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I accidentally composed a song that uses the same harmony "trick" as the song The Odyssey from Symphony X. Both are in the key of Eb (I know it's C minor, but I like to think major for simplification)

So the harmony and my analysis at the last minutes in The Odyssey (23:25) is:


Cm Bb Ab Bb Cm
Eb Bb F


vi V IV V vi
I V II


And in my song I have something similar:


Ab Gm Fm Eb
Ab F Dm7(b5) Cm


IV iii ii I
IV II vii7(b5) vi


This major II (F major) that thrills me. In both cases I feel that those transformations work in a very interesting way, first I tried explaining it with the functional harmony I know (which is not much). I thought that maybe some other chord was either being the secondary dominant for the F major, or preparing/omitting the secondary dominant somehow. But I don't think that was the case for either of them.

Then I thought about "pivot" chords (I call them like that, I don't know the official name), like how the Bb major is the V of the Eb major key, but also the IV of the F major key. But it doesn't apply to my song, only for Symphony X's song.

The only remaining option that I know would be some form of "picardy", obviously not the classic picardy third, just a fun surprise expecting a minor chord and getting a major chord. But I find those two explanations kind of lazy.

Is this a common progression or a trick that I'm missing?

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  • Theory is mostly about trying to explain why things sound good or bad and in some ways the real answer is “that’s just how things sound”. That said, it might be that it sounds like a secondary dominant (V/V) especially when you follow it with the vii dim chord which is also the upper structure of a V7 chord. That means we might hear the Bb below the vii chord even thought it’s not really there, and that makes it a downwards circle of fifths progression. Following with the vi is almost a deceptive cadence. Jan 14 at 21:20
  • There's a chromatic alteration. It's a normal common thing that happens all the time. Keep playing songs and don't care about "understanding". Your brain will eventually figure out the pattern. It's like learning to ride a bike. You keep trying until you can do it. Jan 15 at 3:12
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    I learned to play tunes by ear and I learned how music worked. When learning, I never, ever, ever, ever, felt a need to ask "why". Not even once. The only thing I was ever interested in was, WHAT happens in this tune. What notes are there. After I learned what notes there were, I was able to reproduce the same pattern in other songs and other keys. What more could one possibly need? After many decades, I encounter people who ask "why does this work. " What does that even mean? What do you mean "why"? What could that possibly mean. Jan 15 at 3:44

5 Answers 5

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You admit that both pieces/excerpts are actually in C minor, not E flat major. Therefore, you are not transforming ii into II, but iv into IV instead.

The Symphony X "The Odyssey" excerpt is therefore analyzed as this:

Cm Bb Ab Bb Cm
Eb Bb F

i VII VI VII i
III VII IV

Your excerpt is therefore analyzed as this:

Ab Gm Fm Eb
Ab F Dm7(b5) Cm

VI v iv III
VI IV ii-half-diminished-7 i

Both iv and IV function as subdominant chords, so the transformation between them is slick and effortless.

(I've always thought the use of IV instead of iv in Kirby Air Ride's "The Legendary Air Ride Machine" was more striking, anyway - see this similar analysis of the start of its main theme after the introduction:

Fm C Fm Fm
Bb Fm Bb Bb
Bbm Eb Ab Ab
Gm Fm G C

i V i i
IV i IV IV
iv III VI VI
ii i V/V V)

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  • Nice explanation and example! I'll definitely try to look at pieces from a minor perspective from now on. I didn't know the Kirby piece you mentioned. Loved it. Kirby's piece sounds plagal for me, and now that I see that way, both pieces seem to have a plagal-like flavour. Thanks! Jan 17 at 19:52
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    Nailed it! We have always to treat the tonic as I (or i) in this framework. Jan 18 at 5:28
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For a start, if you feel a song is in C minor, analyse it in C minor. We seem to be talking about IV in a minor key, not II in a major one. In some contexts this may not matter. But it does matter if we're indulging in harmonic analysis.

