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I've been recently wrapping my head around the analysis of the following progression: F Dm Am C. Would you agree it's got an undeniable lydian vibe? I know an explicit lydian progression should feature #4 (and therefore the lydian mode would have been clearer if the progression had featured a G or Em chord) and in fact this one doesn't, but for some reason my ear can't help perceiving that F as the "home key". Maybe it's because the final C chord implies the #7 (#4 of the F lydian scale)? Or would you disagree and say the progression is just "straight" Am? To add even more ambiguity, since the fourth degree of the scale is not explicited, it could also be considered to be in F major. But this option is definitely put aside by the second section of the song, going F Am G G#dim (and thus straight harmonic minor). So wrapping it up my analysis would be: first section sounds halfway between lydian and aeolian (but with a slightly more prominent lydian vibe), second section resolves the ambiguity going straight harmonic minor. Would you agree?

The song in question is Galantis-Runaway:

QUESTION EDIT: First things first, thank you guys for all of your answers. Each and everyone has been very useful.

I think we've come to a point, however, where it might be of some importance to clear out the reason why I came up with the question in the first place: the very ultimate purpose of my analysis is that of "mining" the relationship between melody and harmony here. My "compositional routine" would often be the following:

1 come up with an acapella vocal line entirely in my head" 2 put it into midi and see what scale/scales it fits 3 come up with a chord progression to transform the vocal melody into a full song section.

So the matter here would be not just simply "harmonizing a melody" (you can just throw tens of progressions under your melody and come up with something pretty coherent and structured) but rather "finding a chord progression that REALLY makes your melody stand out".

So there are many people out there stating that one of fhe most used tecniques in this sense is some sort of modal overlapping, meaning that the composer would often choose a key, write a chord progression in one of the seven modes in that key, and then create a melody in a mode other than that of the progression (though still in the same key), meaning, of course, that the melody would imply mainly and resolve ultimately on notes belonging to a chord which is different than the "home chord" of the progression itself. And the process would also work backwards (starting from the melody like I do).

Such a method would inevitably imply a couple of crucial points: 1 position matters. In both harmony and melody. 2 one can always tell what mode a progression is written in (by "progression", i mean the nude and simple progression).

And the two intertwine, since, even in a progression like this one (F Dm Am C), though characterized by a level of ambiguity undeniably higher than average (mostly due to to the fact that it does not contain the full tritone, as many of you pointed out), there actually is something that makes a chord prevail on the others and stand out as the "home chord", and that something is position: in absence of any other stronger elements driving the attention of the ear, the first chord prevails. The whole strenghtened by the perfect cadence at the end of the progression (C F).

This is the point where many would state that just the fact that a progression begins on a certain chord doesn't automatically imply that that chord is the home key. Which is true, but only in absence of any other "strong signs" of a different home chord (like a cadence, or the repetition/long duration of that other home chord), which is not the case here.

So this is why i wouldn't consider THE PROGRESSION itself to be in A minor. I wouldn't consider it C major either, because the only Cmajor chord falls on the fourth beat of fhe bar, which is the weakest of the four downbeats. What is more, all its chances to be heard as the home key are kind of "sucked away" by the fact thay it's involved in a perfect cadence as dominant key.

So, to wrap it up so far: Is this progression ambiuguos in a sense that it doesn't clear out its triton? YES

Is this progression ambiguous in a sense that the listener cannot easily identify a home chord? NO.

I would call the first "formal" or "abstract" or "theorical" ambiguity, and the second "practical". So this song progression is FORMALLY ambiguous, but not PRACTICALLY.

Does the verse of this song (no need to argue with the chorus, since it's clearly in Am) really "give justice" to what would otherwise be a pretty "vanilla", boring, even childish vocal melody in Am, ultimately making it stand out and giving it a unique flavour? YES (song is a banger).

What is this due to? The fact that it mixes up a minor (or better Aeolian) melody with a progression which is INHERENTLY in F.

