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The opening sequence in Stairway to Heaven is an A minor chord followed by something strange followed by C/G, D/F#, and Fmaj7. I've seen the second chord notated as Am/G#, G#aug, and even Am/maj7/add2. None of these seem satisfactory.

The notes are G# C E and B. I'm interested in understanding how this chord works from a music theory perspective.

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The second chord is a chromatic passing chord: the bass line is descending (A -> G#) whereas the top line is ascending (A -> B). It doesn't really have a name which describes it properly (CaugMaj7 is a possibility as is Eaug). The third chord is a true C with G in the bass, so again the bass descends (G# -> G) and the top ascends (B -> C).

So, viewing the first three chords, the bass descends in semitones: A G# G, the top ascends A B C, and the inner voices (C and E) stay constant. Viewed as a sequence from Am to C, the middle chord could be seen as a variety of E (E aug) which is the dominant seventh of Am.

Extra material: I am reminded of musicologist Alan Pollack's comment about a similar chord sequence which is the bridge of "All my loving": In "theoretical" terms, such an augmented chord [the second chord in the sequence] is said to not have a root at all, but is rather the incidental byproduct of melodic motion by an inner voice of the harmonic texture; in this case, from C# -» C-natural -» B; what my jazz-trained friend calls a "line cliche." The fact that it is sustained for a full measure, essentially just as long as any other chord in the song, is what particularly draws your attention to it.... In this case, the sequence is C#m ? E, but it's the same idea. The 'genius' of Page (leaving aside the court case) is to add the ascending line on top which mirrors the descending line in the bass.

  • I like the E aug interpretation. Since they retain the B in the melody, and there's no 7th, would it be most correct to call this a flattened 6 (vs 13th or sharpened 5th)? Isn't the altered note generally the highest note in the melody? – Paul Jackson Jun 24 '16 at 12:21
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    I've seen it argued that a 6th on a dominant chord is always a 13th and I've heard that it's the presence of the 7th that makes a 6th a 13th. These are usually coincident, but not in this case, so the question. – Paul Jackson Jun 25 '16 at 1:00
  • The function of the second chord can pretty reasonably be analyzed as dominant, as we'd have i - V - III, making it a sort of small deceptive cadence. In this case, the C is just a flat 13 of the E dominant, and these kind of extensions aren't exactly strange. This would make a lot more sense than a C aug in the context of the progression, so the actual name would be something like an E b13 or add b6. If you play the same passage with a D natural in place of the C, the color of the chord changes a bit, but not the function. You could also make an argument for it being a sort of suspension, sin – CW Grimmick Jul 1 '16 at 5:16
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    +1 for the notion of it being just a chromatic passing chord. It's clearly just an outgrowth of the lament bass concept, though here with some linear motion above it, as well. Trying to slap some chord root and quality to it misses the point, I think. – Richard Jul 1 '16 at 5:52
  • @PaulJackson: I prefer to think of it as a CaugM7/G# (2nd inversion) since it better explains the role of the B. In a M7 chord, the 7th "wants" to resolve up, and in augmented chord the fifth wants to resolve chromatically. It may seem odd to have a form of C chord resolve to another form of C chord, but both of those things happen here. – supercat Dec 20 '17 at 16:30

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