Writing about music, or music theory for that matter, can be somewhat disconcerting. Trying to translate concepts that I somehow inherently know or feel into words often leaves me ill at ease. I bring this up because today’s topic, the sense of tonality, what I call “home,” is bound to be confusing (have you ever noticed that the really important things often are?) and I want to be careful to express exactly what I mean. So I guess that I should mention here and now (instead of my “traditional” closing) that I hope you all should feel free to email me with any questions, comments and such either directly at email@example.com or by dropping a note on the Guitar Forums.
Oh, yeah, don’t forget the disclaimer!
Okay, how many times have we asked about how to find out what key a song is in? Is it really that important to know?
Let’s try a different approach (if for no other reason that I’m really tired of the last set of questions), shall we? How do we know a song is over? I mean, besides the fact that the music stops? Forgetting about the “fade-out” endings for a moment, why does the last actual chord of some songs seem so final while others (like the Cure’s Just Like Heaven and In Between Days or Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush) just leave you hanging, waiting for the other shoe to drop?
This is because our ears have established a sense of tonality for that particular piece of music. “Tonality,” as defined in Walter Piston’s Harmony “is the organized relation of pitches around a tonic.” A “tonic,” remember, is another name for the root. Not too helpful, is it? Well, let’s substitute “scale” for “organized relation of pitches.” If your root is C and there are no flats or sharps in your “organized relation of pitches, then you have a tonality of C major. This is why “home” makes more sense to me than “tonality.” When we listen to a piece of music, in essence, we create a home for ourselves and that home is the key signature of that song. Let’s take a look at our old friend “Happy Birthday:”
Did that throw you? If you really did play it (or at least read it carefully), then the Ab major chord on the last note should have sent a massive jolt to your system. Amazing what fun you can have with this stuff sometimes…
But why the shock? After all, the C note is the third in an Ab major chord, so it shouldn’t clash that badly, should it? In and of itself, no, you’re right, it shouldn’t. The shock comes from the fact that we’ve set ourselves up. We expect the song to end in a C major, especially since everything else about the song (the chord progression, the exclusive use of C major scale notes in the melody) dictates that the song should come crashing down to land with a C major chord firmly ringing in our ears. Play it again and this time, after holding the Ab for six beats, play a final C. Now we have a resolution, not as peaceful or traditional as we might have hoped, but at least one that allows us to walk away from the song without looking over our shoulders.
Establishing A Key
Determining a song’s key is almost always one of the first things on our minds, whether you’re a guitarist or a songwriter or just someone trying to puzzle out a song. If we examine songs we know, it’s easy to see how they establish themselves in this or that key. Sometimes it’s something as simple as Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which drones on and on with a D major chord for the entire introduction. Kind of hard to miss that, isn’t it? Other songs may play a line of a verse or chorus as an introduction and of course there are those that forgo the introduction entirely and start right in on the song itself.
Songs are usually (and please remember that in music theory we tend to look at the norms rather than the exceptions in order to get some kind of order) written in lines or phrases. Musically, these phrases usually correspond to a line of lyrics. They also set up the song’s chord progression, which in turn helps to establish the song’s key. This might be a good time to let you in on a little secret: even if you don’t think you know a lot about music theory, your ears and brain actually do. Take something incredibly simple like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (which I bet all of you know but none of you has ever played). Here’s the melody line and the accompanying chords. But, as a test, I’m leaving out the last chord (designated by “?”). It’ll be up to you to fill it in. And, just to make it too simple (BIG HINT), I’m going to do this in C major. And yes, I still haven’t figured out how to do triplets on this thing:
Okay, who didn’t guess C major? Now, you can argue about how it’s a logical thing – after all it’s a fairly traditional thing to end a song on the chord of its key. But the truth of the matter is that it’s what you expect. Try ending the song with an F or an Ab chord. Either works with the melody but since the song starts out with three measures of C major our brains have determined that this is indeed the key of the song and in order to have resolution, we want a C major chord to bring closure to the proceedings.
Let’s try a slightly more complicated example. Same idea, though – I’m going to leave out a chord (marked “?”) and it’s your job to fill it in. Don’t worry, you’ll know the song. Are you ready? No fair peeking ahead for the answer…
Now don’t be getting on my case for how lame these examples are. How do you think you developed this sense of musical tonality in the first place? You weren’t born with it. It is something that is the result of constant exposure to music – all kinds of music.
