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Thread: Why does this chord progression sound good?

  1. #1
    Registered User urucoug's Avatar
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    Why does this chord progression sound good?

    I heard a song the other day whose chords I really like, but it defies my understanding of keys.

    Song--'Something to Believe In' by Parachute:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyVZ4uVHYRw

    Tab that sounds good to me:
    http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/p/pa...remiah_crd.htm

    So, the chords to the main verse are D F G. The melody notes fit into the 'G' key until the pre-chorus. Then something happens with the key for a couple bars (A G), then it goes back, and it sounds really cool and somewhat dissonant when they play the F over "waiting all the time'.

    So, first of all, what's with D major F major G major? That doesn't fit into any key I'm aware of. Most of the notes fit into G, but D sounds the 'most like home.' If the key were D, it would explain the A in the pre-chorus.

    So, is this really the key of D, with a F major for some reason (switching back to a straight up D major during pre-chorus)? It sounds pretty cool to me, is there theory behind why it sounds good?

  2. #2
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    First of all, theory doesn't explain "why" something sounds "good". That will be down to your experience, listening habits, cultural background, personal tastes, etc.

    Theory is only about labelling and describing certain "common practices" in music, and attempting to lay out patterns and connections. It really is mostly about the "what", partly about the "how" and "when", but not about the "why" at all.

    Anyway....

    This is a typical example of a practice that's been part of rock since its beginnings back in the 1950s, and a fundamental defining element since heavy rock began in the 1960s: known as "borrowing from the parallel minor".
    Standard "rock theory", IOW.

    The principle works as follows: "When you are in a major key, you can also use any chords that belong to the parallel minor key (the minor key with the same tonic)."
    In this case, the key is D major, and the F chord comes from the key of D minor. (If that "explains" it well enough for you, then that's good!)

    It's actually a majority of rock songs that will follow this principle to some extent; a minority that adhere to "chapter 1" of the classical "key theory" book , where every chord is harmonised from the same major scale.

    The only governing principle of "key" (in any kind of music) is that you should be able to tell which chord in a progression is "I". That "tonic" chord will then be either major or minor (that's its "tonality"). There is no rule that then determines what other chords or notes must be used; only some "common practices" in each case.
    It's certainly common that - in a major key - you will also find major IV and V chords; because they are the main factors that actually make the "I" chord sound "tonic". (That, and/or a fairly consistent repetition of the I chord.) The 3 minor chords (ii, vi and iii) might also make an appearance.
    But other chords - usually implying other (secondary) scales or keys - may well be introduced; they will add variety, interest or surprise, but usually without disturbing that sense of a central "tonality".

    So it's a defining element of "rock theory" to borrow from the parallel minor. In classical and jazz theory, another defining element is "secondary dominants" - the principle that any chord in a key (not just the I) can have its own dominant chord before it. (And that's before we get into the jazz practice of chord substitution, or classical concepts like "augmented 6ths" or "neapolitan" chords.)

    Getting back to this tune... You rightly spot that the melody notes in the verse suggest the G major scale.
    But the "key" is not G: my ears at least tell me the keynote is obviously D. ("Key" is a matter of sound, not of pitch collection.)
    So we have a "key of D", but one with a C natural in the scale, and (in the chords) a mix of F# and F natural.

    What type of music do you know that has a b7 in a major key, and an occasionally flattened 3rd?
    No prizes for the answer: blues.
    We all know that rock music evolved from the blues, and this is one of the results of that: the habit of flattening the 7th and 3rd of a major key, even when the rest of the music (as here) doesn't sound particularly bluesy. (Of course the 3rd isn't always flattened, because then it would a minor key! )
    Blues is now a basic part of western music culture, which is why these kind of alterations of a major key sound quite natural, even predictable. (In fact, although I'm no classical expert, I wouldn't be surprised to find similar practices in some classical music. It's certainly common in classical music to switch between parallel major and minor keys, but I don't know if the two would be combined at the same time, as they are in rock.)

    The effect of these borrowed chords is to make the major key sound "heavier" or "darker". Rock taste is not too keen on the unrelenting brightness of the plain major key. It's OK for ballads, or for more folksy kinds of sounds, but when we want to "get down and dirty", we want those darker sounds from the parallel minor. We don't want to go all the way to minor - making the tonic minor - because we like the tonal strength of that major I. (We still like minor keys as much as anyone, for their moody intensity, but they generally have a "weaker" sound. The major key with borrowed chords has a useful "toughness": not too bright or happy, but not too introspective or sad either.

    As for definitions or labels, if we just went by the melody (G major scale with D keynote) then we could describe the verse as being "in D mixolydian mode". But the F chord doesn't belong to that. So it's "D major with a borrowed bIII chord".


    The prechorus confirms the key of D major by introducing the V chord (A) (and a passing Bm7 before the G), while still retaining that "heavy" F before going to the chorus.