What is ultimately ambiguous in the progression is not its home chord, but its MODE.

The note B then appears in the following section (chorus), creating some sort of resolution to the tension previously caused by the ambiguity, clearing out that the progression is lydian. Which has even a stronger impact if we consider the fact that the song has an ABAB structure, meaning the listener will be approaching the same F Dm Am C progression in the second verse, but this time with the "psicoacoustic advantage" of still having that B from the chorus "in his head".

PS: psychoacoustics (which i find incredibly useful when it comes to explaining harmony) may also have some further implications in the matter: it is not completely true that the progression F Dm Am C has neither B nor Bb: the G note in the Cmaj chord and the E note in both the Cmaj and Am chords actually have B as their third and fifth harmonics, which, in absence of any materially played Bb in the chord, simply prevails, ultimately giving the progression a (though incredibly subtle) INHERENT lydian vibe.

Do you guys agree?

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    What is the song in question? Impossible to tell with just the chords really, need the context – Some_Guy Jun 12 '18 at 18:12
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    Why does it matter what you call it? It's a perfectly reasonable chord progression. It could be in a number of different keys (not to mention modes), but so what? It is what it is. Not all music can be explained by the way it follows one set of "rules". – user19146 Jun 12 '18 at 19:00
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    You don't need to introduce the lydian scale to "explain" why you think it's in F. C F is a perfect cadence! None of the chords contain either Bb or B natural, so why invent a hypothetical question about which one might have been used but wasn't? – user19146 Jun 12 '18 at 19:05
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    @cloverblack a list of chords will almost never you enough about a song to tell you convincingly about its tonality: other cues in the song (harmonic rhythm, melody etc. but which all ultimately add up to a subjective sense of pitch centre and tonality) are important. Ultimately, with the chords sequence given, I could write a song that comes out in D, A, F, or even G pretty easily. If it's even possible for those chords to add up to 4 different pitch centres without context, then making a distinction between "major feel" and "lydian feel" is just not going to be possible without context :) – Some_Guy Jun 12 '18 at 19:21
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    @alephzero because it's interesting...? People like to know why their music sounds the way it does, and hear whether other people feel the same "implied harmony" that they do. A fun thing to do in music is to subvert expectations, but that only works if you properly understand the what those expectations are, and why – Some_Guy Jun 12 '18 at 19:34
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While the chords alone might be ambiguous, I think the song itself is squarely in A minor. You've already explained why the second section is in Amin, so I'll focus my answer on why the first section is also in Amin.

Melody

The melody starts with three melodic phrases:

enter image description here

These three phrases resolve to the notes E-C-A, forming an A minor triad. In the first section, the very final note of the melody occurs at 0:29, over the Amin chord. In other words, the melody reaches its final conclusion upon reaching an Amin chord, giving that chord a little more weight.

Moreover, the entire melody is built almost exclusively from the A minor pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G). There is one exception at 0:19 when an F is played. However, this note is brief and is simply a passing tone.

Background parts

In the first section, the higher synth part is repeating the notes G-E-C, which is a rootless Amin7 arpeggio.

The song never switches tonics

Songs with multiple sections will often switch tonics. However, this is usually made very obvious, so that the listener clearly hears the change and notices "oh, we're in a new key." We never get that sort of obvious change when switching back and forth between the two sections. The sections bleed together as though they are in the same key, and the second section is clearly in Amin. This suggests that the first section is in Amin too.

Why you might be hearing F Lydian

In the first section, these chords repeats: ||: FMaj | Dmin | Amin | CMaj :||. When we loop from the 4th measure back to the 1st measure, we get a CMaj-FMaj progression, which might initially sound like a V-I progression. However, the C chord is really more of a CMaj7 chord than a C7. (If you try out both CMaj7 and C7, I think you'll find that the CMaj7 sounds better. This is partly because of the B♮ occurring in the melody at 0:57 and the G♯dim chord occurring at 0:43, etc.). Hence, the CMaj chord doesn't really serve as a proper dominant V7 chord, and thus FMaj isn't really the tonic.

