotional punch to the word “lonely” in an otherwise cheerful track.
4. Flat Major 7th – ♭VII
Beloved of R&B, this flat 7th chord (♭VII )borrowed from the parallel minor has appeared in hit after hit.
Here’s a primo example from Rihanna with Love on the Brain.
The parent key is G major. But listen to how the switch to F major, a ♭VII borrowed from the parallel G minor, hikes up the tension in the pre-chorus.
Oh, and baby I’m fist fighting with fire
Just to get close to you. Can we burn something babe?
♭VII I V
F C D
And I run for miles just to get a taste
Must be love on the brain
See how the borrowed ♭VII is used in two ways in the song’s progression: ♭VII-IV-I and ♭VII-I-V.
This musically underlines the already charged lyric ‘Oh and baby I’m fist fighting with fire’ – the ‘unexpected’ chord spotlights this powerful image.
5. Diminished 2nd – ii°
This major to parallel minor borrowing sounds really beautiful. Often, the diminished chord has a variant called a half diminished or a minor 7th flat 5.
I don’t want a lot for Christmas. There’s just one thing I need.
I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree
It adds a nostalgic jazz feel in the middle of a highly infectious energetic pop song – like warmed mull wine at Christmas! Surprising but delicious, rather than unsettling.
So borrowed chords are non-diatonic chords swapped out from the song’s parallel key, for a short time. They have a surprise or emotional effect on the listener.
You can feel the difference—and this is great for songwriting.
Usually, it’s songs with major keys that borrow chords from their parallel minor keys. They have the same root note but a different scale.
Less often, minor key songs will borrow chords from a parallel major key.
Here are three common ways to do that, and this example uses all three!
1, 2 & 3: Major I, Major IV & Major V
This technique changes the last chord in the song from the tonic or root chord of the minor key to the tonic or root chord of the parallel major key.
Radiohead use it in Exit Music (for a film) at 0.54 s. It starts in B minor and ends the verse in the parallel major key’s tonic, B major.
Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears
i V I I
Bm F♯ Bsus4 B
Today we escape, we escape
The song also borrows the Major IV (E major) and Major V (F♯ major). These are chords that minor key songs regularly borrow from their major parallel key.
Bruno Mars gives a mean example of swapping the minor iv for a parallel Major IV in his song in the verses of Runaway Baby. (D minor i to G major IV)
Andrew Hozier-Byrne also uses a minor chord progression swapping in a borrowed Major V in the chorus of Take Me to Church.
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
Adding these major borrowed chords into parallel minor chord progressions
unsettles our expectations. We know the overall mood is more dark or somber in minor keys, but adding in a borrowed chord from the parallel major key is a real power play.
Remember there’s plenty of spice in the chord cupboard to put in the pot to whatever strength you desire.
While there are some well-used recipes, making your own flavor is the way to go!
This technique of borrowing chords to color your progressions is also known as modal interchange.
Borrowing from a parallel minor or major key is just one type of modal interchange. So get this under your belt and there’s still more to come.