Archive for I-V-vi-V

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

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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