Key Signature: C minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: V minor chord, starting the chorus on a chord other than the root
Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, solfege syllables, and voice leading. If you don’t understand a term underlined with dots (like this), move your mouse over it for the definition.
The other day I was messing around with “Amazing” by Kanye West on guitar and noticed that it uses an often neglected chord in modern pop music, the V minor. Before we get into why the V minor is unusual (and what Kanye has in common with Coolio), here’s the chord progression:
Verse: C minor (2x), G minor, C minor
Chorus: Ab major, C minor, G minor, C minor
Or in Roman numeral analysis form:
Verse: I minor (2x), V minor, I minor
Chorus: bVI major, I minor, V minor, I minor
In “Amazing,” G minor is the diatonic V chord–the triad built on the fifth note of the scale. But V chords in today’s minor key pop songs almost always have either a major third (making it a V major chord borrowed from the parallel major) or no third at all. The diatonic V minor chord is rarely used.
Origins of the V Major Chord in a Minor Key Context
Most American pop stems from jazz or blues harmony, but if there’s one songwriting device that has carried over from classical, it’s borrowing the V major chord from the parallel major key in the context of a minor progression.* In these situations, there is a non-diatonic note: the V chord’s major third, which will always be the leading tone of the key. This note has a very strong tendency to resolve up to the root note by a half step. The result is better voice leading back to the root than a V minor chord would provide. Since a V chord resolving to I (or more specifically, ti going to do within that resolution) is considered the strongest tendency in any key, the voice leading is (apparently) so important here that composers have been using this non-diatonic chord for ages.
But Kanye doesn’t swing that way.
If you’ve ever studied classical music, you know that the concept of proper voice leading is meant to make things sound “smooth.” But smooth can often turn into boring, particularly in the context of non-orchestral music. By using the V minor chord, Kanye adds some much needed harmonic interest to a relatively sparse arrangement.
So rare is the V minor chord in pop** that hearing it played on a single instrument (piano in this case) sounds a bit unusual, even medieval. The expectation of that leading tone over the V is so strong that, even for me, it was difficult to sing the minor 3rd instead of a major 3rd.
Combined with a dragging groove of an upright piano, it ends up sounding more like something to be played in the background of a saloon shoot out scene from a Western/Cowboy flick than a hit single for a mainstream rapper. In fact, if you remove the characteristic elements from this chorus–play V major instead of V minor and change the first I minor to IV minor (more on this below)–you’ve got Gangsta’s Paradise, choir and all:
Chorus Root Chord Placement
As I talked about in my analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, starting a progression on something other than the root automatically sounds more intelligently written. While pre-choruses and bridges often start on other chords (in order to build tension for the inevitable release into the section that follows), choruses almost always start on the root chord. When one doesn’t, it almost always ends there. “Amazing” is no exception and falls into the latter category.
But what’s interesting is that the chorus also has another root chord: the second one of the progression. So to expand on what I said in the previous paragraph, here are your root chord placement options for choruses with four chords or less, listed in order from most to least common:
- Option 1: Starting on the root chord. This option solidly establishes the key from the outset, allowing the chords that follow to create new flavors and define the overall emotional content of the chorus in relation to the root. By far the most common option.
- Option 2: Ending on the root chord. In these cases, the beginning chords lift the listener up, create tension, and eventually resolve to the root–using the harmony to create dynamics. This is a fairly common option, but also very powerful and can be a good way to shake up your songwriting or cure writer’s block. Examples include “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and “Go With The Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age.
- Option 3: Using the root as chord #3 out of 4. This technique tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a three chord progression, then adds a fourth chord which says “nope, it’s still going, the thought/feeling isn’t done yet.” Can create a cyclical feeling. This option is not totally unheard of but it’s rare. MGMT’s “Kids” is one example.
- Option 4: Using the root as chord #2 out of 4. By far the rarest option and probably for good reason. I have no idea how to characterize what this option does emotionally, but in the case of “Amazing” it’s a defining characteristic.
- Option 5: No root chord at all. I can’t think of any pop choruses that do this, so if you can, leave it in the comments!
(Note: Although the above is applicable to most choruses, obviously the emotional results may change with different combinations of these options or a greater number of chords. And by the way, you won’t find this list in a text book.)
So not only does the chorus start on a chord other than the root (in this case the bVI major), but the progression goes back to the root on the second of four chords, which is highly unusual. The result is a unique, signature chord progression (in pop you only have to be unique within about 10 years).
Well folks, that about wraps things up. As with all of my analyses I expect some good counter points (ha…) and a healthy dose of “this song sucks” / “this song still sucks” comments. But before we part ways I want to answer a question that Phil posed in his latest blog post:
“When was the last time you at home got a record, sat down, and listened to it? Really listened to it. Didn’t put it on while you clicked through Facebook or checked the local news. Just listened?”
My answer to his question is 808s and Heartbreak. And when “Amazing” came on for the first time, I had no idea Young Jeezy was going to come in because he wasn’t listed in the song title. I’ll be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about Jeezy since day one, but when I first heard his voice come in over this strange track with the reverse reverb, I thought it was the hardest shit I’d ever heard.*** I got chills. And the fact that I wasn’t expecting it made it 10 times more powerful, supporting Phil’s theory that the less we know and see about the music before we listen, the better.
*Actually, classical music**** tends to use a V7, which is based on a V major with a minor 7th on it, forming a tritone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord and creating an even stronger pull to I. Though we typically think of classical music as triadic, this is the one 7th chord that classical composers used regularly.
The V7 chord is dominant-functioning, which in layman’s terms means our ears hear it as having a very strong pull to another chord, in this case back to the I major. This movement is called dominant resolution. The V chord builds tension while the root chord releases it. Since we have this strong expectation of resolution from listeners, the voice leading used for this transition is considered to be particularly important.
**The only other recent V minor example I can think of offhand is “Clocks” by Coldplay, although in this case the V minor is used to help establish the song’s Dorian tonality. The opening piano arpeggio can be analyzed as follows: I/3, V-/5, IV/5 or in other words: I major (1st inversion), V minor (2nd inversion), IV major (2nd inversion).
***This transition is shortened on the YouTube version.
****Yes, I’m using the term “classical” in a colloquial manner here; I’m not referring to the Classical period. This is terrible… even my asterisks have asterisks.