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The song "Misty Moisty Morning" by Steeleye Span is in a major key. My knowledge of music theory is fragmentary so I may have gotten it wrong but I believe it's true. I don't remember which key it is originally, but I like to play it in G. In this key, the song uses all sounds in G major, except the sound C. (So all of these sounds are in D major too but the song ends in a strong G sound, so I think it makes it a G major). All sounds in the song are from G major too, except one: F, which ends the second line of every stanza (stanzas have four lines each).

My question is: why is it OK to use this sound and it still sounds right? I understand that this is possibly an open-ended question, so a more specific one is this: is there a name for such a usage of a sound from outside the scale?

The song is here although the quality is rather bad. The first occurence of this F is about 0:48, when she sings "leather".

I'm very sorry if what I'm saying is difficult to understand. Please point out any mistakes or vague parts of this post so I can try to correct myself.

EDIT: I knew my question would be too vague... I understand that if the musicians were playing something dissonant, it wouldn't sound right. I wanted to ask about the mere melody. Most melodies, at least Western, stick to one scale I think. Then the melody sounds pleasing. I like to play random sounds from one scale on my guitar because it always sounds good to me. When I try to add sounds from outside the scale, it usually sounds wrong. What is it that makes a sound from outside the main scale sound good in a melody?

Here's another example:

The song is in F major, yet about 0:23 the sound B provides a pleasing (at least to me) change.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would call this a flat seventh note. The reason that it sounds right is that all the musicians are playing an appropriate (i.e. not dissonant) melody/harmony to support this choice of melody.

It would sound rather upsetting to have, say, the chord of D major (with triad D F# A) playing while the vocals (or other melodic instrument) are playing F natural, as the minor second interval (between the F and F#) is among the most dissonant.


The song in your edit employs secondary dominance. This is in many songs, the first one of which that comes to mind being "The Star Spangled Banner".

To answer a more general question that is related to yours (if not what you are indeed trying to ask), the way that you make a "random sound [note]" sound good is to provide it with appropriate harmony. Some tones (flat 7th, sharp 4th/tritone) are "easily accessible", while others (flat second) require a more elaborate harmonic approach.

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Thank you! I'd never heard of secondary dominants before. And the article is written very comprehensibly. For the "ease of access" is there something I could read about it and understand? – ymar Feb 21 '12 at 0:16

I call the F note in a song in G Major a Dominant 7th, which if played with a G Major chord, makes the chord simply called G7. I don't know "Misty Moisty Morning", but I do know an older song with a similar name, and features the same concept you brought up only in a different key: "Misty Mountain Hop" by Led Zeppelin (1971). That song is in the key of A Major (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A). But throughout the whole song you hear a G note (which is A Major's Dominant 7th) and it sounds "right", or makes the song very listenable to Western ears. But I do need to hear your "Misty" song by Steeleye Span to totally understand what you're talking out.

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Well, as Gauthier's anwer pointed out, in this song it's probably not a seventh note, but a borrowed chord. — Even in the case of songs like Misty Mountain Hop or Blues in general, I would argue the note is not a dominant seventh: the meaning of dominant is that it resolves to the tonic. If that doesn't happen it can't be a dominant, but actually functions as a harmonic seventh (though in 12-edo tuning, the G is rather a bit too high for that role within an A chord). – leftaroundabout Jan 19 at 10:34

I was going to answer that the flat 7th is very common in blues and rock (a blues in G starts often with G7). But then I listened to "Misty Moisty Morning", I think this is only temporarily borrowing from another scale or mode.

Even if a song goes in a given key, borrowing chords from other keys is very frequent (known as a modulation). Now I don't know if I'd call just this example a modulation (it is very short), but you get the idea.

The flat 7th that I think you are referring to sounds very much like folk music, I think this was the intended effect.

As to why it does not sound dissonent: the other musicians are aware of the F in the melody, and play a chord that works with that (a G7, for example). The whole band borrows the foreign chord.

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