    The chorus is the same D-F-G chords, but with different phrasing (2 beats on D and 4 on G, rather than vice versa).
    You could argue that the emphasis on G in the chorus makes G sound like the key chord; so it's a V-bVII-I in G, rather than a I-bIII-IV in D. It's really up to your ears to decide that. Mine tell me D is still key chord, because I think by this point D has been well established. But if you took the chorus on its own, you might well hear G as key chord.


    At the end of the chorus we get a more unusual chord. There is a two-bar phrase (on bass and sax at least I think) that ends on a B. This is the sound that stands out of the track for me. The line is as follows:

    Code:
     (F)           (B5)
    |--------------------------------|----
    |--------------------------------|-----
    |--------------------------------|-----
    |--3---3-5-3-0-------------------|-----
    |--------------2-----------------|-----
    |--------------------------------|-----
    |1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . |
    The B note is of course diatonic to D major, but it sounds "off" because t follows so soon after the strong F note; so we get the effect of a tritone. (If we imagine a chord to fit the whole bar, it would have to be something odd like Bdim, Bm7b5, or a rootless G7: the last 4 notes are actually a G7 arpeggio.)
    IOW, to my ears, it's the F that makes the B sound strange, rather than vice versa as we might expect (given the key of D major).
    Last edited by JonR; 07-10-2012 at 01:20 PM.

  3. #3
    Registered User urucoug's Avatar
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    Thanks, Jon. I feel like we can always count on you to give solid answers that are easy to understand.

    Interesting observation about the flatted 7th. I'd thought about that, that's interesting that rock quite often uses a bIII chord instead of the I7 like blues. Since I asked the question, I have been hearing this all over the place. Interesting how you can hear a chord progression. That's never really worked for me very much outside of I IV V I chord progressions.

  4. #4
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by urucoug View Post
    Thanks, Jon. I feel like we can always count on you to give solid answers that are easy to understand.

    Interesting observation about the flatted 7th. I'd thought about that, that's interesting that rock quite often uses a bIII chord instead of the I7 like blues. Since I asked the question, I have been hearing this all over the place. Interesting how you can hear a chord progression. That's never really worked for me very much outside of I IV V I chord progressions.
    You can argue the bIII also comes from blues, or rather from a habit of building major chords (or power chords at least) on each step of a minor pentatonic: I, bIII, IV, V, bVII. Rock would have got that idea from mid 60s pop tunes like "Fortune Teller" or "Knock on Wood".

    The one "borrowed" chord that has no (or very little) connection with blues is the bVI (C in key of E). The parallel minor is the only real explanation for that.
    You can hear a bVI in a major key way back in the 1950s, in Carl Perkins "Honey Don't", and Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue"; and probably before that in jazz or classical. The Beatles borrowed the trick, but it would take Jimi Hendrix and the Who to really exploit the power of that chord.)

    bVIIs, of course, are everywhere, and most rock songs seem to employ one.

  5. #5
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    I--->bIII---->IV looks an awful lot like I--->vi---->IV. Could it be some sort of substitution case? Simply borrowing from minor doesn't not explain it, but the above perspective might offer an answer one magnitude more specific.

  6. #6
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by adam furay View Post
    I--->bIII---->IV looks an awful lot like I--->vi---->IV.
    Not really. In C it would be C Eb F. Eb doesn't have much in common with Am .

  7. #7
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    It's tri-tone substitution.

    I used C chords for the progression.

    C-Eb-F is akin to C-Am-F because Eb-A, A-Eb is a tri-tone away from each other. However, you usually apply this kind of sub on sevenths. (ie: C7-F#7)

    Does the bass note step instead of leap? (Doesn't have to be a semitone although often it is.)

    A---->F evokes a leap; Eb--->F does not. What one calls a leap may vary, but if you think in terms of the minor scales - only the harmonic minor sees a leap (tone and a half) between note six and seven.

    When tritone subs are involved, you're only a semitone above or below where the chord wants to go. (Same is true with bass lines and you see tritone subbing applied to both instances)

    C7 leads to F (F7 or FMaj7 or 9). When the sub is used (an augmented fourth or diminished fifth), there's a bridging chord that helps you walk up or down (most of the time down) to your target chord.

    You see this with ii-V-Is all the time - where the Vs become bIIs (Neopolitan chords in CPP) ----> ii7-bII7-IMaj7

    Gm7-C7-FMaj7 vs. Gm7-F#7(Gb7)-FMaj7 - which would you choose?

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Not really. In C it would be C Eb F. Eb doesn't have much in common with Am .
    you sure about that?

  9. #9
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by adam furay View Post
    you sure about that?
    Yes.

    Eb = Eb G Bb
    Am = A C E

    What am I missing?

  10. #10
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    It's tri-tone substitution.
    Um, no, not really. Tritone substitutions is not just a matter of a chord whose root is a tritone away.
    We're talking functional harmony here, and a substitute chord needs to perform the same function. Tritone subs are generally limited to dom7 chords, because the sub contains the same tendency tones (guide tones): the 3rd and 7th (enharmonically different, but sounding and operating in the same way). IOW, a tritone sub shares the same tritone interval, which enables it to function in the same way.

    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    I used C chords for the progression.

