Other Harmonic Concepts

The bVII chord is common in a variety of pop music contexts. Augmented chords (root, major third, and raised fifth) are less common, but can be an effective way to create a sense of uncertainty or tension. Rock musicians also frequently use progressions consisting entirely of major chords, a practice that stems in part from the harmonic ambiguity of the blues.

Here, we’ll examine a few harmonic ideas that don’t fit squarely elsewhere on this site. 

The bVII Chord

The bVII chord frequently appears in major keys. It’s a little like a borrowed chord, in that it technically could be borrowed from the parallel minor, but it functions somewhat differently. Whereas borrowed chords point our ears toward the parallel minor, the bVII points our ears toward Mixolydian. (That is, the mode that’s like major but with a lowered seventh.) Often, though, the bVII chord appears in situations that are not strictly Mixolydian, frequently appearing alongside V chords, which contain a regular (i.e. not lowered) seventh scale degree.

The bVII chord is a major chord with a root a whole step below the tonic. Although it is commonly called “bVII” whenever it appears, it is not always flat – instead, a better way to think of it might be that the seventh scale degree it’s based around is lowered by a half step from the one that typically appears in major keys.

Here’s an example from the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” which is in B major.

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The chord built around the lowered seventh is the A major. Its appearance in B major is striking, particularly as an accompaniment to the G# in the vocal in m. 3. Although we have an A major chord, we are not in Mixolydian – we also have an F# major chord, which contains an A#.

J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” which is in the key of G, offers another clear example of the bVII chord. Here’s the prechorus.

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These are all chords native to G major, with the D major chord containing the regular seventh scale degree, F#. Here, though, is the beginning of the chorus.

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The F major chord, which occurs frequently throughout the song, is built on the lowered seventh scale degree.

Songwriting Exercise

Write a verse or chorus with the following progression:

I-bVII-IV-V

Augmented Chords

Augmented chords can provide harmonically ambiguous alternatives to major chords, particularly the V chord in either major or minor, or the III chord in minor. An augmented triad is a stack of major thirds, so to change a major chord to an augmented triad, we raise the fifth by a half step. We use the symbol “+” to indicate an augmented chord. Here’s a V chord and an augmented V chord in the key of G.

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Try comparing the two chords to see how they sound. These chords don’t come up in popular music all that often, but when they do, they can be striking. The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” (which we’ll investigate in more detail later) begins with a V+ chord, a single E augmented chord before the song begins in earnest in the key of A Major.

Another Beatles song, “Real Love,” features a number of augmented chords, including one very close to the beginning of the song.

 

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The Bb+ chord gives this excerpt a dissonant, uncertain sound. Try changing the Bb+ chord to a Bb major chord, and it sounds much more straightforward.

For a more complex example of an augmented chord, listen to this passage from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

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Hopefully this example has you geeked out for all kinds of reasons. Check out that appoggiatura on “just”! And that weird half-diminished seventh chord in measure 4! But what we’re concerned with here is the Eb+/B.

This passage is modulating from Bb major to Eb major, so it’s difficult to situate ourselves in a key in order to figure out what’s going on. But what’s important about the Eb+/B chord, clearly, is that it enables a chromatic passing motion in the bass line, from C to B to Bb to A to Ab to G. (This also explains the a half-diminished seventh chord.) One might simply think of it as the same as the c minor chord that precedes it, but with a B in the bass instead of a C.

Harmonically Ambiguous Progressions

Let’s consider a typical blues progression, which includes I7, IV7 and V7, all dominant seventh chords.

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Now let’s consider what those chords might actually be in, say, the key of A major:

I7 = A7 = A C# E G
IV7 = D7 = D F# A C
V7 = E7 = E G# B D

This seems strange. How can we have both a C and a C# in the same key? Or a G and a G#? Things get even weirder when we consider the notes of the A blues scale.

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How are we supposed to reconcile the C in the scale with the C# in the I7 chord? Or the D# in the scale with any of the chords?

A good blues musician will be aware of what the chords are, and either pick notes from the scale that fit the chords, or find ways to embrace the dissonance of a note against the chord that underpins it. Also, the blues scale, while it can be helpful for beginning or intermediate musicians, is often merely a shorthand. Actual blues will frequently feature notes that aren’t in the blues scale.

The point, more broadly, is that our approach throughout much of this website of identifying and contextualizing chords within keys only works so well for blues-based music. For example, here’s the basic chord progression of one of the blues singer Lead Belly’s versions of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” from the 1940s.

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What key are we in? E is clearly the tonic, and the song is perhaps closer to E major than E minor, but there are two problems with deciding it’s in E major. The first is that the progression begins with an E dominant seventh chord (E G# B D), which already contains a note from outside the E major scale (D) and which seems to point our ears in the direction of A, not E. The second problem is the presence of the G chord, a chord that seems to belong to E minor rather than E major. If we were in an ordinary tonal situation, we might describe this as a bIII chord borrowed from E minor, but this does not seem like an ordinary tonal situation.