So. We've encountered a chromatic chord. One that uses notes not in the basic scale of the home key. Common, and absolutely 'allowed'. And yes, as a slightly 'outside' chord, it WILL catch your ear! You find it thrilling! Great!

One school of thought is satisfied by finding a related scale that this chord can be 'borrowed' from. OK, let's play that game. Home key is C minor. Obviously an F major could be 'borrowed' from the parallel major key, C major. If the music was moving towards this key, that could be a useful way of looking at it. (But it isn't, is it? So that's not going to get us anywhere.) What about 'borrowing' it from the C harmonic minor scale, or the ascending C melodic minor scale? Ok, that's a very basic concept, 'It's OK to mix the different types of minor scale'. Let's take it a bit further, 'It's OK to modify one note of any diatonic triad, to give a new flavour'.

Beware of inventing functional justifications. That F major chord COULD be a secondary dominant, leading to Bb major. Two problems. Secondary dominants tend to be dom7 shape chords not plain triads. And DOES it lead to a Bb chord? No.

In your song, we have F, Dm7♭5, Cm. Will you let me rewrite that as F, Fm/D (or Fm6), Cm? IV, iv, i. (You really MUST let a tonic be i, otherwise the whole framework's askew.) There's a nice melody line in there (I hope), A, A♭, G.

So where do we end up? The F chord can be justified as 'borrowing', though I don't see that helps much beyond granting permission to use it! 'Dominant of B♭' is a bit of a dead end. Will you settle for 'chromatically altered diatonic triad'?

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TL;DR

In both cases, the F chord is an unresolved secondary dominant to Bb.


The Odyssey

TL;DR explanation (move on for the real point)

There are multiple interpretations here.

For example, just considering the chords in isolation, one could consider that the progression is actually in Bb major:

ii I bVII I ii IV I V

This provides a very clean explanation in that it's all in one key (allowing that bVII is considered part of a major key in much pop and jazz), but it doesn't reflect the actual sound of the song.

The initial part really does sound like C minor, and that's reinforced by the final chord of the piece, which is C major. (There's the "picardy third" mentioned in the question.)

So we have i bVII bVI bVII i. That much matches what the ear tells us.

The next chord, Eb major, by itself, sounds like we've shifted to that key. The preceding chords seem self-contained, as opposed to involving some sort of pivot or other transitional moment. The modulation sounds direct.

The following Bb major chord would seem to confirm Eb major.

But the F major chord then remains problematic, because it's not part of Eb major. (F minor would "make more sense", since it could act as a pivot from Eb [ii chord] back to C minor [iv chord].)

What's going on

We're actually shifting momentarily to Bb major, with the Bb chord acting as the pivot. We hear the Eb chord as an arrival in Eb major, but the Bb chord functions both as the IV chord of Eb and the I chord of Bb. This isn't clear until the F major chord sounds.

Thus we have:

i bVII bVI bVII i bIII IV/bIII = I/bVII V/bVII

with a direct modulation back to C minor.

Song by OP

I hear the progression this way:

IV iii ii I / IV V/V vii7b5 vi

I came up with this interpretation by altering second part of the progression:

Ab F Bb9 = Dm7b5/Bb Cm then ending Ab Bb Eb.

This keeps us more solidly in Eb major by using the true V chord. In the actual progression, though, the resolution of the secondary dominant, F, to Bb is defeated by moving to the Dm7b5.

Another interpretation is that we're momentarily in Bb major. To hear this more clearly, another altered progression is handy:

Ab F Dm7b5 G7 Cm F7 Bb (or bVII V iii-7b5 = ii-7b5/ii ii V7 I).

In either case, the F chord is an unresolved secondary dominant for Bb.

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Cm Bb Ab Bb Cm
Eb Bb F

If the tonic is C, then analyze it in C

i ♭VII ♭VI ♭VII i
♭III ♭VII IV

I used jazz style analysis and put flats before minor mode chord roots.

All the chords are diatonic to a C minor key signature except the last one.

The chromatic alteration from the C minor key signature in the last chord is a change of the tone A♭ to A natural.

