Dominant Isn’t a Dominant Seventh

A dominant isn’t a dominant-seventh for a basic reason… the basic reason is definitions.  Words and terms (compound words) have more than one definition. However, the word ‘dominant’ in so far as a musical word is concerned has only one meaning in any dictionary.  This is astounding!  Where is its other meaning?  Its only definition is ‘the fifth note of a scale’.  When a number is part of a definition, that definition is a functional definition. Function; position.  Look it up.  A position in a scale is expressed with a number, and that number expresses its function.  A note with a position in a chord is expressed with a number, and that number expresses the function the note plays within the chord.  The dominant as the fifth note of a scale is its function within that scale, i.e. its position.  When expressing the word as a term, ‘dominant-seventh’, a function, or position is inferred.  However, the term ‘dominant-seventh’ is invariably regarded as a chord with a major triad and a minor seventh.  This has led to a paradigm of unyielding ignorance on the part of publishers, PhD’s, and teachers who will not, cannot, or do not understand definitions.

The dominant-seventh may be of any identity, since it is not the identity of a chord built with the characteristic intervals of a major third and a minor seventh.  It expresses the position within a scale.  Period… end of issue.  ‘Identity’, i.e., a sound that may be identified as major, minor, etc. is not expressed with numbers, but with symbols; M, m, Ø, etc.  Identity has nothing to do with function… none whatever.  ‘Identity’ is the thing itself… a person, building, scale, chord, etc., etc., with no necessary relationship to function.  Any time ‘7’, or ‘seven’ gets attached to a word or symbol, function is implied. ‘Dominant-seventh’ is a chord built on the fifth note of a scale with the interval of a seventh included, and again, has no necessary relationship to its identity.  The definitions of function and identity must be kept separate.  When they are combined, they become one of the most glaring problems found in all music theory texts.

The word ‘dominant’ must have a second music definition but since it doesn’t, a definition must be formulated:  1. ‘Dominant’… the fifth note of a scale, a function.                         2. ‘Dominant’ …an expression of a chord with characteristic intervals of a major 3rd and a minor 7th; an identity.

Each chord has an identity, a major chord, a minor chord, a half-diminished chord, etc.  A major chord may be a two-note, three-note, or four-note chord.  It has the major 3rd as its characteristic interval.  The fifth is optional.  It may also have a major 7th.  But when we call a major chord a ‘major seventh’ chord, it has an aura of a function. Therefore, it is better to call all chords by their basic names; major chord, minor chord, and half-diminished chord, etc.  The half-diminished chord is a seventh chord by definition.  Attaching a ‘seventh’ to it is redundant; ‘half-diminished seventh’ chord.

The dominant must be treated likewise if one is referring to the dominant as an identity. But there is no identifying symbol for the dominant as an identity. And ‘V7’ or ‘dominant seventh’ is not its symbol, or expression.  Many theorists use the symbol, ‘x’ as its identifier.  It works well, and without conflict or confusion with any other symbol.  So why not use it?  Theorists seem determined not to use it… for some unexplained reason. And when they don’t use it, they use the compromised expression, ‘secondary dominant’ when the dominant (x) is found on other than the fifth note of a scale.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

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