Music Monday: Something Borrowed

Today I’ve got a little “music theory” lesson for you. I’m going to explain that chord that’s driving you crazy. You know the one, the second one.

Most of the “happy sounding” songs you know are in what are called “Major keys.” That includes everything from Happy Birthday and Yellow Submarine to Pomp and Circumstance and the Star Spangled Banner. In fact, I can’t think of a single American “patriotic” song that is not in a Major key.

There’s another kind of key called a “Minor” key. You can express a lot of different emotions using it. Gloria Gaynor used it in “I Will Survive” to show determination and frustration. The Beatles used it in “Eleanor Rigby” where it echoed the loneliness and insignificance of the characters in the song. Anger, sadness, and a host of other things can be implied simply with a Minor key.

Chords can be Major or Minor too. Usually we capitalize Major chords. When a musician analyzes a piece of music, he or she will usually use Roman numerals. So if we build a chord on each step of a Major scale, we get this:

I  ii  iii  IV  V  vi  vii°

That last one is a third type of chord called “diminished.” Don’t worry about it right now, since it’s not important to this song. All of these chords are perfectly normal in a Major key, although there are some arcane rules about what order you can use them. An alarming number of songs use the chord progression I  V  vi  IV.

On the other hand, if we build chords on a Minor scale, these are the chords you will most frequently see (this bit is slightly simplified from what you’d be taught in a music class):

i  ii  III  iv  V  VI  vii°

So back to our song. The first chord is a nice big Major chord, I. The next chord is built on the 4th note of the scale, so it should be IV. However, they’ve fooled us with a jarring minor chord, iv! What are you supposed to be feeling? Happiness of being loved? Or fear of being rejected?

This is called a “borrowed chord.” Even though most young composers discover the neat, unexpected sound before High School, the fancy term is usually not taught until well into a college music theory curriculum. Now you’ve got a fun trivia item.

In Closing: it was worth a try; Samurai; interesting thing about the workforce; another reason we don’t need police drones; these guys think the Affordable Care Act is here to stay; no kidding; Montanans elected this person; high speed rail (I would worry about how they hold up in an earthquake, but Japan has it); Casablanca at 70; wanna buy a couple skyscrapers, cheap?; and Happy Wedding Day to Barney Frank and James Ready.