Category Archives: Music Theory Rocks

Body of The Blues

By: Aaron Zimmerman

“Blues” usually refers to one of two things, a scale or a chord progression.

The bones

The chord progression is 12 measures long, hence the name “12 bar blues”.  Here is the progression, with a roman numeral marking the beginning of each bar and a dash indicating the continuance of that chord.

I - - - I - - - I - - - I - - -
IV - - - IV - - - I - - - I - - -
V - - - IV - - - I - - - I - - -

You can here this progression in work in the above song. It starts when the lyrics come in at 0:55.

0:55 (I) - - - 0:58 - - - 1:00 - - - 1:03 - - -
1:05 (IV) - - - 1:08 - - - 1:10 (I) - - - 1:13 - - -
1:15 (V) - - - 1:18 (IV) - - - 1:20 (I) - - - 1:23 - - -

The meat on the bones

The blues scale is the following notes (in the key of C major).

The Blues Scale

The Blues Scale

This scale goes hand in hand with the blues progression. You can play each note of the scale with each chord of the progression. That is, if you are improvising using nothing but blues scale notes, you don’t have to think as much about the changing harmonies, and instead can focus on the melody you are playing. In the John Mayer song above, when he plays the fill in riffs and the guitar solo starting at 1:54, he is using the blues scale. Notice how the notes he is playing doesn’t change with the harmony.

The skin that holds it together

The most important thing in blues, and any improvisation, is time. The idea of a steady pulse is critical to holding the ensemble together. They don’t have music, all they have is a chord progression, and they jam on top of it, using a steady beat as the mechanism of staying together. You can hear the strong pulse in John Mayer’s recording above. The beat is heavily accented with bass, drums, and guitar.

The clothes and cool hats

The blues progression is like a vanilla cupcake hot out of the oven. It is good, fantastic even, but when enhanced with some frosting, filling, or whatever goodies you prefer, it is still better. The tune above uses a slight variation, using the bII chord on the fourth beat of each “I” measure.

Jazz players like to make things more complicated, so he progression ii -> V -> I is often sprinkled over the basic blues progression, turning it into the “jazz blues”

I - - - IV - - - I - - - V - I7 -
IV - - - IV - - - I - - - VI - III -
V - - - IV - - - I - vi - ii - V -

In addition to the ii -> V -> I at the end (wrapping around to the top), the end of lines 1 and 2 also use this progression. But their target key – the I they are moving toward is the IV and the V chord, respectively. Here’s a classic example of the jazz blues.

Muse – Take A Bow

By: Aaron Zimmerman

This is an ongoing series of posts called “Music Theory Rocks”, for an intro to the series and some music theory fundamentals, check out this post.

One of the eye-openingly cool things about music is the circle of fifths. A fifth (often called a “perfect” fifth) is 7 half steps. Moving by fifths up or down creates a circle that touches every note before starting over at the note you began with. If you start on a C and go up by fifths, the notes you will play will be:

Moving Up by Fifths

Moving Up by Fifths

As you move left to right in the above series, you add a sharp to the major scale that starts on that note.

Key Sharps
C Major no sharps
G Major F#
D Major F# C#
A Major F# C# G#

The inverse of this is also true, as you move right to left, you subtract a sharp (or add a flat).

Key Flats
C Major no flats
F Major Bb
Bb major Bb Eb
Eb major Bb Eb Ab

Both of these patterns will lead to the same place, and then back around, hence the name circle of fifths.

Circle of Fifths on Wikipedia

Circle of Fifths on Wikipedia

The circle of fifths is featured in Take a Bow by Muse. This piece takes a single chord progression and modulates it repeatedly downward through the circle of fifths.

Take A Bow

Take A Bow Chord Progression

This chord progression features an Augmented triad, represented with a ‘+’. This triad is formed with a major third and a minor sixth from the root. The only other chord used is the minor IV, which is only one note different from the I+.  This is a stable, easy to follow chord progression, hovering around the I chord, the lowest note never actually even changes. As the piece moves through keys, this simplicity helps the listener maintain a sense of continuity through dramatic key changes.  If it were a more complicated progression, the piece would feel scattered, confusing, rather than dramatic and sweeping.

