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Could you indicate an example of a song in a certain key that doesn't express the tonic chord (I chord) in its progression? Are harmonic progressions of this type possible in pop music?

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  • Would you be willing to edit your question to emphasize your last sentence? Otherwise, it may risk getting closed, since the first question is not well-suited for our site (since there are countless acceptable answers). – Richard Jan 22 at 23:43
  • I initially misread the question and answered thinking you were asking for songs that don’t start on the tonic but you want songs than actually have no I chord at all! I’ll see if I can think of one... – John Belzaguy Jan 23 at 1:44
  • I remember hearing that If you get deep into Chord Cycles, there maybe several explainations of what the tonic is. I might as well say Em - C - G - D has the tonic G instead of Em and justify my reasoning saying D - Em is like V - I except instead of I there's a chord from the tonic group which is vii, but someone else might say something else. With that said there maybe several explainations of a different chord being Tonic and that chord not apprearing at all in some cases. Am - G - F - G with tonic C for example with a similar reasoning. – RishiNandha Vanchi Jan 23 at 12:26
  • If what I've learned about primitivism is any indication, there is no such thing as a tonal piece with no tonic chord/note in it - if you think you've found an example, you got its key wrong. The most common note or chord sounds like the tonic. Even for pieces that I think sound like they're soloing on the dominant of a minor key, I've read valid interpretations that they are in that dominant's key instead. – Dekkadeci Jan 23 at 13:58
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There are a few although they may be open to interpretation. Two are very similar, “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac and “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry. Both sound like unresolved IV-V vamp progressions (Perry’s has a quick vi between the IV and V). The melodies of each are grounded in the non-existent I chord. Maybe not having a tonic is a “dreamy” sound, that would explain the titles.

Another similar one is “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners. It is two chords, Emaj7 and D#m/F# with a G# minor pentatonic melody so you can think of it as a VI-v6/4 that never resolves to the i.

To me the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” sounds like the key of D with no tonic chord. Some might say it’s in Bm but it doesn’t sound like that to me. In the Supremes’ version they do a different arrangement in Eb and do resolve to what I consider to be the tonic on the final choruses, Eb. They never go to the D in the Gaye/Terrell version.

The chorus on this one is (analysis is in D):

Gmaj7 Em7 | F#m7 Bm7 | Gmaj7 Em7 | F#m7 Bm7 | Gmaj7 Em7 | F#m7 Bm7 | E7 | G |

This sounds to me like: IV ii iii vi (x3) then II7 IV.

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A great example of this is Chopin's Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4. The root position i chord is not heard until the very final chord of the piece.1

Another example is Robert Schumann's "Der Dichter spricht" ("The Poet Speaks"). The piece is in G Major, but again, the root position G major chord is only heard at the very end.

A classic example from Jazz is "Autumn Leaves" (Joseph Kosma/Johnny Mercer). It's in E Minor, but that chord only appears at the end of the A section(s). The song opens with a ii-7 V7 IMaj7 in G Major.


1 Technically, the piece does start with a i chord, but it's obscured by appearing in first inversion. The work is considered a classical example of Romantic-era composer's attempts to express the key of a composition without explicitly stating it.

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  • I count inversions of the tonic chord as tonic chords. I've always heard Chopin's Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 as starting in E Minor (and, when the starting theme returns, the piece is also in E Minor at that point). – Dekkadeci Jan 23 at 13:53

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