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I know of two songs that use this idea and I'm pondering from time to time for over 20 years now.

One is ABBA, "Slipping through my fingers" at second 36:

Bb, C, F, A

The other one is Billy Joel's "She's always a woman" at second 23: (all chords are one semitone lower actually)

D7, G, D, G,

A7, D, A7, F#

This chord, 4 semitones above the base note of the songs is pretty neat and pretty distinct. So I wonder, has anybody given it a name?

  • Hey, I've taken the liberty of fixing a few terminology issues. In short, the A# should properly be called a Bb (lots of questions about that around here, if you're interested). "Half note" generally refers to the minim. The term you were looking for is "semitone" or "half step". – endorph Feb 23 '18 at 1:01
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    Possible duplicate of Santeria - Major III chord in major key? – endorph Feb 23 '18 at 1:03
  • Thanks. I just read through the possible duplicate and thought to myself: nice answer if you already know all the stuff ( : Reminds me of a friend who really likes to tell me about electronics and I don't know whether to be polite or whether to say that I don't have a clue what he's talking about since it's way way way above my level. I am so illiterate that I perceive chords simply as distances of semitones. Well, at least I learn a few translations ( : To you it might be a duplicate, to me, not so much... but I understand – Haunt_House Feb 23 '18 at 1:12
  • I've tried to come up with a more basic answer. Hopefully it will give you a starting point for more questions. – endorph Feb 23 '18 at 1:39
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The short answer is yes, this is a known technique. Let's figure out what's going on.

Firstly, you might know about scales and keys. The most common scale is the major scale. It's made up of a series of steps, some a whole tone wide, and some a semitone wide. It goes tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. In C major:

C tone D tone E semitone F tone G tone A tone B semitone C.

These notes are called diatonic to the key of C Major, because they form the scale of C Major.

From those notes, we make chords. We get one chord per note of the scale. They C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim. We often use Roman Numerals to talk about these chords, because it means we're not stuck in C Major. Uppercase means a major chord, and lowercase means a minor chord. We'd call them I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°. The ° symbol means "diminished". That's not a very common chord, so don't worry about it for now.

I assume you know the difference between major and minor chords. A quick example:

C Major = C four semitones E three semitones G

C Minor = C three semitones Eb four semitones G

Where does that leave us? Well, we now have a set of chords for a key. We often add a few other chords (called non-diatonic chords). Some people like to come up with theoretical explanations for each one, whilst others just say they are in the key, and we don't need an elaborate explanation to use them. I'd lean towards the second opinion, but it doesn't really matter.

Which means we finally get to your chord. It's built in the third degree of the scale (four semitones above the first degree, or tonic). Normally that chord would be a minor chord. But, in your examples, it's not. The third chord is a major chord (sometimes called III, rather than iii). It's quite a striking sound, isn't it?

There are more comprehensive theoretical explanations (calling it a secondary dominant, for example). For now, I'd concentrate on learning what chords normally appear in a given key, and how you can use them. The major chord built from the third degree of the scale is one of your options. Another example would be building a major chord from the flat seventh degree (in C Major, that would be called Bb). It's not built entirely from notes in the scale, but it's a very useful chord regardless.

You probably have some more questions now. Feel free to hunt around the site, and if there's nothing specific, ask another question.

  • Wow, I'm amazed. If you ever have Blender/3D questions, I'm at your service – Haunt_House Feb 23 '18 at 1:47
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Great thorough explanation from endorph. Supplementing it, let's say in key D, the chord in question is F# (or F#7).

The next chord is Bm, the 6th chord in the series explained above. It's almost like the melody has gone into a minor mode. One convincing way to get to it is to play the dominant of that chord first, to prepare us for Bm. It happens that F# is the dominant. Not the usual iii chord (minor), as that has note A in it. No proper leading note (A#) to get to Bm. So the A changes to A#. Voila, F# chord.

So, in answer, it's V/vi. The dominant of the submediant.

  • It so happened that I almost posted the wrong part of the ABBA song. At second 13, Andersson and Ulvaeus actually use the minor chord first which has a similar, slightly less impactful effect. – Haunt_House Feb 23 '18 at 10:44

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