The piece is organized in two large sections separated by an interlude. The first section features the above progression modulated 6 times through the circle of fifths, starting in D Major, and ending in Eb Major. The interlude picks up in Eb and ends up solidly in F Major. The second section picks up in F Major and goes all the way through the circle of fifths to B major, where the piece ends, just three steps in the circle of fifths from the D Major the piece started in.

Here are the elapsed time marks in the piece at which modulations occur, the new key, the number of times the chord progression sounds before moving on, and any notes.

time key times notes
0:00 D 2
0:23 G 1
0:34 C 2 Vocals
0:56 F 1
1:07 Bb 1
1:18 Eb 1+ Vamps a little bit on the end
1:40 Interlude See notes on interlude progression
2:13 F 2 Second time guitar comes in
2:35 Bb 1
2:47 Eb 1
2:58 Ab 2 Vocals back in
3:20 Db 1
3:31 F# 1
3:41 B 1
3:53 CODA

Mumford and Sons – I Will Wait

By: Aaron Zimmerman

MumfordAndSonsI Will Wait is a rock-bluegrass song in the key of Db major.  Give this song a listen, and while you do, consider what about it you like.  What about it is memorable?  How would you describe it to a friend?  Music theory is the attempt to standardize answers to these questions.  See this post for more info about music theory.

When I listen to this piece, the thing that jumps out at me are the different “riffs” that make it up.  A riff is a musical idea, a piece of music that is reused.  Each riff is a few chords, and maybe a melody that sits on top of it. Then these riffs are put together to form the song in its entirety.

To make them easier to compare and discuss, I’ll assign each riff a capital letter.

A – Intro

0:00, 0:48, 2:59

The first time this riff is heard there is no melody, but it is included here for the sake of completeness.

The most notable feature of this progression is that it has two more beats than we would usually expect.  This piece has a time signature of 4/4.  That means that there are 4 pulses grouped together to form one unit of time.  Most music written in 4/4 time would utilize riffs whose length is a multiple of 4, such as 4, 8, 16.  The extra two beats in the middle create a slightly off-kilter sensation when you first listen, like you lost sight of the landmark you were using to navigate.

B – Verse

B - Verse

0:18, 1:30, 2:28

A sus chord is one in which a note is SUSpended from the previous chord.  In this case, a Db is suspended from the I chord on top of the V chord.  This Db is a fourth above the new chord root, an Ab.  Traditionally (I.E. Bach), this sus4 would resolve down to the third (a C in this case).  But in rock music, the sus chord has become accepted standalone.

C – Chorus

C - Chorus

1:08, 1:59, 3:59

The melody outlines a descending Db major chord, moving from the 5th degree of the scale, to the third, and then sliding down to the 1st.  The harmony mirrors this pattern, starting on the I chord, moving up to the iii, and then up to the V.

Interplay between melody and harmony

Interplay between melody and harmony

D – Bridge

D - Bridge


Like the into, this progression plays with rhythmic expectations, holding the lyric “hands” a little longer than you might expect.  This makes the “paint my” seem like the end of the measure, and at the same time seem like the beginning of the next measure.  The notation of this is not important (you could count it either way), what is interesting is the ambiguity, the tension.

Overall Form

If we consider A’ to mean the introduction material with lyrics, the overall structure of ideas is:

A B A’ C B C B A’ D C

With the sections identified, we can look for higher level patterns in the piece.  How did M&S put these ideas together, and why?  After looking at it a few different ways, what seems to make the most sense to me is using the chorus as the delimiter, it signals the end of a musical “paragraph” made up of the riff “sentences”.

