An Introduction to Chord Substitutions for Piano Players

Chord substitutions are exactly...what they say they are. We simply replace one chord with another one, and we have a chord substitution.

We use chord substitutions to create a different sound in the music. Anytime you hear a change in the pattern of the notes of chords (the same key signature), you will have heard a chord substitution.

Some common examples of chord substitutions are when we change from a major to a minor key, we add in a leading tone such as a sharp or flat, or we're entering in the next section of a piece that may be in a different key.

This lesson will teach you how to find the right chord substitutions that will make sense musically in the passage that you're playing, and you'll learn about the most common chord substitutions that are used in our piano music.

Let's first look at the most basic chord substitutions that we find in our piano music.

Step 1: The Most Basic Types of Chord Substitutions

Remember that a chord substitution is when we replace one chord with another.

There are certain chords in the entire scale that we substitute other chords for much more than the other chords.

In image #2 you can see these chords listed out with the appropriate Roman Numeral (how we signify the name of the chord based on the tone of the scale that it starts with) underneath it.

These chords are "I-IV-V-I" or "1-4-5-1" chords.

The first rule that we need to know about doing this is that the replacement chord, or the new chord, must contain at least 2 of the same notes as the old chord.

Our example here replaces the F Major chord with a D minor chord. (see image #2 & #3)

D minor is a good substitute for F Major because both chords share 2 common notes: F & A. (see image #3)

The F Major Chord contains the notes F, A, & C. The D minor chord contains the notes D, F, & A. See the common notes/tones - F & A?

I will show you another example of this with a G Major chord in the video section at the end of this written section...so make you catch that extra example of this to really help you understand the concept.

**Now that you understand intellectually how chord progressions are formed, here's a tip to help you find your new chord really fast! Simply move down 2 notes down from the 1st note of your chord. Pay attention to key signatures when you do this, but this is an easy way to find a great new chord that will work almost all of the time.**

Next, we're going to look at the most common chord substitutions that we actually use...sort of like math formulas.

Step 2: The Most Common Types of Chord Substitutions

There are 4 main types of Chord Substitutions that we're going to look at today, and these are the main ones that you will use until you are pretty advanced in you're playing. (see image)

A quick reminder:

Major Chords are indicated with Capital Roman Numerals and minor keys are indicated with small roman numerals. That's why you see the two different types in this list - as we are using both Major and minor keys in these chord substitutions.

Rather than relisting each progression here, we're going to move next through each one in the following steps, starting with the first one, which is the ii-V substitution.

Notice that the first chord is a minor chord and the second one is a Major Chord? Good! Let's find out how you make these 2 chords work together.

Step 3: The "ii" - V Progression

Remember that we're using the most common chords for our progressions...I-IV-V-I. (image #1)

This first one is called the 2-5, or the ii - V Progression. We're replacing a major chord with a minor chord that goes into the next Major Chord, which is the 5/V Chord.

This first progression replaces the IV chord with a ii chord. (see image #2)

The "old" chord is F Major. The new chord is d minor. (see image #3) Did you also notice that if you just move down 2 steps from F you land on D? The chord has to be d minor instead of D Major because the key signature must match the original key, which in this case, is C Major...thus the F nature...thus the d minor instead of D Major which had F# in it.

It is always fine to replace a Major Chord with a minor chord as long as both chords share 2 common notes.

Let's move on to the next substitution which is a bit more challenging.

Step 4: The Vii0 - "l" Substitution

The title of this progression looks funny because it has an odd chord in it...a diminished chord. Diminished chords add a sound of dissonance and tension into music and create a feeling of..."what's next?".

We are replacing the V/5 Chord and in this case which is a G Major chord - (G, B, & D; image #1).

When we substitute a diminished chord for this one, we have a B diminished, or a vii0 which then goes back to the regular I chord at the end.

Why B? Because B is the 7th tone/note of this scale. If you were in the key of G Major, then the 7th tone would be F#, and a diminished 7th, in that case, would be F natural.

The next progression is based on the first chord also known as the Tonic Chord.

Step 5: The Tonic Substituition

This time we are replacing our Tonic Chord or the I (1) Chord.

Most of the time we're going to replace the Tonic Chord with a vi or a 6 chord. See what happens again? We're moving from Major to minor...this time it's an A minor chord - A, C, & E.

The Tonic chord really sets the emotional tone of the chord series. When it changes to minor like it does here, the sound immediately goes to a more somber and heavy tone as compared to the original Major Tonic key. This is exactly why we use chord substitutions though and hearing the extreme contrast between major and minor is a good way to reinforce that.

Our last chord substitution is interesting and a bit unusual but is still included in this group because you will end up playing it as you continue to progress in your piano playing.

Step 6: The Tritone Substitution

Tritone substitutions are the most difficult to understand because they are "rule-breakers" when it comes to common tones. I'll show you how we actually can alter some of these common tones in the video portion of this lesson.

In this progression, we start with the V chord, (see image #2) and are replacing that with a Major Tritone Chord or a chord built on a tritone of G. (Don't worry...I go over this in the video!)

You need to know what a Tritone is. A Tritone is the 5th tone of a scale minus one 1/2 step. For example, the 5th tone of C Major is G. Now we simply go down one 1/2 step (or semitone) from G, and we end up on F#. That F# is our Tritone, or we also call that a diminished 5th.

In this case, however, we're building a Tritone off of the V chord, which is the note G. Again, we move up 5 from G and end up on D, and then we move down that one 1/2 step/semitone and we end up on Db.

Our substitute chord is a Db Major Chord. (see image #3)

Again, this one is pretty complicated so don't worry about fully understanding this one right now, just be aware of it, learn what it is called,and then give it a listen as we play different samples of it at our keyboards in the final step where I go over all of this at the piano. Ready to practice this together?

Step 7: Come Practice With Me!

This is a lot of information to process...don't try to "get it" all at one time. Break it down. Once you know what a chord substitution is and why we use them, then you can start moving on to the first type that we use, how to find it and how to play it on the piano.

This video gives you a chance to see, hear, and play with me at your piano each one of these different types of substitute chords and we'll do a lot more examples of each than we did here in the written part of the lesson.

Chord substitutions are for intermediate to more advanced students for the most part but beginning students can gain insight into how chords work throughout our piano music and start understanding what they and we hear in our music all of the time.

You will really enjoy the extra color and depth that interchanging chords can bring into your own music if you are a composer or an improv performer. The possibilities are endless when it comes to what we can do with music through chords and we group them together.

Let's start practicing!

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