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If you have a tip for other harmonically hyperactive songs, where the chords are placed somewhat randomly (for example, according to how nicely it fits in your hand on the guitar fretboard), let us know in the comments. | Photo: Austin Prock (Unsplash)
If you have a tip for other harmonically hyperactive songs, where the chords are placed somewhat randomly (for example, according to how nicely it fits in your hand on the guitar fretboard), let us know in the comments. | Photo: Austin Prock (Unsplash)
Anna Marie Hradecká -

TOP 4 Unusual Harmonic Progressions in Pop Music

Let's face it, the main purpose of pop music isn't to intellectually stimulate the listeners. It's rather a combination of something very familiar with a bit of something new and unexpected – all mixed in such a way that the result sticks in the listener's head and makes them listen to the song again and again. So no odd rhythms (that wouldn't be danceable), no excessive dissonance and weird chords (that would sound unpleasant and it would be unplayable around a campfire) and no weird structures (that would get everyone lost). Today we'll look at four examples – don't take it as an exhaustive list but rather as a bit of inspiration – where writers ignore such rules and do whatever they want in terms of harmony. And still, or maybe because of it, create a good song.

1. Ground Control to Minor Major Tom

The tonic chord is the basic, main chord around which the song usually revolves, it usually begins and also ends with it. To identify safely the main chord, it's good to support it with two other dependent chords: the subdominant and the dominant chord – and the circle of the blues "twelve" is complete. With such a three-chord circle, you can compose more songs than Lana del Rey – you can play it in major (e.g. C, F, G, C) and minor (e.g. Am, Dm, E, Am). The fun begins when you use a major dominant chord in an originally minor circle (which uses a major dominant chord anyway, but that isn't relevant now) – or vice versa. You can, in various ways, raise and then deliberately disappoint your audience's expectations.

This is how Lenny Kravitz plays with major and minor keys in "It's Just Another Fine Day (In This Universe of Love)", the opening track from his new album Blue Electric Light. Also, his Am and A chords are aptly accompanied by the verse "I don't know – but I know." Similarly, Pink Floyd play with the ambivalence of the B and Bm chords in "Comfortably Numb" and so does Marcy Playground's "Sex & Candy" (later covered by Maroon 5 whose version is much more relaxed). In the latter, however, the alternation of major and minor thirds on the tonic chord is rather an example of the famous blue note. We can also mention "Human Behavior" where Björk sings a minor third of C over a major chord of A played by the instrumental accompaniment, and the semitone difference between C sharp and C makes it screech beautifully. Sure, Björk isn't exactly pop music, but I guess we can consider her a pop culture classic

2. "...and now for something completely different!"

The key. A set of seven different notes from which you compose chords and a whole song. When you arrange them from lowest to highest, you get a scale – major or minor. Especially in pop, it's better to stick to the keys and define them by their main chords (see point #1) to avoid chaos (see point #3). However, it is possible to borrow a note from another key under certain rules. Sometimes, however, it seems that the authors got bored and tired of playing the verse and chorus in the same key. So they just jump between the two.

Unlike the above-mentioned "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd, where the verse in B minor and the chorus in D major are related (they are two so-called relative keys with the same notes D, E flat, G, A, B flat, C sharp), in the case of Eric Clapton's "Layla", the connection between the chorus in D minor and the verse in C sharp minor would be more difficult to find. And the same goes for "Sister Luck" by The Black Crowes – the verse in F major and the chorus in D (ok, they actually used the chromatic mediant relationship, but maybe they came up with it in an "I like-don't-like" style). In short, as Monty Python would say, "...and now for something completely different!" And it works beautifully!

3. Nuclear Research Level XY

If you didn't close the article at the first mention of the tonic chord, but still find this "T-word" a bit annoying because it reeks of boring theory, you can rejoice now – there are compositions where you might be looking in vain for that basic chord, or even the whole harmonic core ("circle"). For example, the harmonic chaos in "All We Know Is Falling", the title track of Paramore's debut album, is still a mystery to me (maybe because I play keyboard and not guitar), although it beautifully captures the wild energy of the band around Hayley Williams.

And then there are composers who know very well how the harmony of the Western musical tradition works, but one key and one harmonic core is simply not enough for them. For example, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys or "Killer Queen" by Queen crosses two or maybe multiple keys.

4. One creepy swallow doesn't make a summer

In an old review of the song "Standing On the Sun", which Beyoncé sang in an advertisement for a certain two-letter fast fashion chain, I read that the "creepy half-note" in the chorus doesn't really hurt. Well, the whole C#aug chord (the C#-f-a) could be explained in terms of the D harmonic minor scale (but even in this song, the core isn't entirely clear). But it indeed sounds a bit unexpected and anyway, the augmented fifth chord in pop music usually only appears as a transition chord. One would say that Sia, who composed the song, simply shifted one note from the Dm chord on the keyboard and found a nice dissonance that fitted her hand well.

By the way, we could find many examples of sometimes quite strong dissonance or polytonality in Rihanna's, Beyoncé's and other R'n'B divas' music, among other things due to the abundant use of various samples from other songs or non-musical sounds. For example, try listening to the part of Beyoncé's B Day album that doesn't get played on the radio – the tracks "Upgrade U" or "Ring the Alarm" are actually harmonically complete psychedelia. There's really no tonality there.

If you can think of any other harmonically hyperactive songs where the chords are laid down somewhat randomly (for example, depending on how nicely it fits in your hand on the guitar fretboard) or where they are extremely complicated, let us know in the comments.

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Anna Marie Hradecká