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I am trying to analyze the song 505 by Arctic Monkeys. And as many do, I went to Ultimate Guitar (UG) to look the chord progressions for the song. The song has only two chords, Dm and Em and UG mentions that the key of the song is Em. But I don't understand why there is a Dm chord in the key of Em. Is there a different concept in theory that I am missing? Could you please explain the role of Dm in the key of Em?

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  • Songs in one key are still allowed to use chords from other keys. The key is determined by the chords/melody that most draw the ear and sound like "home".
    – Aaron
    Aug 13 at 4:52
  • @Tim - Yeah, I deleted my comment after listening to the song.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 13 at 10:05
  • The title here may come across as misleading, looking at the answers..!
    – Tim
    Aug 13 at 10:49

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Having now listened to "505" by the Arctic Monkeys at least twice (thanks to this question), I'd even hazard to say that, strictly speaking, "505" is in E Phrygian and not (just) E minor. As far as I could tell, I didn't detect a single F♯ in the entire song, but I did detect some F naturals.

I wouldn't say the song is in D anything or A minor: I heard plenty of focus in the melody on E notes over Dm chords (and ♭vii-i-♭vii-i makes more sense to me as a chord progression than i-ii-i-ii does - at least I have heard VII-i-VII-i and i-♭II-♭vii-i before but not i-ii-i-ii), and the song consistently sounded like the Em chords sounded more resolved than the Dm chords to me.

As I mentioned above, the Dm chord in E Phrygian is a ♭vii chord, the closest thing you get to a VII chord in E Phrygian (instead of E Aeolian or traditional E minor). VII-i in traditional minor bears a striking resemblance to V-vi in the relative major (which is allowed in common practice period harmony). I'd say it's not a stretch to make ♭vii play a VII-like role.

(♭vii in minor-key music that also uses V and therefore the typical non-flattened 2nd scale degree can still be used; however, every instance of that I have heard so far in such a piece has the considerably more conservative ♭II play before ♭vii, thus preparing the flattened 2nd scale degree beforehand. One such example piece is "Under the Banner of the Duchy" from Bravely Default.)

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    Intellectually this makes perfect sense and that’s worth a +1 but my ears just don’t hear the E minor chord as home because of the phrasing of the vocals and the guitar. Ultimately it’s not anything that’s cut and dried. Aug 13 at 19:06
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I'd go as far as saying the song's in C major - except it never gets there.

The two chords, Dm and Em, both belong quite happily as diatonic chords in C, and all the notes sung are from that key also. The key signature would be that of C major - no sharps or flats - so it could be said that it's in any of the modes of C major, except finishing on either Dm or Em still doesn't make it sound like it's 'come home'. Dm gets closest, as Aaron states, but with only those two chords, it's almost impossible to analyse its key. But UG has it wrong. As it often does, I'm afraid.

By playing those two chords then playing a C chord, - try it - there feels like an ending.

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  • I like the not ever resolving viewpoint but I’ll take it a step further and say it can be considered Am, the relative minor of C. I will make my case by saying the note “A” is an important pivotal note in the melody. Aug 13 at 6:59
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    @JohnBelzaguy - thing is, with modes, unless there's a defined attempt to 'get home', or establish another root, any mode will feel like 'home' is the parent key. Here, there's no real attempt to go anywhere... in my ears.
    – Tim
    Aug 13 at 9:58
  • After a bit more listening I’ve settled on D as the tonal center. Aug 13 at 19:00
  • So I've listened (thank you) and my ear says it wants to resolve to F. I guess we can agree to differ, which might be part of what makes it an interesting song. Aug 14 at 1:56
  • I agree completely, except that I think Am (relative minor of Cmaj) is more appropriate to the lyrics. The lyrics are pretty dark and it seems the anxious singer isn't going to get what he's looking for. My perception may be coloured by the fact that I had youtube on 2x speed when I started listening. Another song that doesn't end on the tonic (although it does contain it) is Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, where the lyrics end with a fear for the future. [I] I will let you [IV] down, [I] I will make you [V] hurt Aug 14 at 13:41
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The actual question is probably about bogus information found on some web site. All information about songs on such sites can be wrong, and you shouldn't trust it more than your ears. Chord charts, melody transcriptions, lyrics, author information, everything can be wrong. Even "official" published sheet music can be wrong, let alone internet databases.

But I'll answer the literal question that's in the title: how can there be a Dm chord in a song that's in Em.