In C minor A♭/A is the sixth scale degree, the submediant, which is one of the modal scale degrees.

When you alter modal scale degree this way, especially when it results in major/minor/diminished triad quality changes swapping chords from the relative major/minor modes, you can call it mode mixture.

You could describe the F chord, the IV as "borrowed" from C major. Technically that is the correct use of music theory terminology. But, you could also say that the F chord shifts the music into the dorian mode (C D E♭ F G A B♭ C).

The harmony of the quoted passage doesn't use tonic/dominant harmony. So rather than calling it functional harmony, and we certainly don't want to start talking about modulations and secondary dominants, because none of that style harmony is happening, we can say it's modal style harmony. In that case, personally, I think it's a little more helpful to call this mode mixture and mention dorian mode, rather than calling it borrowed harmony.

I think you can "test" the mode mixture/dorian idea. Just ad lib with the lower portion of a minor mode C D E♭ F G and accompany with dorian chords Cm and F. I think you get the "sound", the tonality, of this passage of the song. The actual vocal part of the song moves about that lower minor scale region then drops from B♭ to A natural for the "finally home" lyric, accompanied by the F chord. Then it goes back to Cm. That's dorian harmony.

The ending is interesting. If I hear it correctly it is A♭ B♭ G♭ Ab+ C. That second to last chord is A flat augmented. The chords are not entirely derived from a C whole tone scale, but a whole tone feel is pretty strong. That doesn't really fit in with the mode mixture stuff, but the whole tone scale can lend a mystical quality and I imagine that fits the mood of overall piece.

The only remaining option that I know would be some form of "picardy", obviously not the classic picardy third, just a fun surprise expecting a minor chord and getting a major chord. But I find those two explanations kind of lazy.

The very last chord changes the tonic Cm chord to C major, and that would be the classic picardy third usage.

For the use of F major rather than Fm, I would not call it picardy third, but mode mixture.

I think there is a sort "surprise" element with mode mixture, although I tend to call it "colorful." The "surprise" comes from the A having been flat at one point, but then a moment later becomes A natural. A lot of people won't consciously recognize the music theory details, but their ears recognize something is going on. You can find this type of harmony in Renaissance music and styles that emulate Renaissance music.

I think a big part of the "mixing", the alteration of certain tones from a strict mode, was to avoid diminished intervals both harmonic and melodic. I don't see that was necessarily the case in this song, but it's something to be aware of. Notice how the chord roots in Cm B♭ A♭ B♭ Cm move by steps rather than fourths and fifths? That's a common thing in modal harmony. Depending on where you do that in a mode, you can run into diminished intervals. When those diminished (or augmented) intervals are altered to keep everything perfect and major/minor intervals, the end result is mode mixing. For example, in C, descending Dm C Bdim, drop the B to B♭ to get Dm C B♭ and now it's in C mixolydian.

I don't mean to digress so far from the song, but I think this is an important part of the modal/mode mixture "trick." Mode mixture by diminished interval avoidance.

Of course that doesn't mean total avoidance. Symphony X introduced augmented intervals for the ending. You use a half diminished chord in your progression.

Another "trick" to point out in your progression is the A♭ F movement. That is a chromatic mediant, which has some similarity to borrow chord harmony, another good way to get harmonic color.

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It's very common for any piece to stray from the diatonic notes/chords that we seem to expect to be the norm. They are the basis of any key, but are not exclusive to that key, as the 'home' note/chord is far more telling.

There's lots of reasons given for extra chords that occur. Secondary dominants are one such, as well explained by Aaron. But there are others, too. Moving into the parallel is one - which, given the piece is in Cm, you say, would reveal a whole new set of chords, including F major.

Another theory (there are no rules) of modesC Dorian. That contains the notes F A and C - making up your F major again, from a different perspective.

The secondary dominant is a bit of a misnomer, as it hints that it's V/V (which it is), but that ought to lead to V (which it doesn't here, and often doesn't). Sort of hinting of a mini-modulation, which never matures.

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