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In the chorus of one of the last songs, "Goodbye", off of Bo Burnham's special Inside, Bo uses the following progression:

Key Signature: G Major Chord Progression: C - B♭ - G

I believe that this B♭ is a borrowed chord -- the ♭III of G, making the progression IV - ♭III - I. (Notably, the chord following the IV is F, so the full progression may be described as VII - IV - ♭III - I, which I've also found is a relatively common use of the ♭III.)

What's sticking in my head is that this particular progression seems incredibly familiar. In particular some itch in my head keeps pointing to 90's grunge music for some reason, though I can't put my finger on it.

I've done a bunch of reading on the ♭III and have found only a few examples from rock music in analyses and instructional videos on the use of the ♭III, most notably (to me at least) the intro bass line from Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum. It definitely has that similar feel of Bo's progression (to me at least), even in just the baseline.

One other note that I've made is that the ♭III is potentially borrowed from the Mixolydian mode, which is very common in rock music. It's possible that one of the progressions that I'm thinking of is a more 'mundane' Mixolydian progression that this progression is more "alluding" to.

First, am I off base on my interpretation of this chord progression? Second, are there any uses of it in rock music, particularly grunge music, that I can point to?

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  • How about "Undone - The Sweater Song" by Weezer (1994)? – Theodore Jun 21 at 20:20
  • @Theodore Oohhh that's a pretty good one. I wasn't sure what you were referencing at first since it seemed like a standard I-IV-V-IV, but in the last set of choruses they toss in the ♭III! Not exactly the same progression if you include the VII, but definitely a great example! Exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for! – Nate Diamond Jun 21 at 20:37
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The I - III♭ chord progression in rock is so common, we could probably spend the rest of the year citing examples.

It occurs in a certain metal song about some man made of the chemical element Fe, which evidently brings on the wrath of the record label, and take down notics if we were to even talk about it.

So let's avoid all that.

Let's get to the meat of why.

Rock and roll is rooted in the the Blues. In the Blues, a certain phenomenon plays a prominent role: major/minor ambiguity/parallelism. A great deal of blues music uses a combined scale consisting of an overlay of the major and minor pentatonic scales, with the tritone thrown in.

When we have a chord progression like A C D, it helps to think of the A as being from the parallel major key, and the C from being from the parallel minor key: the key of Am has a C in it.

Now when I say major/minor parallelism, we should think of that as more of a flavor. Under the major flavor, we not only have the Ionian scale, but also others like Mixolydian. Under the minor flavor, we have Dorian.

The Blues, and thus rock also, can use any of these. A Blues tune could be primarily Dorian, with a melody around the chords Am, C, D7, making use of the Dorian's F# melodically. But when it hits the E7 dominant, it can bring out the G# and shift into the associated A melodic minor.

Mixolydian, Aeolian and Dorian modes all support a I - VII♭ - IV progression. They are characterized by the lack of a leading tone. Try it, e.g. Am G D7, repeat. Or A7 G D.

This I - VII♭ and IV - III♭ pairs form a kind of "rock and roll producing box". Literally a rectangle on the guitar fretboard. You can have all major triads in it, or some minor chords. Almost anything you come up with in that box, you've heard before. Based on the specific chords you choose, you can peg it into a Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian or whatever, or the full major/minor/tritone blues scale, or shifts among these.

In rock and roll, smooth modulation where tonal changes are concealed is not a big concern. Rock doesn't care about being abrupt in going from an A to C chord, while the melody says oriented around minor, or goes from major to minor. The shock that this delivers to the classically groomed mid-twentieth-century ear is part of.

And, by the way, this answer is focused on a very specific thread of topics in rock that relate to the question. Rock absorbs almost anything, obviously; not all rock comes from Blues. A rock tune can use a progression from Beethoven. Or an Andalusian cadence. Or elements from anywhere in the world.

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  • Hmmmm, very interesting! This particular chord change tickles my ear in a way that I've been looking around for though and haven't seem to found examples with the same... feel that it does. Hard to explain. Maybe it's just how long Bo stays on the ♭III as opposed to the example that @Theodore in the comments to the original post gave of The Sweater Song by Weezer. They use it as more of a passing tone instead of landing hard on it for a whole beat. Maybe that doesn't change the tonality, but it definitely changes the feel to me. Not sure what I'm grasping at here though. – Nate Diamond Jun 21 at 20:55
  • It seems like if someone were to dance over second chord of the "Mario cadence" for example, it wouldn't really 'feel' the same. – Nate Diamond Jun 21 at 20:59
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    @NateDiamond I confess that I didn't hunt down the Bo Burnham song mentioned in the question before commenting. Just heard it now. The B♭ seems to be a passing tone to me (as is the E♭ on the next line!). It seems to have the same function as many other ♭IIIs from "SWLABR" to "Uncontrollable Urge". – Theodore Jun 22 at 14:19
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Mixolydian mode? Fair and square M3. No m3 in sight! If you like, it's a borrowed chord, from the parallel of Gm. So common (especially in Blues) that it's hardly worth a mention.

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  • As @Kaz mentioned in the other answer, it definitely seems pretty common in Blues-based music (which Rock definitely is), but there's a particular.... quality about sitting on the ♭III for a whole step that feels different to me than using it as a passing tone. For example seems like if someone were to dance over second chord of the "Mario cadence" for example, it wouldn't really 'feel' the same. Is there a term for this kind of... cadence for lack of a better term? Or other examples of really emphasizing the III♭? – Nate Diamond Jun 21 at 21:03

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