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I am currently analyzing a track by Deadmau5, and am almost positive that it is written in F# minor. The melody notes are all within that scale, and pretty much all of the chords are too. However, there is one chord where the root note is not part of the scale.

Can anyone help with what's going on here? I've attached a screenshot below with a MIDI chord progression. You'll see that the 2nd chord has a root note of G, but the rest of the notes within it are from the F# minor scale.

Screen shot of MIDI sequencing program showing chords

I want to ensure that I am continuously improving my music theory knowledge. Reason being, if I was to write my own track, I would completely avoid using a chord like this, because it goes against what I know. The chord sounds great, so that's why I am confused as to why Deadmau5 chose to use G as the root note.

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    That picture is twisting my melon, man. The "white & black" stuff on the left isn't any kind of keyboard & worse still, the letters on the notes don't correspond to the actual keyboard image underneath the editor area. My brain hurts!
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 10, 2022 at 14:55
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    It's a midi keyboard in Ableton Live. The opaque blue bars are there to indicate if that piano key is in the F# minor scale. If the piano key is not, its just gray. Apr 10, 2022 at 15:23
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    Sorry, but that adds no additional clarity. The 'grey-blue' bars are the white notes of a piano keyboard. The 'grey-grey' bars are the black notes. The 'blue-blue' notes on top have note names in them which do not correspond to that 'keyboard' at all. The weird black & white 'keyboard' on the left is nothing I recognise as musical in any sense at all.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 10, 2022 at 15:52
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    @Tetsujin - Huh? The black and white "keyboard" on the left is actually a pretty good attempt at a keyboard, except F# is unfortunately coloured cyan. The long cyan bars all have note names that make sense.
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 10, 2022 at 20:13
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    Could you add the name of the track to the question? Apr 11, 2022 at 16:34

6 Answers 6

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Judging only from the notes I can see here, there are two possibilities:

  1. Either the entire song is not F# minor, but F# phrygian.
  2. The song is still F# minor, but the second chord is actually "borrowed" from the phrygian scale. This is a technique, which is called "borrowed chords". There, you have some chord progression, however you like it, but at one point, you go out of scale and use a chord from another scale. Same root note, but different scale.

You should look up this technique. There are multiple tutorials online. They can explain it better than me, here in few sentences.

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  • Thanks! I checked out that scale, and indeed it contains a G note. I believe this solves my conundrum. Deadmau5 likes open chords, typically with a perfect fifth, then with the last note uses a note from the scale at a higher octave than the others. Apr 10, 2022 at 14:18
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I'd love to find who it is spreading this 'theory' that notes need to conform to the particular key or scale a piece is in!

When learning about music theory initially - in the early stages - it makes some sense to stick to diatonic notes, those from the scale used in the key of the relevant piece. However, that 'rule' gets 'broken' fairly quickly as one advances. Chromatic notes, chords, or borrowed notes, chords abound in all kinds of music. The word chromatic means coloured, and those notes/chords add some colour to what could otherwise be quite a mundane piece.

Theory says that borrowing from other keys is one reason: keep the same root note, change from minor to major, major to minor, use the notes/chords from modes using the same root/tonic. Or introduce V/V, V/ii, V/vi etc. to add more colour.

If the key is indeed F♯ minor, having a G note would indicate the theory that the mode has changed, either using the Phrygian or Locrian mode of F♯. My money's on Phrygian. Which actually emanates from the notes of D major.

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  • Thanks Tim. I'm still new to music production, so that's probably why I thought I needed the notes to conform to the key or scale. I guess that is my next step, where I need to find some good resources to go beyond the basics. There is a ton to learn. Apr 10, 2022 at 15:21
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    @DanZuzevich - there's only 12 notes - excluding what Blues players use! Each and every one can be used anywhere you like, (once you know what you're doing!), and jazz players use this 'loophole' all the time. But you'll find (are finding) that in every genre, the 'rules' get broken. Keep looking, they're not far away!
    – Tim
    Apr 10, 2022 at 15:30
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    @Tim You just WON'T let go of this idea that diatonic is correct, everything else is a 'loophole' or 'breaking the rules' will you!
    – Laurence
    Apr 10, 2022 at 22:45
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    @LaurencePayne - I'm never saying diatonic is 'correct', I'm saying diatonic is the datum or start point. Which it is. Intervals are named using the major scale names, basically, and we rarely mention that a chord is 'major' - it's a given.
    – Tim
    Apr 11, 2022 at 9:32
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    If you are curious, go to YouTube and type in, "Deadmau5 16th hour". Fast forward to about 2:03, this is what I am talking about. You'll hear the chords playing with some type of string, violin cello or whatever. You'll be able to hear the melody as well. Apr 11, 2022 at 13:05
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Just from the progression this looks more like B-minor to me. The first F#-minor chord could be interpreted as a tonic cause Dmaj7 contains a F#-minor chord. Than it ends on a regular Bm chord.

