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From a theory perspective, does a repeated R&B progression like Em9-A-B count as a key change occurring over and over, or a I-IV-V progression with a seriously modified I chord (from major to minor 9th), or some other thing? What's the most natural way to categorize this progression?

SLIGHT POST-ANSWER EDIT: The accepted answer below is that it doesn't concisely fit in a single particular key, which I think is the case here. The commentary under lends some support to the idea that the Em9 represents the minor pentatonic "blues scale" sneaking into the first chord of a I-IV-V progression.

  • There's no modulation here. Was the song previously in E major? If not, why is I "seriously modified"? Why can't the song be in E minor? – Laurence Payne Jan 2 '16 at 12:43
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(I'm assuming that in this track, E is clearly established as the root note).

If it's a repeated progression going round and round, there's likely to be little audible sense of a change from one key to another, especially because the IV and V have such a strong harmonic relationship with the tonic - so it's not very useful to consider this a key change as such.

One description that could work here is 'mode mixing' or 'modal interchange' - the idea that we're borrowing the Major IV and V chords from the parallel major key. However, It seems rather unsatisfactory to consider that two out of three chords are 'borrowed'. Maybe we could think of it as being a piece in E major with a borrowed minor 9th tonic chord, but then again it seems unsatisfactory to consider the tonic chord, which establishes the feel of the whole piece, as 'borrowed'. If you had to use one of these descriptions, you'd probably have to look at how the melody behaved to choose which was better.

It's also worth bearing in mind that minor keys, being less 'stable' than major keys, do lend themselves to altered notes, as found in harmonic and melodic minor scales. We could see the V as fitting perfectly with E harmonic minor, though that would not fit the notes in the E minor 9 chord. If we look at the E melodic minor scale - i.e. the superset of the ascending and descending notes - it actually has all the notes for all our chords in! Unfortunately, 'E melodic minor' isn't a key.

The bottom line is that the idea of keys only neatly fits music that sticks to the diatonic scale. Music that strays outside the diatonic scale can't concisely be described as being 'in a key' in the first place.

  • I'll leave the question open for a little while but I'm leaning toward this answer. Another thing that occurred to me as I was reading your answer was that having a "minor-ish" E in this case is consonant with playing minor pentatonic against the first chord, which brings the "blues" to "rhythm and blues" and keeps the progression from sounding egregiously major. – the_au Jan 2 '16 at 15:23
  • @the_au Absolutely right, and the ability of the blues scale to act as a bridge between major and minor tonalities complicates things further (or, perhaps, simplifies things, as we no longer have to worry about whether something is major or minor - we can just accept that it's something in between) – topo morto Jan 2 '16 at 15:45
  • Thanks - I think that's what's happening here, blues scale against the tonic chord in an other wise major-ish progression. It's the same as garage rock guitarists do, just captured all at once in the Em9 chord :) Answer accepted! – the_au Jan 2 '16 at 15:48
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    In a minor key, it's perfectly natural to use harmonic and melodic to build harmony. Saying it's in a minor key covers these possibilities you don't need to call the key anything special to use them. – Dom Jan 2 '16 at 19:40
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    It's usage is well defined. We have a lot of questions devoted to this idea of minor key harmony and expressing it. Also note that in the case of ambiguity in major or minor the tonic chord will always be the final say, but even at that point it's not really that important as you are implying the same tonic. – Dom Jan 2 '16 at 20:18
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No this piece does not modulate at all. The B chord at the end of the progression takes you right back to Em9. You tonal center never leaves E minor and as a side note you'll never be able to fully modulate away from a key and back to it with 3 chords as you can't fully establish either key if that was your intent.

You don't even need to leave the minor tonality to explain this progression as including the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales you have a lot of flexibility in harmony as seen in this question. The V is considered typical harmony in a minor key, it exists in the harmonic minor scale explicitly for this purpose. You can also find IV in the melodic minor scale which building harmony off of would be odd, but not unheard of.

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It depends on the melodic context. It may be a i IV V progression in E minor with a Dorian flavor but it's not the only possibility. A "backdoor progression" iv VIIb I in B is another possibility.

  • It is a i IV V progression, that's for sure... but it's hard to reconcile major IV and V with a minor key, and that B Major chord doesn't square with E Dorian. I'll read up on the backdoor progression, that's an interesting idea. SLIGHT EDIT: Playing it as Em9-A7-B still sounds right, which supports the backdoor progression theory. Still how did the E get minor in a B major key? I think the final answer in my brain will be a combination of this and topo morto's – the_au Jan 2 '16 at 15:31
  • When I played the progression on my guitar it immediately felt it like iv VIIb I in B. But I understand things may change with melodic context. The truth is, all kinds of chromatic alterations are possible and used often. I think it's often unnecessary and even unconstructive to talk about "modal interchange", "tonicization" or other specific techniques. They're just chromatically altered chords. – cyco130 Jan 3 '16 at 7:50
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Bit of a late answer, but I had to respond to this.

I'd take a different stance: This chord progression's tonic is D. In the D major scale, Em9 is the ii, A is the V, and B is the VI. So, it's D: ii-V-VI. The reason why I champion this particular view is twofold.


1: The prescence of a ii-V makes a whole lot of sense not only in jazz, but also in a more funk/R&B context. The B, being altered, is not diatonic, but rather can be seen as V/ii (a more jazz/classical view) or simply a VI chord (the vi but more interesting).

2: I've got a really good example:

The example (Michael Jackson's "Rock With You") uses these chords almost exactly, and what's more, the melody and everything else suggest very strongly that the tonic is D major! In fact, as soon as I read these chords off of this question I thought of this song.


If anyone wants to contest that the more traditional funk analysis is actually i-IV as a dorian move, that's fine, as the chords never play the I chord, but I find that in this specific context, the whole progression revolves around D. Another answer even mentioned that the chord progression sounds good with A7 instead of A. That's a smoking gun for D major! Even better, we can investigate this by adding all kinds of extensions and seeing how well the chord progression works.

Em9? How about Em11, the ii in D major? If I'm right this should sound different, but functionally the same. I checked, and it sounds the same. A7? How about A9 or A13 instead (V9 or V13)? These all seem to work well in that progression. B? How about B9? *(Yes, B9 isn't diatonic, but take the regular Bm9 and make its third major to get B9).

E minor, in my opinion, doesn't really feel like a resolution in this progression. B definitely doesn't feel like home when used in the context I'm describing especially. D major does have a great sense of resolution when played after the chord progression.

I'm not saying this can't have any other interpretations, just that my way is something I feel other answers missed and that this analysis shouldn't be overlooked.

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