As far as I could tell, this instrumental piece has the static chord vamp Bbmaj9-Am7 that never deviates in any section (let me know if I'm wrong). The main focus that the composer has chosen here is an emphasis on the lead guitar's melody that alternates in every bar rather than the backing chords. Despite having an F Major sound, the piece overall seems to be quite vague harmonically, with a non-functional chord progression, weak/implied tonic assertion, melody always landing on the 5th rather than the root, etc.

It lacks the same sense of tension and release that tonal music provides with the tonic-dominant relationship, but it also doesn't feel precisely modal either. Is there a specific name for this type of music? Are there any other examples of music like this that have a similar harmonic framework? Is there a clearer way in which to view this music?

  • Why do you think it doesn't feel precisely modal? To me it fits very well to what is being today understood as modal music
    – Jarek.D
    Commented May 27 at 10:08
  • @Jarek.D Because historically the Ionian mode has never been used in a modal context, just the Major key, and it wouldn't feel right to retrofit such a term when functional harmony isn't required to be "in a key". At least that's what I have seen.
    – Stillmoon
    Commented May 27 at 17:41
  • But the piece definitely doesn't have F major sound. It is basically a piece in the A phrygian mode. The chords themselves could also interpreted as Bb lydian but the melody gravitates and often resolves on C and that makes Bbmaj chord sounds like a tension and Amin chord sounds as resolution.
    – Jarek.D
    Commented May 27 at 22:29
  • @Jarek.D Neither of the chords resolve. If you try playing an A pedal note beneath the Bbmaj9, the harmony will sound more dissonant and jarring. That would be the more exotic nature of the Phrygian mode. Same if you were to play a Bb pedal under the Am7, that would be a stronger reinforcement of the Lydian mode. Without such a pedal drone, those unstable modes you referenced end up sounding more like a 4-3 in F major. The tonic chord can be felt strongly in the Bbmaj9, as if it were some kind of F/Bb, and the pedal steel synth also plays the F in the bass at 2:01 which would make an Fmaj9.
    – Stillmoon
    Commented May 28 at 0:20
  • 1
    @Stillmoon "...it wouldn't feel right to retrofit such a term..." that horse is already out of the barn! "Modal" is commonly applied to jazz and recent folk music. Also, functional harmony is usually about tonal harmony which more or less is the major/minor key system. Even in jazz functional harmony is just an extension of that system. Commented May 29 at 18:25

4 Answers 4


The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, WA referred to Scott Moulton's music as "mellow acoustic guitar" ("Dying Musician Found Harmony", Aug. 23, 1995).

I did a YouTube search for "mellow acoustic guitar", and got results such as "Unplug and Unwind: A 1 Hour Acoustic Chill Playlist for Relaxation", which contains very similar music. It doesn't always contain the same tonal ambiguity, but it does have the same sense of melody over two or three chords. (Those who enjoy this music might enjoy Michael Hedges, BTW.)

I've also seen the terms "acoustic chill" and "soft indie".

Some minimalist (or pseudo-minimalist — my term) composers also have similarities. For example, try Tom Johnson's An Hour for Piano. Arvo Pärt would be worth a try. Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, and Yann Tiersen may also have appeal.

Structurally, styles that employ similar harmonic approaches, but to very different musical ends, are lo-fi, ambient, EDM, and jam-session funk.

  • I don't read this question as trying to identify the genre or feel (and probably would vtc if it were), but rather as "What the heck, it just repeats two chords and neither of them is clearly a 'tonic.' Where are the cadences? How do we analyze and explain this tonally?" While minimalist approaches might often result in using few chords, it doesn't have to be tied to a genre; Koyaanisquatsi uses lament bass, and I feel like a lot of traditional flamenco might just use IV, V over and over. Commented May 28 at 14:29

I’m not aware of a technical term to describe this type of repetitious non-functional harmonic progression. It cerriainly is not unique. There are actually a lot of other 2 chord songs but most of them have an obvious tonic.