Why the tonic isn't FMaj

In general, we can't separate the melody from the chords, because otherwise it might lead to statements that there are two tonics (one for the harmony and one for the melody). But just as this song isn't in two different keys, it similarly doesn't have two different tonics.

So for the chord progression, we have two candidates: | ♭VI | iv | i | III | in Amin, and | I | vi | iii | V | in FMaj. The second is not more inherent than the first because both progressions are perfectly logical. In fact, the first (in Amin) makes more sense and is more common than the second (in FMaj). Specifically, the second progression has a vi chord leading to the iii chord, which is atypical. The vi chord is a weak subdominant and usually lead to a stronger subdominant (e.g., vi-ii-V) or straight to a dominant (e.g., vi-V). For example, see c and d here. There is a second feature of the FMaj progression that is unusual. It's rare for the iii chord to lead straight to the V chord. In fact, the iii chord is "so weak that it almost always leads to stronger pre-dominant chords, rarely progressing directly to V." (myweb.fsu.edu/nrogers/Handouts/iii.pdf) By contrast, the first progression uses i - ♭VI, which is fairly common (for example, see a and b).

So in general, the progression in Amin (| ♭VI | iv | i | III |) tends to make more sense than the progression in FMaj (| I | vi | iii | V |).

  • I updated the question as a comprehensive answer to you all. Mind taking a look? – cloverblack Jun 14 '18 at 15:23
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    @cloverblack I disagree that the "progression ... is inherently in F." I would take some time to explain why, but I worry that you've already made up your mind. You've stated that, by default, the tonic is the first chord played unless this is overturned by "strong signs" of a different home chord. This is simply not true. You've stated that the C-F chord is a perfect cadence, and this is also not true (because the C chord is CMaj7 not C7). You've said "What is ultimately ambiguous in the progression is not its home chord, but its MODE," but I don't think this distinction exists. – jdjazz Jun 14 '18 at 16:29
  • Not made my mind up yet, rather just trying to wrap things up and focus. Would be grateful if you took the time to give that explaination – cloverblack Jun 14 '18 at 16:40
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    @cloverblack, if someone asks "what key is this song in," we can't reply: the chord of F maj & the scale of A Aeolian. We must give one answer--there is only one "home." The melody & harmony can't be separated & assigned two different tonics. If we hear the melody as being in Amin, then we're making a broad statement about the key of the song, which applies to the chords too. The chords can't be in a different key than the melody. – jdjazz Jun 14 '18 at 16:55
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    @cloverback, for the chord progression, we have two candidates: | ♭VI | iv | i | III | in Am, and | I | vi | iii | V | in FM. The second is not more inherent than the first because both progressions are perfectly logical. In fact, the second (in FMaj) is far less logical because it has a vi chord (subdominant) leading to the iii chord (mediant). Additionally, it's extremely rare for the iii chord to lead to the V chord. The iii chord is "so weak that it almost always leads to stronger pre-dominant chords, rarely progressing directly to V." (myweb.fsu.edu/nrogers/Handouts/iii.pdf) – jdjazz Jun 14 '18 at 16:57
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OK, so just for fun, before listening to the actual song, I made a demo as a kind of "proof of concept" to show how chords can mean different things. I'm not saying these are masterful compositions, and the C major one especially sounds a bit shoehorned in, and the G one I had to lean on G a lot before and after the progression to make it clear where we were, but it's to make a point not sell an album ;)

https://vocaroo.com/i/s0aKBNLoWxT5

Now, since you are asking about a specific song, I just listened to it. It's in A minor not F. (well B flat minor, but as you've transposed it in your question, I've used that as the example).

Your ear training is obviously going well, because you've heard that a B sounds very "in-key", you've just attributed the reason- it's because it's in A not in F!

