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I'm trying to figure out some strategy in the chorus section (the major sounding part), but am a bit confused. Let's assume the chords in the background are D A in setion 1 and C G in section 2. When playing over those changes i figured out that playing all the time in D major doesn't work (i guess because "C" is out of the triad) so i thought it's a key change in section 2 - and the obvious solution seemed to be: switch to C major. But it doesn't sound right.
What is it supposed to be in section 2 (C G)? G major/D mixolydian? Oddly enough target notes sounding best over this progression are not the root notes but 5th's: G (over C chord) and D (over G chord). Why is that?

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There's some harmonic analysis of the part (chorus or 1st solo) in this video:

I personally agree with the commenters who argued that the best interpretation is actually

(D) (D) (D) (D) - Ⅰ ⁄3 (G) (G) (G) (G) (G)
D A D A - G ⁄B C G C G

instead of the rather more obvious

(D) (D) (D) (D) - Ⅴ ⁄3 (C) (C) (C) (C) (C)
D A D A - G ⁄B C G C G

Why? Admittedly it seems odd to not just say the modulation is a simple shift by a whole step down, seeing as both the chords and most of the melody notes can indeed be read that way. However,

  1. A modulation from D-major to G-major is Co5ths-wise closer than a modulation from D-major to C-major. In fact it's basically the closest modulation you can possibly have: a dominant-to-tonic relationship. Thus, if all the notes that are sounding are consistent with either interpretation, then D→G is the “path of least resistance” way to hear it.
  2. The melody does not exactly move a step down. The difference is just in one tone, but a crucial one: the very last of each line. That's in the first two lines of the chorus on the dominant's third, i.e. the main leading note that's a big part of characterising a dominant, but in the 3rd line it instead ends on the fifth, which is an open, voice-leading wise neutral tone.
  3. I'm not completely sure if I'm hearing this right, but I think the accompaniment does contain an F♯ which fits in G-Major but not in C (unless it's Lydian). By contrast, in the first half those strings do not play a G♯ (they continue the same motiv instead of adding a new one on the last beat)

1st line:

X:1
L:1/8
M:C
K:D
%%score T1 T2 B
V:T1           clef=treble
V:T2           clef=treble
V:B            clef=bass
% 1
[V:T1] z2 d(d d2)  c(d   | d2)  cd  z e z (e | e2) c2 z4             | z8 |
[V:T2] afed  afed     | afed    afed    | aedc      aedc       | aedc    aedc |
[V:B]  D,8                | z4      D,4                | A,,8       | z8 |

3rd line:

X:1
L:1/8
M:C
K:G
%%score T1 T2 B
V:T1           clef=treble
V:T2           clef=treble
V:B            clef=bass
% 1
[V:T1] z cb,(c c2)  b,(c   | c2)  b,c  z d z ("!"d | d2) z2 z4             | z4 z3 b, |
[V:T2] gedc gedc | gedc gedc | gdcb, gdcb, | gdcb, g,b,d"!"f |
[V:B]  C,8                | C,8                | G,,8       | G,,8 |

Especially the second point is not very strong at all, and I don't say that the D-C interpretation doesn't make sense, however the D-G one does explain why you find it doesn't sound right to improvise over the second half in C-Ionian.

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  • The transcription I have shows F# over the C major chord so whether you think of it as the IV of G or C Lydian it fits with the original one way or the other; not so thinking of it as C Ionian. Gilmour also avoids playing D over the C chord but often lands on D when the G comes around, which I only mention as a soloing strategy not as analysis. He seems to keep pretty well to pentatonic shapes in the recorded solo. Dec 21 '20 at 4:58
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@leftaroundabout already mentioned the analysis on 12tone's YouTube channel. Here's a version of what I wrote in the comment section there - elaborating on something someone else wrote.

The core of the issue is this: two plain major triads that are a 5th apart do not determine a scale! This type of ambiguous harmonic pendulum, that can be either V-I or IV-I, is actually quite common in rock music.

I want to argue that the chorus in Comfortably Numb is basically a clever play with exactly that ambiguity. Since the harmony is ambiguous, we need to look at melodic elements for extra hints. In Comfortably Numb the vocals contain some pointers.

From a classical perspective, the vocals pretty much place the progressions D-A in D-major and C-G in C-major, as the relavant leading tones C# and B appear whereas G# and F# are absent. In more detail, during the C-G part the melody centers around C, the other notes being B and mostly D. There we have the leading tone in C-major and G is nowhere in sight. So all signs point to C as the tonic.

It's also interesting to note that the melody during the G-chord emphasizes D and never hits G. This roots the G-chord back to D-major and makes it a solid pivot from C-major to D-major. This is actually a fairly standard example of a modulation where a V becomes a IV. The slow pace of the music makes it extra smooth here - and generelly helps losing track of tonalities. The modulation from D to C is also driven melodically. The first time around, the melody ends on C# and instead of resolving up to D it resolves down to C. Other times it ends on E, which is already in C-major, but the C# is kind of implied by it's previous appearances.

While this "classical" analysis seems rather straight forward, there is one important thing that rock music tends to avoid: dominant seventh chords, the real driving force in classical music. And it's hard to argue that F wound sound anywhere near "right" over the G chord in Comfortably Numb. Maybe over C, if at all, but F# just seems to work better. (By the the way, I do not hear an F# played in the music.)

So let's take an even closer look at the C-G part. In fact, the use of B is rather subtle and you mainly notice C and D, the latter being the dominant tone during the G-chord - double entendre intended. Just before the chord changes to G, the vocals hit C and D (ignoring a brief detour over B). And since we're looking at a plain G-major triad - as opposed to, say, a dominant seventh chord - this may leave the impression of the root motion of a standard IV-V-I cadence in G-major.

To sum up, the vocal line during the C-G part is actually worse than ambiguous: it subtly points either way. Very clever! :-)

So what's going on? Hard to say. I'm personally leaning toward V-I in C Lydian. But another set of ears connected to another brain with different musical expectations might very well come to a different conclusion.

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  • Interesting because to me the presence of B and D point to G tonality despite B being the C leading tone. Also the vocals don’t have an F# but neither do they have an F natural so you could say the F# is never challenged in the listeners tonal memory but the C of course is. Finally during the solo there are definitely F#s, and G is a close key than C. But regardless I think for soloing it doesn’t matter as much whether you’re thinking G Ionian or C Lydian as long as you use those notes and focus on Ds when the G chord comes around. Dec 21 '20 at 5:08
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If not a key change, then maybe a borrowed note.

Let's say you play the minor scale for a second. If you dig down one half-step below the root, that will be a borrowed-note (the 7th from the major scale). Metallica does this all day long. This also makes it harmonic/melodic minor for a second. In short, it's just a bunch of words for the same thing.

Or maybe a hybrid scale (when you commit to borrowed notes). Check out the modified blues scale (Velvet Revolver's "Slither").

I don't know the song, so I'm just throwing a few things out there.

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