I'm attempting to figure out what is going on in terms of harmony with this song.

This is the best I have managed so far (supposing a tonal center of A):

enter image description here

Chords are:

   Am       Em        G         Am             C  
   Am       D         Em        -  
   F        C         D9        G              -  
   F        G         Em7       Am  

Which comes out functionally as:

 Am:  i        v         bVII      i              bIII

(Am:) i(a)     IV        v
                      C: iii       -

(C:)  IV       I         V9/V      V               -

(C:)  IV       V
           Am: bVII      v7        i


  • The first and third lines appear to have an extra beat.
  • Diatonic pivot modulation to relative major and back.

I'm not sure I need to specify the leading flats, seeing as the root-notes lie in the minor (Aeolian) scale.

My attention is drawn to line 2 measure 2: a (major) IV chord!

I've been analyzing classical works functionally, I've got as far as Beethoven. And I've looked at some modern works as well like Scott Joplin, Queen, etc. But this entire sequence really throws me out. I have no context for i v bVII i.

It seems not to have evolved from the same base. As if it is a different kind of species that has evolved independently. This has not come from Bach, surely?

Can anyone help me get a feel for this very beautiful work.

  • Help with specific pieces is not part of the remit for this site. I'm afraid your question will likely be closed. true, it's a great number!
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 17:19
  • Yesterday I was trying to find a more appropriate resource for asking this kind of question: music.stackexchange.com/questions/43636/… and the conversation seems to suggest it is encouraged. For example music.stackexchange.com/questions/42163/…
    – P i
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 17:21
  • 3
    I think this question meets community requirements to be in scope per those posts. Can discuss in Music: Practice & Theory Chat @Tim if you feel otherwise
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 17:45
  • 1
    Are you using the Paul Simon version?
    – hpaulj
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 18:27
  • 3
    @Pi Your own harmonization defeats the purpose of analysis as you can rehamonize something to almost anything else.
    – Dom
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 2:33

6 Answers 6


A short answer: Scarborough Fair is not in the minor, but is modal: Dorian (that's where the major IV chord comes from) and Aeolian (the minor iv). The modal character is underscored by the progression VII-i, which is normal for Dorian and Aeolian, and the fact that there is no major V chord.

And no, this doesn't come from Bach- its roots are probably older. Lots of old folksongs and ballads use similar modalities.

  • I agree with Aeolian the minor seventh of a key with a minor dominant chord gives that distinct effect.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 8:37
  • "Lots of old folksongs and ballads use similar modalities": So do lots of Bach chorales, as they are harmonizations of melodies mostly from the 16th century or sometimes earlier. But Bach harmonized them tonally and sometimes even added chromatic alteration to the chorale tunes themselves. For example, he likely would have used E major in the third measure, as well as in the penultimate measure (using either a G sharp or a B in place of the G natural).
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 7:09

While you could say the piece is in A minor, it doesn't really use the tonal ideas brought from the common practice period. If it did, you would see E or E7 much more instead of Em. The piece builds more off the naturally constructed chords of the A minor scale which means it uses much more modal ideas and I wouldn't expect certain tonal ideas, like the deceptive cadence or modulation, to actually drive what's going on and the are other things going on. The melody is is direct control of the harmony.

There are things you could look for and study. In general inside or outside functional harmony, look at how the notes move and you'll see patterns. For example moving up a third such as Em to G and Am to C are common ideas in this and can be looked at not as functionally, but decoratively. Functionally not much is changing If we were to combine those two chords for each we would end up with Em7 and Am7 respectively so in part when these chords are used with each other they can more or less be viewed as one unit moving for effect due to their similarities.

For the D chord it's just a borrowed chord from a parallel mode most likely from A Dorian, but it can also be viewed as from A Major (or Ionian if you're thinking modal). It's no different from iv and in major keys you'll sometimes see the opposite where iv is used instead of IV. In this piece, it's just use to give a little bit more resolution to when you go from the D to the Em as the F♯-> G resolution is stronger than an F->G resolution. It also sets up the next part quite nicely.

The next part even if you try to view it functionally does not modulate. Different chords are used to color the melody which is different then before in a much way that has been done before, but it does not stay and you quickly return back to where you feel A is the most important note again and arguably you never left.

So in short this piece is not from functional harmony, but modal instead so you need to look at it much differently to understand it. Roman Numeral analysis will not get you far, but you can look for how the harmony moves and look at the melody to get a good perspective of why the harmony is the way it is along with melodic and harmonic patterns (motifs) that may define the piece much more than a functional analysis can.