    C-Eb-F is akin to C-Am-F because Eb-A, A-Eb is a tri-tone away from each other.
    But there's no way Am and Eb are "akin". They share no notes at all, so the tritone root difference is meaningless. They sound totally different and therefore can't sub for one another.
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    However, you usually apply this kind of sub on sevenths. (ie: C7-F#7)
    Right! Dom7s to be precise.
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    Does the bass note step instead of leap? (Doesn't have to be a semitone although often it is.)

    A---->F evokes a leap; Eb--->F does not.
    The point being?
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    What one calls a leap may vary, but if you think in terms of the minor scales - only the harmonic minor sees a leap (tone and a half) between note six and seven.
    AFAIK, a "leap" means 2 or more scale steps. That's an augmented second, but it's still technically a scalewise move.
    In some contexts it might sound like a leap of a m3, so it's a trivial point, I guess.
    Still not sure what your point is...
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    When tritone subs are involved, you're only a semitone above or below where the chord wants to go.
    Yes - in circle progressions, which is not the case here.
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    C7 leads to F (F7 or FMaj7 or 9). When the sub is used (an augmented fourth or diminished fifth), there's a bridging chord that helps you walk up or down (most of the time down) to your target chord.
    Right.
    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    You see this with ii-V-Is all the time - where the Vs become bIIs (Neopolitan chords in CPP) ----> ii7-bII7-IMaj7
    Yes - except that in CPP (as I understand it) Neapolitan chords precede the V chord, not the tonic.
    They're not dom7 types either, usually just 1st inversion triads, or maj7 chords.
    The "German 6th" chord does resemble a dom7 (although its 7th is spelled as an augmented 6th), but again it resolves to V not I.
    AFAIK, there's no exact equivalent in CPP for the jazz tritone sub that resolves to the tonic.

  11. #11
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Um, no, not really. Tritone substitutions is not just a matter of a chord whose root is a tritone away.
    We're talking functional harmony here, and a substitute chord needs to perform the same function. Tritone subs are generally limited to dom7 chords, because the sub contains the same tendency tones (guide tones): the 3rd and 7th (enharmonically different, but sounding and operating in the same way). IOW, a tritone sub shares the same tritone interval, which enables it to function in the same way.

    But there's no way Am and Eb are "akin". They share no notes at all, so the tritone root difference is meaningless. They sound totally different and therefore can't sub for one another.
    Right! Dom7s to be precise.
    The point being?
    AFAIK, a "leap" means 2 or more scale steps. That's an augmented second, but it's still technically a scalewise move.
    In some contexts it might sound like a leap of a m3, so it's a trivial point, I guess.
    Still not sure what your point is...
    Yes - in circle progressions, which is not the case here.
    Right.
    Yes - except that in CPP (as I understand it) Neapolitan chords precede the V chord, not the tonic.
    They're not dom7 types either, usually just 1st inversion triads, or maj7 chords.
    The "German 6th" chord does resemble a dom7 (although its 7th is spelled as an augmented 6th), but again it resolves to V not I.
    AFAIK, there's no exact equivalent in CPP for the jazz tritone sub that resolves to the tonic.
    You're right. My point was about preferred movement. Obviously, a bass line can consist of skips, but more often then not, it moves in a melodic fashion. again, it's not a requirement, but considering the other voice parts (those of which you don't want leaping often.)

    You're also correct about N chords, too. I think I misread something reading up on them.

    Thanks for the correction.

  12. #12
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    You're right. My point was about preferred movement. Obviously, a bass line can consist of skips, but more often then not, it moves in a melodic fashion. again, it's not a requirement, but considering the other voice parts (those of which you don't want leaping often.)
    Very true.
    The bass can have wider moves than the upper voices (at least if playing roots and 5ths), but melodic lines involving scalewise moves are also common, at least in pop and jazz.
    Commonly, in that classic pop I-vi-IV progression, the bass will include passing scale notes, to smooth out the skips. So if it's C-Am-F, the bass will often run: |C - - B|A - - G |F ...

    Scalewise bass lines also typically involve chord inversions:

    |C - G/B - |Am - C/G - |F ...

    (getting a little off topic here...)

  13. #13
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    ^My apologies!

  14. #14
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Color of Music View Post
    ^My apologies!
    No problem - all good!
    I should apologise in turn for any unintended dismissive tone. Sometimes folk make incorrect assertions (which require putting right, at least in a thread with any kind of educational content), sometimes - a lot of the time - we just don't say quite what we mean to say, or say something that's easy to misread.
    It's all about trying to maintain clarity - while avoiding pedantry (I don't always manage the latter)!

  15. #15
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    No problem - all good!
    I should apologise in turn for any unintended dismissive tone. Sometimes folk make incorrect assertions (which require putting right, at least in a thread with any kind of educational content), sometimes - a lot of the time - we just don't say quite what we mean to say, or say something that's easy to misread.
    It's all about trying to maintain clarity - while avoiding pedantry (I don't always manage the latter)!
    I certainly know what you mean. Happens to everyone!

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