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I am a songwriter and compose my own music to go with my lyrics. Most of my chord progressions follow common patterns like using a I V IV or I IV V with an occasional ii or iii or vi chord thrown in for good measure. But I am always looking for new ways to make my chord progressions more interesting and unusual. But I want them to be effective and satisfying. So when I see something outside the norm that sounds good, I like to try to figure out what makes it work.

The sound file below is an example of a popular song (some may recognize it but the title isn't important) that uses a very strange chord progression. My arrangement is transposed from the original composition but these chords absolutely work in this song. Yet the chords don't seem to fit properly into any key. I'll take a wild guess and say it's in the key of G.

So the intro is G to E (G = G major and E = E major). Then the verses chords are G B7 C A G B7 C A then the chorus is G Em G Em G A G E (major this time). Then there is a bridge that goes G D C - G D C - G D C then F D7 then back to the verse. Song ends on E (major) after repeating the intro.

My question is how can these chords go together? There is an Em and E major? I know the G C D & Em fit in the key of G major. But why does an A major and E major work if this song is in the key of G? What about the B7 (a B major will work in the song also). I realize the bridge might modulate to a different key? But in the verse there is a G and B7 and A and C If I can understand what functions these seemingly out of place chords have and what makes them work in this progression, perhaps I can use the same logic to compose some fresh new melodies for my own original songs.

The sound file is me playing the chord progression on acoustic guitar while calling out the chord names in case my sloppy playing does not make them clear.

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    Note that in the original version of the song there's no Em, just E. – Matt L. Nov 18 '15 at 9:31
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    "If it sounds good, it is good." In other words, if they sound great, they do belong together. The theory serves the sound, not the other way around. Personally I think theory has a lot more hand waving in it than theorists want to admit. Why do some things sound good and others don't? What makes a hit song a hit? I believe we don't actually know, and that's the wonderful mystery of music. If it actually were a science, it wouldn't be an art. – Todd Wilcox Nov 18 '15 at 11:11
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    The first part is very reminiscent of Dock of the Bay youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug – Mr. Boy Nov 18 '15 at 11:15
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    The idea that "fitting into a key" is some kind of rule that needs to be adhered to is one of the most common misconceptions in music theory, and one that I think points to a real problem in how theory is taught (and, indeed, how music is notated). There are many wondrous harmonies to be discovered outside if the diatonic scale, even if you stay within the bounds of the 12-tone scale. – topo morto Nov 18 '15 at 12:14
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Intro: G to E

This could work chromatically. It doesn't really belong to any scale. You play G and by chromatically changing G to G# you go to E. Beatles had a similar progression on the verse of their song 'Honey Don't':

They start with an E major chord that is followed by a C major chord. It creates a nice sound because it has the G# that chromatically goes to G (natural) and then back to G# etc.

Verse: G B7 C A G B7 C A

This could work on the G major scale. Let's take a look:

G->F#->G->A
B->B ->C->C#
D->D#->E->E

This is how the first four chords can sound good together. They move semitones/tones away, so the chords don't sound that far off, even though they don't belong in the scale per se. It is common to play the III as a major, where it was supposed to be minor. Again, from C to A, you move chromatically by changing C to C#.

I know that these are not the voicings you have used, but to simplify the explanation I used them.

In Jazz, it is common to play a vi ii V I progression all in dominant chords (or simply major ones): VI7 II7 V7 IM7 (or VI II V I).

B7 is also the dominant of E (both major and minor; let's take the minor one here). After V, instead of I you can use VI, which is the case here. In the E natural minor scale the VI is the C major chord. So, you can assume that this might be going on here.

Chorus: G Em G Em G A G E

This works on the E natural minor scale. You start with its III (G) and go to i (Em) twice. The fact that it ends on E major and not E minor, could be a Picardy Third. To quote wikipedia:

It refers to the use of a major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical section that is either modal or in a minor key.

Which is exactly what happens above.

Bridge: G D C - G D C - G D C then F D7

Now this bridge is simply in G major; I V IV- I V IV - I V IV. I'm not sure I understand what the role of F is there , but D7 is the dominant of G, so it is there to take you back to G.