In fact, we’re not exactly in major or minor, and Lead Belly is playing with that ambiguity in a way that is characteristic of the blues. Notice the way he uses both G# and G – the two notes that most clearly define the difference between major and minor.

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 As a result of this sort of interplay between the regular third of the scale (G#) and the lowered third (G), and the default tendency to play chords as dominant sevenths, it would seem inappropriate to categorize the G chord as merely being borrowed from E minor. In fact, elements of major, minor and in between all appear so liberally that describing the song as being merely major or merely minor seems inadequate.

This sort of interplay has also been present in various strains of rock & roll music since the genre’s inception. Let’s fast-forward a couple decades to the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964.

Here is the song’s main chord progression.

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Unlike with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” there’s a clear answer to whether the song is in major or minor. It’s in A minor, as the A minor chord that begins each four-bar phrase and the strong i-V relationship between Am and E7 make clear.

Let’s examine two other chords, however. The D major chord is a IV chord, which we might see as a borrowed IV from A major. But what are we to make of the F7 chord? (I’ve written the “7” of the chord in parentheses because the Animals sometimes play the chord merely as an F major, but they also frequently include the Eb to make an F7.) Often, a dominant seventh chord will “point” in the direction of a new key, but here, that does not happen – we would expect F7 to point to Bb, and there’s no Bb to be found.

So what’s happening here? The answer is that the Eb in the F7 chord has no obvious functional relationship to the key at hand – it simply sounds cool and heightens the bluesy feeling of the song. Note, though, that the root of the chord (F) is very much part of A minor. In fact, one could make a similar observation about the D chord. It’s almost as if the root of the chord has to follow the rules, but the rest of the chord does not.

Many rock bands took a somewhat related approach even as much rock music became less and less obviously blues-derived. During the grunge era of the 1990s, one common device for rock bands was to sing in a minor key but accompany it with all major chords. You wouldn’t think a style known for its gloomy outlook would have included more major chords to minor keys, but that is in fact what happened. The basic principle was the same as we discussed in the Animals example – the roots of the chords all tended to have a fairly obvious relationship to a key, but the other notes of the chords did not.

Here’s an example, from Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” from 1993. (Nirvana played the song with their guitars tuned down a half-step; we’ll discuss the song as they seem to have conceptualized it, in A minor, rather than in the trickier key of Ab minor.)

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The melody is in A natural minor, so the second chord, F5, makes sense – it’s a VI chord but without the third. The first and third chords are a little strange, however. We could normally expect the A major chord to be A minor. Listen to the way Kurt Cobain plays the C-sharps in that chord quietly and avoids playing them on the first beats of measures. That’s because the C-sharps clash with what we expect to hear. The third chord, D7, is of course based on a D major chord. Sit down at your instrument and try changing the A chord to A minor and the D7 chord to D minor. The song is still recognizable, but its character is somewhat different.

No one would describe “Heart-Shaped Box” as a blues song, but its harmonic approach arguably stems from the blues – the song features a blending of major and minor elements, and an important use of a dominant seventh chord that is used not to “point” to another chord, but as an end in itself.

Smashing Pumpkins’ hit “Cherub Rock,” also from 1993, was not in a minor key, but used an all-major-chords approach somewhat similar to the one Nirvana used in “Heart Shaped Box.” Much of “Cherub Rock” appears to be in D major, but with a C major chord frequently occurring as a bVII.

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The E major chord, however, also prominently features in the song, often at the beginnings of phrases, even though the rest of the chords (such as D, A, C and G) don’t really change much. The vocal part of the song highlights this seemingly odd chord, leaning hard on G#, a note from E major that isn’t in the key of D.

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There is no major key that contains all of these five chords, and, in particular, the E major (E, G# and B) and C major (C, E and G) seem far removed from one another.

So what do we call this E chord? It isn’t really a secondary dominant. It might be possible, if we wanted, to think of the song as somehow modulating between D and E, but that wouldn’t explain why there were still D, C and G major chords once we arrived in E.

Instead, it’s perhaps best to think of the song as involving a series chords that are at least tangentially related to the key of D.

And, notably, all the chords are major, as was common in the era in which the song was written. Also, the E, D, A, C and G chords are all very familiar ones on the guitar; it’s easy to imagine Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan writing this song on the guitar, with the progression emerging as his fingers fell into common patterns. It’s perhaps not surprising that this practice of building progressions entirely from major chords is closely connected to the 1990s, perhaps guitar-based rock’s last great peak in popularity.

Songwriting Exercise

Write a verse with a progression consisting solely of five different major chords.

Next Chapter: Modulations