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I'm beginning my harmony studies, and I'm using some pop music to practice.

I started to analyse a tune from Spice Girls: "Say You'll Be There". Its tone is D major, so the verses feature this chord progression:

    vi II IV  I
    Bm E  G   D

First attention point: the second degree is major, not minor as usual. I do see this type of harmonization before, but don't understand it fully yet.

What really puzzles me is the chord progression of the bridge:

    V vi  IV  V
    C Bm  Bb  A

It suggests a modulation to F major, but the chords Bm and A don't belong to that tonality. It seems to me this bridge alternates between D major and F major in its chord progression, what is very unusual, at least for my studies so far.

Like I said, I'm a beginner practitioner and I might miss something. What could it be?

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    When you progress past being a beginner, you will discover that "the scale of a key contains 7 notes" is just a simplified idea to get you started. Any key contains all 12 notes, and all 24 major and minor chords (not to mention other chord types!) - it's just that some of the notes and chords get used more often than others. And IMO "tonality" is like "pornography" - you can't define exactly what tonality is, but you know it when you hear it. (And FWIW J S Bach wrote plenty of chord progressions that are far more "way out" than the two you quoted from the Spice Girls!) – user19146 Aug 14 '17 at 13:03
  • You're right. The chord progression templates are by no means rigid. What I'm trying to understand are the relations and functions the chords of the song's bridge are performing. – Marcell Alves Aug 14 '17 at 13:08
  • In your second chord progression, given that C is V and Bb is IV, Bm must be ♮iv, not vi. – Dekkadeci Aug 14 '17 at 13:55
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As a preface, I know the song you're talking about and those aren't quite the chords. I haven't heard it in at least a decade, but I'm going to use the chords that I believe to be correct in my answer.

There are two general concepts about harmony that are important to understand when looking at progressions that mix chords from the key and chords not from the key:

  1. Chords from outside the key are overwhelmingly common and do not represent a breaking of the rules but an adaptation of them; indeed, when looking at borrowed chords, generally what defines them is their relationship to the "original" key.

  2. Chromatic basslines are also very common and, because they can't occur in a diatonic system by definition*, they necessarily invoke lots of borrowing.

Let's look at the first progression first because it's easier.

BMi | E      | G  (Gmi) | D  (D/C#) |
 vi   V-of-V   IV (iv)    I  (I/VII)

There's only one standout label here, and it's on the E. In the key of D, E would typically be called V-of-V; it is the chord on the fifth of the key... of the chord on the fifth of the key. This is termed a secondary dominant. Secondary dominants are a relatively advanced concept (particularly if you're not comfortable with what a primary dominant is; if that's the case, I'd investigate that further before looking at secondary dominants). Nonetheless, a brief summary of their purpose is to provide a temporary suggestion of another key: V-of-V suggests V; V-of-IV suggests IV, V-of-vi suggests vi... and so on.

Generally, V-of-V is followed by V, but fairly often it is followed by IV instead. The reasons for this aren't so simple, but basically what it comes down to is the fact that Bmi-E strongly suggests the dorian mode on B (which comes from A major) and then the G quickly pulls you back to the D major system. This is a fairly common chord progression in pop music because it gives you access to a lot of notes while leaving you grounded in familiar territory.

I've also added a Gmi and D/C# in brackets. This is because the chorus almost certainly uses the minor chord on the fourth, at least some of the time, and the bass line that I remember has a pretty fat C# in it. Functionally, these don't change much, but it's worth noting that iv is another very common borrowing and is perhaps the most prominent example of a concept called modal interchange, where chords from parallel scales are used.

Now, the second progression:

C        | G/B  | Bb | A7
bVII       IV/vi bVI   V7
(IV-of-IV) (IV)    

N.B.: You have this labelled as a bridge, but I'm fairly certain this is a pre-chorus.

This is a chromatically descending bassline. It attempts to get us to the dominant chord in four bars, and so it starts three semitones above the intended root and moves the root down a semitone until it gets to the ending point. At a high level, this is how chromatic basslines work: The chromaticism of the bassline is the anchor. There are few things more common in contemporary music than the chromatic bassline, and to explain all of the possible variations and their differences would require an exceedingly large block of text.