Okay, you could have chosen two answers here – D or D7. Why is that? Because, to our ears at least, the most definitive final cadence in a musical phrase is going from the fifth (or V7) to the root of any given key. Here to help us demonstrate this is another old friend, Mr. C Major Scale (it has been a while, hasn’t it?):
Now when you play your guitar, hear are the actual notes that are played for the C and G chords, as well as the G7:
Visually, see how the notes work. The open G string stays the same. The B notes move up a half step to the C. The open D moves up to an E. The G, or the F in the G7, on the first string moves down to open E. If you play this sequence, you’ll probably find yourself preferring the G7 to C because of that very F to E transition.
Remember that most of what we consider music theory started with vocal music. The F note (which is part of the C major scale, but not the G major scale), is in essence leading our ears down to the E note of the C chord while the B note is doing the same thing – drawing us back up to C. This is why the half steps in a scale are so important.
And this is also why the V-I cadence is used more often than not in minor keys as well, even when you’d think it shouldn’t. Let’s look at A minor, since it’s easier for most of you to play than C minor. If you want to hear it in C minor, just place a capo on the third fret. Remember that there are three minor scales!
In an A natural minor scale, there is no E major chord. Having no sharps (or flats, for that matter) pretty much takes care of that. But in both the A harmonic minor and the A melodic minor (ascending) G#, not G, is the seventh note. It’s the half step from the seventh to the root that makes the big difference here, since there is no C# to D half step. Listen and look at the four V to I possibilities at our disposal:
Of these three examples, the E to Am is, to my ears anyway, the sharpest. Some people prefer the E7 to Am, but either way, I think you’ll agree that they are both much more powerful than either the Em to Am or the Em7 to Am. I’m certain that you can come up with lots of examples of songs in D minor that use an A chord as the fifth (or B’s and B7’s in songs in E minor).
Leading Up To One’s Root
The fifth (which is also called the dominant) is also a powerful tool to use at the end of a phrase, particularly when the following phrase starts with the root (the I). This is why a lot of songs in, oh, let’s say D, for instance, will end a line with an A chord. This use of the fifth often signals the end of a verse as well. Here, in “Teach Your Children,” it serves both purposes:
The use of fifths does not have to be confined to the immediate key of your song, either. How many times have you seen something like this, taken from Bell Bottom Blues:
In this example, you might at first be a little bewildered by the use of E in a song in C. Since there is no G# in C major, you would assume it should be an E minor chord. The trick is not to think of it as “III” (which Em would be), but rather as “V of VI” which would mean the fifth of Am which in turn would mean E.
Another good example of this can be found in the verses of “Hotel California.” Here are the actual chords in B minor:
Now if we look at our B minor chords (remembering we can now use F# instead of F#m for V, right?) this is what we’ve got to work with:
(Okay, I know this is going to be confusing. “But David, why is the 7th an A major chord if we’re also using the A# in order to make the F# chord?” Please just take my word for it right now and we’ll come back to this at a later date. I promised Paul I would try to shorten these articles a bit…)
(But here’s a clue – think in terms of modes instead of scales…)
Right then, back to the analysis. Let’s replace the actual chord notations with their Roman numeral notations. Since there is no E major, we’ll use our “?” in its place.
(Hey, an added bonus! See how the last line uses the fifth to close the phrase and lead up to the chorus? You’d have thought I’d planned it that way…)
So what about that E, anyway? Well, if you think about songs as being patterns, and you see that the first pattern is I to V, you could make an intuitive leap to this:
This makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it? It also demonstrates the use of what I call a “pivot chord,” in this case the D in the third line. According to the song pattern established in the first line, we are definitely on target to think of it as the fifth of G (V of VI in B minor). But when we look at where the song is going, ultimately back to the F# (V ), then it also logical to think of it as III in order to “climb the ladder,” if you will, back up to the fifth. More on these pivot chords next time…
COMING ATTRACTIONS NOTICE: Here at Guitar Noise (as well as at my own email), we’ve been deluged (to put it mildly) with requests for “songs for beginners.” In fact, many of you noticed that we used a portion of my last column as an answer in our newsletter. And since it’s becoming impossible to answer each and every person who asks about this, I am going to try and address it (with some (hopefully helpful) specific songs) in a column (or, knowing me a series of columns)(yes, Paul, I meant a short series) later this summer. I really do appreciate everyone’s input and patience in this matter.
Until next week, when we’ll pick up right where we’ve left off…