In the case of this song one can analyze and interpret it in different ways but there is no conclusion to be drawn unless you talk to the composer. You mentioned the key of F which is valid. Because of the dominance of the C melody note throughout I might think of it as the key of C with a VIm-bVII progression and no resolution to the tonic.

I can think of two songs where the tonality is ambiguous. They are: “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Both revolve around two major chords a step apart so they can be interpreted as IV-V in major or bVI-bVII in minor. (To be clear, say, F and G chords in either C major or A minor) To me the minor key has more validity in both because of he target notes of the melody, as in your example.

The way to view this music in general is that it doesn’t have to have a lot of chords or a clearly defined harmonic function in order to produce something that many will consider to be pleasant and creative.

  • "... bVI-bVII in minor" I'm having trouble parsing this. E.g., in A minor, I would think this meant an F flat and a G flat chord, which doesn't make much sense, and I don't think that's what you meant. The closest I can figure out is "In C major, if we encounter an Ab and Bb chord, we'd call them bVI and bVII, and they might make us decide we're in C minor anyway." But if we're in C minor they're not lowered. Commented May 28 at 17:19
  • @AndyBonner When I refer to Roman numerals I don’t use the traditional classical method, I use the jazz pop method where everything is spelled literally, Any difference between major and minor is spelled out. There are only upper cased numerals and chord qualities are indicated, such as IIm. bVI and bVII in A minor are F and G. They are also F and G in A major. The tonic chord in a minor key is Im. Hope that makes sense to you. Commented May 29 at 1:42
  • @AndyBonner since the sixth and seventh scale degrees of a minor key may be either major or minor, it is customary to refer to the minor ones as "lowered" or "flat" even though they are the unaltered members of the natural minor scale.
    – phoog
    Commented May 30 at 1:25

"Is there a way to describe...?" Honestly, the body of your question is a good description. The main thing missing is an aesthetic explanation. In other words, you aren't connecting your description to the aesthetics of the music's effect, but rather questioning whether the musical elements described violate some sense of technical expectation or propriety.

You mentioned concerns of:

  • can F major be used in a modal style?
  • can a static chord progression constitute a composition?
  • can the dynamic of tension and release be produce with means other than tonal tonic/dominant harmony?

Rather than thinking of those things as working despite "rules broken", I would try to describe them in further detail on their own terms.

As an example, I don't know if this necessarily applies to this specific music, you might examine the nominal "leading tone" to "tonic" in F major, and whether those scale degree functions cease to apply when their appearance does not conicide with dominant to tonic harmonies. Perhaps this is the path through which a nominally "major" scale becomes, for lack of a better term, a modal "ionian" mode?

Furthermore, when you decouple scale degrees from tonal function in that way, does that remove the tension/release dynamic to create an aesthetic of "calm", "floating", or whatever?

In jazz this kind of static harmony is called "modal." Obviously the style is different, but the static harmony with attention to free flowing melodic line is the same concept.

In "classical" music categories that sort of apply are "impressionism" and "minimalism." Both of those styles are not this particular style, but the static harmony concept applies. In impressionism static harmony usually will apply to certain passages or sections, not a whole composition. But some of those instances will be long enough to make good comparisons to this guitar music.

"Pandiatonicism" is another concept to look into for comparison. It applies to certain modern music, and while not this exact style, it involves using the diatonic gamut of tones, but without the conventions of tonal harmony.


This is an interesting question, and it seems like the answer is hiding in plain sight in the first sentence of the question:

This is simply a chord vamp.

A lot of folk, pop, and rock music might use a vamp like this for a passage or even an entire verse, but then shift to a more functional progression in a chorus. The example and other similar ones> just stick with the vamp all the way through.

I'm also reminded of (at least some of) the two-chord film soundtrack tropes that have been presented in several YouTube videos. (The first one I encountered was Scott Murphy's, but it uses nonstandard notation for the chords and there are many other videos on the topic.) I think an important similarity between these and the example by Scott Moulton is that they establish a single mood or emotion and don't really try to progress any further. I guess the harmonic ambiguity also helps keep the emotion in stasis.

See also this related question: Is voice leading exempt when using chord vamps in pop or contemporary music?

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