So, from what I understand, the song revolves around the G major chord. Sometimes it is used as the I in the G major scale and sometimes in its relative minor, the E minor scale.

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    If the bridge IS in G major (which seems logical) then the F could function as the flattened seven chord which can substitute for the 7 diminished as explained in great detail in the answers to this question [music.stackexchange.com/q/29817/16897 ] And thans for fixing the sound cloud link. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 18 '15 at 7:57
  • @RockinCowboy that totally slipped my mind! yes, that could be the explanation for the F – Shevliaskovic Nov 18 '15 at 8:01
  • @RockinCowboy: The F is taken from G mixolydian, adds a bluesy feel to it. – Matt L. Nov 18 '15 at 9:33
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    Just some additional notes: The first move from G to E, and the Beatles example from E to C, are called chromatic mediant relationships. Two chords of the same quality whose roots are a third apart. There will always be one common tone, on chromatic alteration, and one stepwise change. I also agree with your way of hearing the B7–C. It's called a deceptive resolution of a secondary dominant if you want to look up more examples @RockinCowboy – Pat Muchmore Nov 18 '15 at 11:05
  • The F can be interpreted as a temporary tonic to which the C resolves as a dominant. It also provides a nice bridge to the D7 (F -> F#), which is in turn the dominant to the following G. – Eric Galluzzo Nov 18 '15 at 12:29
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B7 is the dominant of Em (the relative minor of G), so the first two chords appear to be preparing a cadence to Em. Instead, there is a C chord, which is 'almost' Em - either IV in G or VI in Em. The A chord has a similar function as the B - it can be taken as a secondary dominant, leading to D (which isn't played). It also is IV of Em - a major subdominant.

Look at the movement of the notes in G and B - they both have a B, D ascends D# and G descends to F#. Also look at the notes in C and A (especially A7): E and G are common and the C ascends to C#. These sequences increase tension.

The closing E major can be seen as a Picardy third, if the key is indeed E minor, a decoration dating from a few hundred years ago.

I don't know what song this is but The Beatles were very fond of such progressions, especially the major fourth in a minor key (here, A if the key is Em) and the minor fourth in a major key (not applicable here).

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Theory is coming up with a plausible reason why something works. There is one about using chords from the parallel key. Thus, in a song, in G, any chords from G minor will also fit quite well, within reason. Move to the relative minor of G - E minor, and take the parallel major from that. E major. This gives a whole new set of chords to play with, which, again, within reason, will fit quite well.

So, now, there are four sets of chords which can fit together. All of the chords in this song can be found using this formula. Of course, not all have been used - some were docked from the list.

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Ok, I will throw my two cents into the bucket.

The intro; G to E (both major) is an example of the basic 'rule'(description of common practice) that music commonly modulates to the parallel major of the relative minor. This progression is quite is quite common.

A B7 chord commonly occurs in the key of G major. It is the dominant of e minor. Often the B7 is followed by an e- chord. In this case, it is followed by C. As noted in one of the answers above, e- and C are related. All diatonic triads whose roots are a third apart, share to two notes in common.

I would say that the C actually represents a modulation to C major. This explains the A chord. The C and the A are the exact same relationship as the G and the E. (parallel major of the relative minor)

Now to the chorus. The G and e- is the basic I and vi. The A sounds like a modulation to me. Definitely out of key. What key? What key has both a G major and an A major chord? D major! This is a example of the 'rule' (description of common practice); modulation to a closely related key i.e. a key with only one sharp or one flat difference. G major - 1 sharp, D major - 2 sharps.

This song is interesting, the implied modulation never actually resolves with the tonic of the new key. The B7 does not go to e-. The A in the chorus does not go to D.

Now the bridge. G D C, obviously I V IV now what about the F and the D7? What key that is related to G major has an F and a D7? I say, g minor. VII V7 in g minor. I would also say that both the F and the D7 function as dominants to G. The F chord is a bVII this is a modal 'dominant' and D7 is the real thing, pulling us back to G.

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