On Off Minor

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

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14 Responses to “On Off Minor”

  1. Lots of folk songs don’t even bother with the vi. Woody Guthrie used to say that three chords were plenty, but he’d sometimes throw in a fourth if he was trying to impress a girl.

    • telescoper Says:

      I bet he never flattened a ninth though.

      • James Dunlop Says:

        Maybe accidently! I think you’re being a wee bit hard on wee Ed. Most of my music enjoyment is centred around interesting chord progressions (sit at your keyboard and try to figure out the chords in some early genesis albums), often unorthodox, but over the years I’ve come to realise that sometimes 3 chords are, amazingly enough, enough. It’s certainly impressive when a simple song with a simple chord structure works well. Most of ed Sheeran’s songs aren’t great but it is harsh to pick on him, because at least he can play his music. And his live concerts are remarkably brave, because he plays all the parts himself, progressively looping up the mix, with no cover from backing artists. From a technical point of view, it is a tour de force that any serious musician will admire.

      • telescoper Says:

        I actually don’t know much about Ed Sheeran (although on the day I wrote that piece he was performing to a huge audience in Dublin), it’s just that his name came up in the talk I attended so I thought I’d mention him.
        I don’t have anything in particular against him, or pop music in general for that matter: anyone who thinks it’s easy to write a hit pop song should try doing it and I bet they’ll find they can’t!

      • If you are interested in someone who “plays all the parts himself”, then check out Mike Dawes.

      • Interesting. I had never heard of Mike Dawes before, but he is some performer. He is on in the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton a week today, supporting Justin Hayward. I can’t make it, and its probably sold out but it would be worth seeing I would think.

      • Yes, I hadn’t heard of him until he was announced as “special guest” with Justin Hayward (who, like Lindsey Buckingham, is a very good guitar player but under-appreciated since usually thought of as a singer or songwriter (but not a singer/songwriter)). Probably most in the audience had never heard of him, but he made a very good impression. Along with a keyboard player, he also played (more-conventional) guitar during Hayward’s set.

        For those wondering about who’s who, Mike Dawes is a young guitar player with an unconventional style, playing several parts simultaneously himself. Justin Hayward used to be in a modern beat combo (recently inducted—after a long wait—into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not long after one of their members had died of prostate cancer).

      • Regarding playing all the, errm, parts oneself: the all-time record (pun intended!) for the best name of a solo album has to be Derek Bell‘s Derek Bell Plays With Himself.

      • “Maybe accidently!”

        I guess “accidently” is Scots for “accidentally”. 🙂

        Great pun! I’m ashamed that I missed it at first! I’m usually sharper, but fell flat on my face with that one, which is not natural for me, even though puns are my forte! Still, just a major mistake, not a minor one, though puns are a key component of musical discourse.

        (By the way, “forte” in “my forte” or “not my forte” is the French word “forte”, pronounced similarly to the English word “fort”, and means “strength”, not the Italian word “forte” which means “loud” and has two syllables (and wouldn’t make sense in this context anyway). Condoleezza Rice’s first name is a corruption of the rare musical term “con dolcezza.)

  2. “The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic.”

    There are actually 5 others as well, i.e. 7 in all, though much music restricts itself to major and minor. In general, these are known as modes. For example, in C major start on D and you have the Doric mode, common in medieval music and heavy metal.

    • telescoper Says:

      This comment reminds me that the beautiful Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s string quartet no. 15 is actually in the Lydian mode.

      Improvisations based on modes rather than traditional keys were introduced to jazz around the 1950s, most notably in the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

    • Doric —> Dorian. This topic is both more involved and rather confusing, but, given a major scale, the other modes have the same notes but begin and end on other notes than in the case of the major scale. So, a minor scale is a type of mode (Aeolian).

  3. “Tonics in bars” recalls your old avatar. 🙂

  4. I know what you say. Monk’s compositions make very interesting studies in harmony. Check out Ruby My Dear, and Monk’s Mood…a few II-Vs resolving to somewhere else! If you listen deep enough, you might hear Ellington….

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