Chicago, “You’re The Inspiration”

The unapologetically cheesy power ballad “You’re the Inspiration” is the product of some serious songwriting chops, so let’s take a closer look.

We already considered the first half of the chorus of the song in the chapter on inversions, and it’s a fairly straightforward progression.

I / I (first inversion) / IV / I (second inversion) / V

The rest of the song, though, is much stranger, and it features a number of interesting modulations. This is a familiar template – many artists write complex verses, prechoruses and bridges, which give way to straightforward choruses.

“You’re The Inspiration” begins with a brief intro in the key of G# major. (As I noted in my earlier comments about “You’re The Inspiration,” the keys of the song can be exceptionally difficult to deal with – G# major, and, later, D# major are annoyingly complex, since both contain double-sharps. Throughout this analysis, I hope it will become clear why I call them G# major and D# major, but if you want to think of them as Ab major and Eb major, respectively, I can’t blame you.)

At the beginning of the first verse, however, Chicago abruptly modulate to the key of B major (at 0:14). The modulation comes as a jolt, but it works, in part because B major is the bIII of G# major – a III chord borrowed from G# minor. Listen to the way the modulation feels.

Chicago offsets the unexpected quality of this modulation to B major with a fairly simple progression in the verse.

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As complex as these chords look,  they’re mostly normal chords within the key, including I, iii7, vi, IV and V. Note that we don’t typically encounter all that many iii chords, but when we do, they’re typically followed by IV or vi, as is the case here. The G#m7/F# chord is in third inversion (G#, B, D#, F#, with the F# in the bass), and as usual, the third-inversion chord facilitates a stepwise descending motion in the bass (from G# to F# to E).

So far, so good. But look what happens in the prechorus:

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Wait, what? The first line is simple enough – we have a V and I in the key of B. But then what do we make of the second line? The E/G# chord is a first-inversion IV chord. It’s tempting to think of the A chord as a bVII, but it functions not as a chord within the key of B and more as the beginning of a process of drifting away from it. Note that F#/A# and B have the same relationship as E/G# and A – you can perform the first two chords, then shift down a whole step and perform them again. Even though the harmonies here are starting to get strange, then, there’s a logic to their strangeness.

The next chord, though, is D#/F1. F1 means F double-sharp, so D#/F1 is a D# major chord in first inversion (D#, F1, A#, with an F1 in the bass). An A major chord to a D# major chord is an extremely unusual chord change, but it’s best not to focus on that, and instead to note that D# is the V of G#m, which immediately follows it. G#m is the vi in B major, so D#/F1 is a V/vi, although the extremely remote sequence of chords here demonstrates that we’re not really “in” any particular key right now.

Thinking of the G#m as a vi in B major, and the D#/F1 as a secondary dominant, does turn out to be helpful, though, as we look at the next line. Here, C#/E# means a C# major chord in first inversion (C#, E#, G#, with the E# in the bass). It’s the V of F#, which happens to be the next chord. So the C#/E# is a V/V in the key of B major. So what we have is something like this.

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That brings us to the “in my soul, baby” ending of the prechorus, where we have another D#/F1 chord. Here are those last few chords again.

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Our ears will recognize the D#/F1 as a V/vi, since we just heard it used that way in the previous line. This time, though, instead of going to vi – G#m – the D# chord heads to G# major. That is, the D# major chord creates expectations about what’s to come, and Chicago then tweaks our expectations by heading to a major chord, rather than a minor chord. The major chord still sounds logical, though, because the root of the chord is the same.

Now, listen to how the last line of the prechorus feels. The “soul” in “in my soul” has an upward motion, as if it’s carrying the music skyward. It turns out that the G# major chord is a IV chord in the key of D# major, and for “baby,” Chicago shift up to A#/C1 , an A# major chord in first inversion (A#, C1, E#, with C1 in the bass). A# is also the V of D#. After a blizzard of harmonic weirdness throughout this prechorus, then, our ears are now prepared for the chorus in the key of D# major.