In minor pop music the flat 6 chord can often sound quite "resolved", and it's often used to essentially "recontextualise" a melody, you often find minor pop music where the melody over the minor 1 chord is then repeated over the bVI chord, giving it a new context. This sounds quite stable and so it's possible to mistake it for the tonic, however if you listen closely you'll realise that the actual centre is the i chord.

This song doesn't actually use this movement much , instead opting to repeat the melody over first the F (bVI) then the (bVII G) but with a tweak to the melody, avoiding the Am on the chorus altogether (well, except as a passing chord). This helps build tension in the chorus as it never properly "lands", it simply bounces between the F and the G, avoiding the resolution to the Am.

For the purposes of argument though, you could sing the song like this:

F                (G)
I wanna run away
Am
I wanna run away

To hear how the "trick" of swapping out an Am for an F works.

Here's a demo of what I mean and some rambling analysis of how the song works. You later clarified in your question that it was the first section not the second section which gave you trouble but I'm going to leave this here anyway because I think it still has value for you:

https://vocaroo.com/i/s1lONrpeilXE

And by the way, on the chorus you don't "need" the G#diminished chord to tell you it's A minor, you can play it as literally F->G F->G without even playing either the G#diminished or the Am and it's still clearly in A minor from the musical context. In light of your edit to the question I recorded this just now to show you what I mean, and also explain the verse a little.

https://vocaroo.com/i/s0nptGkaAyam

Here are some other songs that rely heavily on the F-Am movement, to help you recognise it:

https://open.spotify.com/track/2sCFFlnYg6Lk75GCcfSXEz?si=Yx7JcgjnRrWZAEXZQXThTg https://open.spotify.com/track/2aoo2jlRnM3A0NyLQqMN2f?si=oZzKuLlMSUWr7PbbH1UL4g https://open.spotify.com/track/1KA6FrMQpvpHbMERjKNuaq?si=_PsJ6yD0Rs23paX8-QvEEA https://open.spotify.com/track/1dfuJYDSIc41cw5RPsaCF1?si=Whh9HJJtTRyASqAFlrxApg

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    First of all, thanks for the amazing answer! I've actually had a tough time figuring out that chord with the # seven on the bass in the chorus. How can u tell so strongly it's an E over G# (F over A in the original key) and not a viidim? I had thought of an F/A in the first place too, but changed my mind right after throwing a spectrum analyzer on the track and noticing a couple of pretty distinct Eb peaks (original key) and no F peaks at all. + I'd swear i can distinguish the presence of Eb even by ear (maybe I'm a little conditioned by the visual feedback of the analyser?). Can you relate? – cloverblack Jun 12 '18 at 21:51
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    @cloverblack sure, if you'd said G#dim in you're question I wouldn't have objected, but you just said "G#" which it most certainly isn't! Btw a good thing to do when trying to work out chords and especially specific voicings is to slow down a recording to half speed and try and pick out individual notes in the difficult chords by singing notes with the record. This works especially well when the song has good voice leading and you can follow "submelodies" within chords (it works well for this song). Youtube's half speed is ugly, use a program (try both with and without pitch correction too) – Some_Guy Jun 12 '18 at 22:49
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    @Some_Guy, >you can essentially throw chunks of diminished chords around to imply a V chord.< Very nicely put. – Areel Xocha Jun 13 '18 at 22:30
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    @jdjazz has done an excellent job of explaining why the chord progression isn't ambiguous here (and indeed why even without context the chord progression is most likely in A minor), but to make a more general point, it doesn't make sense to assign some sort of "theoretical ambiguity" to a decontextualised chord progression if that chord progression is unambiguous in context. Would it be possible to generate tonal ambiguity with that chord sequence? Yes, of course (as with many progressions), but the pertinent question is "is there any tonal ambiguity in this context", and the answer is no. – Some_Guy Jun 14 '18 at 17:28
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    As a demonstration, listen to the 3rd audio recording I made where I played the chorus using only the chords F and G, you no longer have G#dim or Am to tell you you're in A minor, however when listening to the rendition, practically there is no ambiguity at all. What you seem to be arguing is that there would be some "theoretical ambiguity" of the chords outside this realisation in context. i.e. that the chorus now, while being practically in A minor is somehow theoretically in, say, G mixolydian. There is no merit to this approach though. – Some_Guy Jun 14 '18 at 17:39
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I think you are looking at this in the wrong way and that it's probably hindering your ability to properly contextualize this stuff. The real answer is that it is impossible to tell based on the chords provided what the key center is because there is more than one valid answer.