The idea of a chorus is that it is familiar material that the listener can “relax” during, it is easier to keep up with a song when part of it keeps coming back. Choruses lend to sing along, pub-crawl type songs, because the chorus can be picked up quickly and everyone can join in when it comes back around. The chorus is the high point of the song, the third and final iteration is a clear climax.

A B  (intro – verse)
A C  (intro – chorus)

B C (verse – chorus)

B A’ (verse – intro)
D C (bridge – chorus)

Usually with a “verse chorus” song, we would have “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”.  But that’s not what we have here.   Each iteration of “verse-chorus” is slightly different. The first one prefaces each with the intro riff, the last separates the verse from the chorus with the intro and a new “bridge” riff. And the middle version is as expected.

Ultimately theory has one purpose:  to make music more interesting to listen to.  So, does it make I Will Wait more interesting to label the C section as a chorus?  I think so, it makes the song easier to understand,  appreciate, and discuss.  But what makes this song more interesting than other rock songs, (perhaps what makes it more popular…?), is that it doesn’t stop there.  Great composers didn’t take a form and play fill in the blanks – they redrew the lines.

I will wait is more fun, because it strikes the balance between keeping us on our toes, with rhythm and form unexpectedness, and keeping us satisfied and comfortable by bringing back the same material, and having a good time to boot.  It is like a movie with a plot twist. “I see dead people” makes you remember the movie.  And rhythmic inventiveness, experimenting with variations on verse-chorus, makes you remember the song.

What do you think makes the song memorable?


photo credit: Anny Turolla via photopin cc

Music Theory Rocks

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Music Theory Rocks

Music theory sometimes gets a bad rap.

People tend associate music theory with tediums like naming notes, labeling chords, and determining form.   These are good skills to develop, they help answer questions about music that come up frequently.  But they are not at the core of music theory.

Music theory is an attempt to answer a simple question:

Why is this music good?

This is a different question than what makes music good.  That is a rabbit hole I’ll not venture down at the moment.  Rather, lets first just assume that a given piece is good, and try to figure out why.  What worked for this symphony?  What made this rap song memorable?  Theory is observations about music that has been created.  We learn about chords, scales, harmonies, because these form the basis for almost every piece of music we encounter.  When someone discovers a new way to make good music, we label it, share it, and discuss it.  Music evolves over time, as innovators discover new ways to create it.  Music theory is a reaction, a formalization of these discoveries.

Music theory is context, vocabulary, and enjoyment.

Most people can identify the chorus of their favorite pop songs.  This is an internalization, a labeling, of something they like in music.  Verse-chorus is a form, a pattern for organizing musical ideas.  It is an easy form for the listener to identify. There is a chorus that is always the same and a verse that is the same except for the lyrics.  By giving this pattern a name, we create three advantages:

Context –  We can identify where we are in the song, we can understand how the music will flow.

Vocabulary – We can talk about the song together – “I really like the chorus of that song”.  “I like American Pie, but it has way too many verses”, etc.

Enjoyment – We can identify what we like in music, and compare one piece to another.  A lot of music is an aquired taste, you have to develop a base line theoretical understanding of that music in order to appreciate the beauty therein.

Music theory changes how you listen.

If you listen to a pop song that doesn’t follow verse-chorus, it might take longer to appreciate, it might feel a bit awkward, and the end result could be something you like or something you don’t like. The more music you listen to, or study, the greater experience you will acquire.  The more music you have experienced, the larger your vocabulary, the more context you will have from which to appreciate a new piece you listen to, and the more enjoyment you will get from music of all kinds.

Music Theory Rocks

Along with other posts about teaching and learning piano, I’ll post an occasional analysis of a popular piece of music.  I’m not really sure how to define popular music, so I’ll just stick to the self-evident definition of “music that people seem to like”.

The purpose of the analysis is to think about why people like the piece in question.   Along the way I’ll try to point out core music theory concepts where they apply.  I’ll also be forced to use some of the jargon, I can’t explain what a scale is in every post, etc.  If you need a refresher on some basics, check out this post.

photo credit: rockfingrz Photography via photopin cc