  • Yep minor dominant chords are very unusual for the common practice era.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 8:38
  • "Roman Numeral analysis will not get you far": why not? Is i-v-VII-i somehow less helpful than i-i-V7-i?
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 7:17
  • @phoog let's put it this way: it will show you the chords, but since they are not functioning the way RNA likes to think of them, it won't be as useful. You can always use a hammer as your tool, but there are some things it's ineffective as.
    – Dom
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 12:33
  • @Dom RNA is just labels. There's nothing magical about iii-vi-V/V-V-I as compared to bVI-bVII-I-II-III. RNA is commonly used for functional analysis, but it doesn't have to imply functional harmony.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 13:29
  • @phoog again the analysis is meant for function. The labels can be useful outside of that, but without the analysis there's not much weight to it. To put it another way, I can start labeling all chords in their prime form to abstract from specific notes. If I'm doing this outside of an atonal context though it gets silly really fast. For example, both major and minor chords have the same prime form of 0,3,7. I love Roman Numeral analysis, but if we're not clear on the scope of it, it muddies the water of why we'd want to use it.
    – Dom
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 21:36

I'm not as advanced as some here. So I will say my observations very simply. Simon & Garfunkel played it in the key of Em with capo at 7th fret using an Am shape. The notes that go along with the chords/song is "D Major Scale." Go figure. Took me half hour to figure it out... Any improvisation can be done in D Major Scale...

  • 1
    Of course, if you use the notes of the D major scale with a tonal center of E, you're in E Dorian (which you can think of as a particular flavor of E minor).
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 7:29

The history of the song creation by P.Simon and A.Garfunkel is described in Wikipedia and leaves few doubts that old Scotch melody is used. Mainly A.Garfunkel had apparently on ear selected chords for it so that he used freely both major and minor chords. The melody is evidently has note A as tonal center , uses this note in final cadence and hence belongs to A minor. I think that instead of to try classify obtained music much more useful to analyze which functions fulfills concrete chords in their melody's context. Chords are able to fulfill several functions: -to strengthen loudness, -to support temporal ties between notes especially by leaps on dissonant intervals in melody, -to create controlled dissonances in cadences that is use cadences either dissonant seventh chords or chord which are dissonant to melody notes., - simply to create beautiful timbre if another functions aren't needed, in these cases the use of any chords is possible. We see: -in the cadence to 7. bar the major chord D is dissonant with melody note E, -in the cadence to 13. bar the major chord D9 is dissonant with melody note E, -in the final cadence chord Em7 is dissonant, -the leap by passage from 1. bar to 2. bar is supported by the chord Am, -the leap in the 13 bar is supported by the major chord G.

P.S. In common, the matter is to provide the good support of melody and possibly with transparent methods directed on creation desired properties of music. As illustration I present sound file of the discussing work which is obtained by new structure of the music note which needn't in chords: http://home.arcor.de/yuri.vilenkin/fair-5ma-0.mp3 That is one from unimaginable number of possible variants. Greetings Yuri Vilenkin


Just to add the given answers. The reason why you would think this is Aeolian and not just plain minor has all to do with that minor dominant chord. In minor keys, you have a raised Leading Tone. This has the effect of bringing a third of a chord built on the fifth note of the scale up a semitone. This also gives you a Major chord.

In the Aeolian mode, you basically have the notes of C major starting on A note. It has all the notes of A minor except for seventh that is not raised (in minor seventh). So that A minor chord going to E minor (Dominant) definitely does not fit in a minor key.

Also, this song is actually more of a Medieval song (Although there have been modern versions.) So it being in a church mode makes a lot of sense.

  • For what it's worth, Aeolian mode is a modern (well, early modern) development in modal theory. It did not exist in the middle ages. A medieval theorist would call this Dorian (and the F# makes it Dorian even for a modern theorist). But really, in modern times we've developed this distinction that the minor dominant makes something modal and a major dominant in a minor key means that it's tonal. That's an entirely 20th-century idea. Nobody would have had trouble calling this Dorian before the 18th century while also using G sharps everywhere.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 7:24

The key modulates from C to G in line 2. Lines 1-4: C,G,C,C. Mystery solved

Detailed explanation: the first measure is in A minor and key of C major. Second line melody and chords are compatible with key G major and mode E minor. The surprise D chord is in the key of G, and the trick is the change of key already takes place in the A minor chord before it

  • Umm, no. But thanks for playing.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 31 at 8:07
  • First, the piece is modal: Dorian, explained in another post. But, given your analysis, the first part is in A minor, then E minor. They are not in a major key even though the key signatures are compatible.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 1 at 18:51

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