Now listen to the song up to the chorus and ask what the prechorus accomplishes. Chicago leads us through a maze of strange chords, but why?

The answer is in what’s on the other side. The strange chords of the prechorus come at us quickly, too quickly for us to really process them, and by the time the chorus arrives, we’re dying to hear something more straightforward. The chorus, catchy enough to begin with, therefore feels even catchier because of all the strange chords that preceded it. The first half of the chorus, then, is the most memorable part of the song, with its simple progression of I, IV and V chords.

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The second half of the chorus, though, goes in an unexpected direction, modulating to the key of F# major.

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Think about why Chicago might have modulated to F# major here. We’re coming from the key of D# major, which has a third scale degree of F1. (I know – I hate these double-sharps too.) F# major, then, is the bIII chord, borrowed from D# minor. This modulation from D# to F# parallels the modulation at the beginning of the song, where we moved from G# in the intro to B (the bIII of G#) in the first verse. It’s also the same modulation we saw in Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69.”

As we look at the chords that follow the modulation to F#, notice that F# remains in the bass throughout the first two lines. This repeating F# is an example of a type of nonchord tone called a pedal tone, which is when a bass line remains static while chords change atop it. (Think of a church organ, where the bass line is played on pedals with one’s feet.) Leaving aside all the F-sharps in the bass, then, we have I, V, IV, and iiø7 in the first two lines above. The iiø7 chord is a borrowed iiø chord from the key of F# minor, and you should be able to hear the tension in that chord – the climax of the chorus occurs on the word “saying.”

In classical music, the iiø7 chord is usually followed by V, and perhaps the most famous progression in jazz is ii-V-I. So it probably would not surprise us if Chicago wanted to move toward V (C# major, in this case) following the G#ø7 chord. What happens instead is an F#/C# chord, which is a I chord in second inversion (F#, A#, C# with a C# in the bass.)

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This shouldn’t surprise us – as we discussed in the chapter on inversions, second-inversion chords are unstable, and a second-inversion I chord can serve as an embellishment of a V chord. This F#/C# chord heads to Vsus4 and then V. So the F#/C# chord doesn’t function like a I, but instead like a part of V.

Now, how should Chicago get back to the verse? The first verse was in the key of B major, and if we want the next verse to be in the same key, we’ll need to modulate again.

Fortunately, this shouldn’t be hard to do, because F# (which has six sharps) and B (which has five) are closely related. If we want to modulate to a closely related key, we’ll often do so by introducing a note that is not in the original key but is in the key to which we’re modulating. The only note that’s in B major but not in F# major is E. In the last line of the chorus, Chicago resolves the C# chord (V in F#) to F# (I). They include an E in the F# chord, however, suggesting a V7 chord in the key of B.

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By the end of the last line of the chorus, we’re prepared for a modulation back to B major, and that’s what we get – Chicago repeats the instrumental intro of the song, but this time it’s in B rather than G#, and the second verse continues in B.

Another tricky modulation announces the arrival of the third full chorus (at 3:00). Chicago concludes an instrumental break by repeating only the second half of the chorus, this time leaving us hanging on a C# major chord that feels like the V chord of F#. From there, they immediately swoop into the new key of F major. (Not F# major, but F major.) This new key is only a half-step lower than we expect, so it’s an abrupt modulation, even though it goes down by step rather than up.

It also doesn’t come out of nowhere melodically.

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This looks strange, but note that a C# chord immediately precedes the modulation. This C# chord contains the notes C#, E# and G#, and E# is enharmonically equivalent to the F natural in the vocal melody that follows the modulation. The C# chord prepares the listener (and the singer!) for what comes next.

Clearly, “You’re The Inspiration” features a degree of harmonic complexity that some songwriters will find gratuitous. You don’t need to modulate this many times to write a good song. It’s striking, though, how good these modulations sound, and how the overall harmonic complexity of the song heightens the impact of the chorus, which is sugary and straightforward in comparison.