But back to the Spice Girls. The first chord is C; this is another example of modal interchange and it comes from the mixolydian mode. The chord that generally follows the bVII is the IV, and that's what we've got here. The Bb is also an example of modal interchange, but this time we're borrowing from minor; it gives us access to F as a melody note and serves the purpose of moving the bassline one semitone closer to A. The last chord is the dominant chord of our key and serves as an ideal transition back to a tonic chord (in this case B minor).

An important note of distinction here is that at no point in time have we actually modulated to a different key. We've suggested a lot of different scales, but with the exception of E (which, as a secondary dominant, is an example of tonicization) the key we've suggested has always had a tonic of D.

A little disclaimer about my transcription: I didn't actually listen to the song when I came up with these changes and I haven't heard the song for many years. Nevertheless, the only chord that can actually be "wrong" here is G/B, and what you may find that the bass is actually playing a G, not a B. This doesn't affect the overall analysis too much, however, as it simply means that the descending chromatic line is in the melody, not the bass. I will verify one way or another later today.

*Diatonic systems contain one of each letter name; this quickly becomes impossible to maintain with a chromatic bassline.

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I listened to the song now and the key is Bb minor (I suppose you transcribed it in Bm to be easier? )

anyway, the verses use : a progression of 2 chords that can be seen built on a Dorian scale (or a simple chromatic alteration of a chord built on 4th step of the minor scale, a "borrowed " chord) - after that, I hear the same chord that changes from Major to minor (it's got a similar sound to the progression that you wrote) and at the end , the final chord of these four chords is a Major and it sounds like a new tonic in the relative Major (it is the same tonal area, and more or less the same notes)

that cool, 70s and Soul-oriented pre chorus (or bridge) is made of quartal chords , especially

I hear : Db 7/4 that brings to Gb Major 7th - in your transcription, it will be: C 7/4 , F Maj7 - not Bm (are you sure??)

and these 2 chords are part of one tonality (call it tonal "area" if you like)

  • if you listen to the melody that they sing, they sing the Major 7th, when the Maj 7 chord occurs

  • after that, there's a key switch ( a "tonal center" change) and, in my transcription, I hear a 7/4 chord that is a B 7/4 and it's exactly one whole step lower than the first one of the pre chorus

In your key , it will be : C 7/4, F Maj7, Bb 7/4 ....

and it goes directly to the last 7/4 of the series, which in my key is Ab 7/4 and in your key is A (7/4)

If you listen to ,,,,say Michael Jackson of the first album, or Stevie Wonder in the 70s,,, these harmonies were common , Spice Girls used some good song writer here...

  • Listening to the version I found on YouTube, this tune is clearly in D♭ major, not B♭ minor. Wikipedia agrees with me. – David Bowling Feb 15 '18 at 19:46
  • ah wikipedia agrees with you? and who cares- B b minor with a Dorian variation, thats all- – Gio Perini Feb 16 '18 at 19:16
  • Well, agree that who cares if Wikipedia agrees, but the key is clearly D♭ major, not B♭ minor. These two keys are not the same. – David Bowling Feb 16 '18 at 19:19
  • I suppose that you are not familiar with modes, right? B b minor (Dorian) is exactly in the same key of Db- it's exactly the same thing- the song starts with a B b minor and follows a mixed mode composition technique- the second chord is built on the IV step of B b minor (Dorian progression) and, using a plagal (IV-I) cadenza, it resolves in Db Major- Happy now? – Gio Perini Feb 16 '18 at 19:27
  • Ignoring your obnoxious condescension, modes are not keys. You said key of B♭ minor. The first chord is a B♭ minor, but this is not the key. The key is D♭ major. No need to appeal to "mixed mode composition technique" to determine the tonality here. – David Bowling Feb 16 '18 at 19:33
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Related to the bridge: is this the real chord sequence as played on the record or does this come from a simplified score ? if the Bb in the bridge is a Bb7 we might have a tritone substitution from E7 to Bb7 leading to the A chord. This is a development of a ii - V7 - I sequence as often used in jazz (originally Bm - E7 - A) including in situations where the composer uses secondary dominants

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