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  • I think you are right. Someone else said that it might be B-minor below as well. I checked, and indeed all of these notes fit into the scale. Apr 11, 2022 at 12:57
  • Check out my last two comments posted under Tim's answer. Apr 11, 2022 at 13:06
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If I read the notation correctly, that seems to be the sequence F#m, G, A, Bm.

It feels more like the key is B minor to me - it's more or less a reversal of the Andalusian Cadence.

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  • I think you are right actually. Apr 11, 2022 at 12:56
  • Check out my last two comments posted under Tim's answer. Apr 11, 2022 at 13:06
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So the notes of the chords are (bottom note is doubled an 8ve down:

    (This is not a series of guitar chords, please stop converting them SE!)

    A   B   C#  D
    C#  D   E   F#
    F#  G   A   B
    ----------------
    F#m G   A   Bm

Or F# minor, G major, A major and B minor.

This sounds good mainly because of the voice-leading. If you think of each part as an individual voice in a choir, (top, middle, bottom), you can see that they all smoothly connect, and none of the voices overlap.

You're correct that the piece seems to be in F# minor ... as the sequence starts on F# minor and goes to B minor - but the chords in between don't have to be strictly notes from the F# minor scale. They're just passing chords on the way to a destination.

You could use these "rules" to try different options:

  1. Start on F# C# A, end on B F# D.
  2. Smoothly connect the voices from one chord to the next

So any of the following options could also work (and there are many other possibilities). Although some of the harmony is quite distant from the key of F# minor, it's the smooth voice leading that makes it work musically, while also creating some interesting sounds. Try playing these examples and hear what they sound like.

A   B   C   D
C#  D   F   F#
F#  G   A   B
--------------
F#m G   F   Bm


A   C     Db   D
C#  D     F    F#
F#  G     Bb   B
-----------------
F#m Gsus4 Bbm  Bm


A   B    C    D
C#  D    F#   F#
F#  F#   G#   B
-----------------
F#m Bm   G#7  Bm
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'What is going on here' is that a piece of music in F♯ minor contains a chromatic note. A normal, unremarkable, common occurrence.

As @Tim says in his answer, there is no rule that all notes/chords in a piece of music must conform to one scale.

But then @Tim's answer gets far too complicated. As do so many answers to this topic. And the complication seems to stem from a deep-seated conviction that, really, everything SHOULD conform to one scale and, when something doesn't, it needs to be justified as the key/mode temporarily changing, as a 'borrowing' (see the underlying assumption that we should always be conforming to SOME scale?) or as a daring 'breaking of the rules'.

Much music has a key centre. Not all music. Not even all rock/jazz music. But a lot of music does. And a lot of music uses functional harmonies - the sort that can be analysed as tonics, dominants etc. But even when playing the tonal/functional game, CHROMATIC NOTES/CHORDS ARE FINE!

Sometimes they're just an 'in-between' transition. Stepping on the lines between the paving stones. Same pavement, same journey, just not hitting each slab dead centre. Sometimes they're just a change of colour. The classic example is the IV chord in a major key. Often modified to iv, the same triad but minor. No excuse needed.

And sometimes a chromatic chord DOES set us off on a journey to another key, another 'home' scale. If that iv was followed by ♭VII7 and then ♭III (starting in C major that would be Fm, B♭7, E♭) there might be some use in considering it as 'borrowed' from E♭ major. But otherwise, let it be just a chromatic chord for goodness' sake!

Where did this misapprehension come from? Probably Berklee, in the 1960s. The Chord=scale thing which replaced melodic composition/improvisation with a 'this chord allows this scale' approach.

To be fair, Berklee itself admits "Using the chord-scale approach gives improvisers (especially less proficient ones) greater melodic and rhythmic mobility..." (I suggest reading the whole article)

https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-today/summer-2000/Chord-Tone

They don't pretend chord-scale is the Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything. But it's just such an easy way to present music to a beginner, particularly one who is more fluent with chord shapes than with notation, and who sees improvisation as their primary aim rather than reading and performing the repertoire (so we're largely talking about guitarists rather than band kids :-) )

OK, rant over. But it is important to keep reminding newcomers that 'being in a key' is a framework not a restriction.

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    Appositely stated! I agree with all. But not tackled the question itself...
    – Tim
    Apr 10, 2022 at 16:59
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    @Tim You want an 'answer' as well as a discussion? OK, I'll add it to the top of my answer.
    – Laurence
    Apr 10, 2022 at 18:46
  • Indeed. Cf. Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tatum, et al. :) Apr 11, 2022 at 0:07

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