  • Key is not all about scale and individual notes and chords, it's about harmonic center i.e. tonic. There can be any note, any chord, in any key. As long as the sense of where the harmonic center is doesn't change, the key doesn't change. There can be temporary chromatic alterations and chords that are not often used in the key, but if the sense of home, center, doesn't change, the key doesn't change. Tonal center and key are fundamental concepts in Western tonal music, but a lot of people incorrectly think that key is the same thing as scale, and any out-of-scale note is incomprehensible to them.
  • If the harmonic center is established as E minor, Dm can be used as an additional booster of a "secondary dominant" motion to Am. If in a simple version you would go like: Em - Am - B7 - Em, using a secondary dominant for Am is: Em - E7 - Am - B7 - Em. And that can be boosted even further: Em - Dm - E7 - Am - B7 - Em. And even Em - Dm6 - E7 - Am - B7 - Em.

This site is supposed to not have multiple instances of the same question. Yet this is asked about continuously and endlessly: "How can there be a non-diatonic note." And it's often accompanied by "what key is this song or progression in", but that's specifically not allowed. So people have to ask something slightly different, so that the answers will provide the key identification as a byproduct.

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  • There are a lot of non-diatonic notes out there. I'd legitimately let questions about #4, b7, b6, #5, b2, #1, b3, German augmented 6ths (uses b6-1-b3-#4), and #3-in-minor stay separate due to the different natures and uses of these non-diatonic notes. (And yes, you read that right for b2 and #1.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 13 at 11:32
  • @Dekkadeci The questions are often like "how can there be a #4 in this song", but I don't think anyone really tries to find questions where the only real difference is the particular example tune, to mark them as duplicates. Not that I'd want that to happen, just that key identification questions are ok, as long as they include some music theory terms and a feeling of confusion. ;) Aug 13 at 11:42
  • This answer is pretty close to answering my latest question, with maybe a tweak here and there.
    – Tim
    Aug 13 at 12:11
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    The answer falls into the trap of trying - sometimes rather desperately trying - to analyse non-functional harmony in functional 'cycle of 5ths' terms. I'd also argue about "Key is not about scale and individual notes and chords, it's about harmonic center" 'Key' is a special case of 'Mode' (and THERE'S a loose term!) And music doesn't necessarily have to use either - however hard we'd like a neat answer to 'what scale should I play over this chord?'
    – Laurence
    Aug 13 at 14:56
  • @LaurencePayne From the question I can reasonably assume that we're talking about tonal music. I changed the statement about keys slightly, but the way the concept of key is used nowadays, it really only means a tonal center and whether it's minor or major. Key does imply a scale you can expect as a default reference grid. By the way, I did not listen to the Arctic Monkeys tune, I answered the question in the title. Aug 13 at 15:08
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OK. Let's get beyond just chord names, and look at the whole song. If this copy is correct, both melody and chords seem to be in the key/mode call it what you will of 'all the white notes'. So we could potentially analyse it as being in any of the modes based on C major - D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian etc. The melodic shape and harmonic rhythm add up to E Phrygian in this case.

Maybe the Monkeys thought in those terms when writing the song. Maybe they just noodled around on the white notes of a keyboard. Or something inbetween.

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https://musescore.com/user/32503638/scores/6432152

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Ultimate Guitar is wrong about the key. The song is in D dorian. The reason for the error is likely that the final chord of the song is E minor. Typically the final chord of a song will be the key of that song, but not in this case. The ending is intentionally unresolved. The melody as well is constructed to be ambiguous, never quite resolving to D.

D minor, then, is the root chord and E minor is the "ii" chord.

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  • If you have to pick a tonal center I agree D is a better choice but there is not much to indicate Dorian (no^6’s in the melody) except for an Em instead of an Eo chord so I would go with D minor. The melody is ambiguous like you say, it avoids the ^1 of Dm which makes nothing feel like home in a way. Maybe unresolved Am is a good option like I mentioned in Tim’s comment… Aug 13 at 7:07
  • I considered D minor, but decided on dorian because of the E minor chord. I actually considered Tim's answer of C major, but in the end felt like D really was the "home" note. A minor is interesting, but I think it's a stretch, because the Dm - Em movement doesn't feel like iv-v to me.
    – Aaron
    Aug 13 at 7:09
  • @JohnBelzaguy Hmmm... Without the melody, sure, I can hear Am. But to my ear the melody always wants to return to D, which would be odd over Am. I'm listening without benefit of a piano at hand, though, so I'll try again when one is nearby.
    – Aaron
    Aug 13 at 7:17
  • The more I listen the more it feels like D minor with the focus on the ^5 and ^2 but I still don’t think the Em chord alone justifies Dorian. However the guitar part does sprinkle in several B’s so I concede, Dorian it is. Aug 13 at 7:19
  • FYI my last comment was edited in case you read the first version Aug 13 at 7:24

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