You were asked in the comments on your original question to provide the song because it is impossible to tell what the key center is based on these chords alone since they don't quite give enough information. Here is a (fairly long-winded) way to illustrate this:

F consists of F A C. Dmi of D F A. Ami of A C E. C of C E G. If you take all of these together and remove the duplicates, you get F G A C D E; you have a note of every letter except B. If we assume that we are dealing with something diatonic here, you have two potential key centers: C major (above notes plus B) or F major (above notes plus Bb). This progression therefore lends it to being interpreted in at least two completely valid ways. You could call it a I-vi-iii-V in F major; probably there'd be a Bb in the melody somewhere if you went this route. You could also call it IV-ii-vi-I in C major, which may or may not involve a B somewhere.

Things get a little bit messy once you acknowledge that you could be dealing with a mode of either C major or F major. It is also reasonable to frame this as a progression in D minor (bIII-i-v-bVII) or A minor (bVII-iv-i-bIII). You could also look at it as being an F lydian progression (as your post implies), but this would be a bit of a stretch since the progression ends on the C. The only way to resolve this uncertainty really is to look at the melody (or other accompaniment); if you can identify which B is being used that will give you your answer. If you can't (or there are no Bs being played at all), the key center may indeed just be very ambiguous and you will have to look at where the melody resolves - if, for example, there is a recurring thematic resolve to A, you are probably dealing with A minor.

There are a few key points that you can take away from this.

  • The only way to make a determination on what key center you're in is to present a collection of notes that is unique to one key. You will eventually come to understand that this means the only time you can definitively state what key a set of notes belongs to is if there's a tritone in it somewhere, since the "uniqueness" of each key can be summed up as its root plus its tritone - a melody containing E and Bb or its enharmonic spellings will always suggest C or F#, and it will be obvious which of the two that it is nearly all the time.
  • Nearly everything in my post is concerned with analyzing diatonic music. Most of the things I've said here don't apply to non-diatonic music, except for the principle that the only solid identifier of a key center is the presence of a combination of notes that is unique to that key center.
  • The distinction between whether something is in, for example, C major and F lydian tends to not be particularly important or helpful for harmonic analysis. There are some cases where you would really want to know - you don't want to be thinking that So What is in C major instead of D dorian - but in general this distinction is about the melody.

EDIT: As an aside, with no context whatsoever I would guess that this is probably in A minor based on the position of the A minor chord in the progression, but this is also a fairly strong progression in F with the right melody.

  • Hi fugu, did you downvote my answer? I've made it a little clearer now so if you'd take another look and see whether you think it still deserves a downvote, I'd appreciate it ;) – Some_Guy Jun 13 '18 at 21:34
  • >"The only way to make a determination on what key center you're in is to present a collection of notes that is unique to one key. You will eventually come to understand that this means the only time you can definitively state what key a set of notes belongs to is if there's a tritone in it" I don't think I can go along with this: a lot of still perfectly "diatonic" music doesn't stick strictly to the major scale, and so you're going to get an awful lot of wrong answers using this method outside of western classical music (and even in it too youtu.be/0U6sWqfrnTs) – Some_Guy Jun 13 '18 at 21:43
  • I mean, while I can get behind the idea that, in practice, the answer is rarely going to be lydian (because lydian missing the fourth and so doesn't play nice with a lot of conventional harmony), I don't think you can just say "the distinction between F lydian and C major isn't important". The presence/absence of Bb isn't really enough to tell you where you stand, it's trivially easy to write diatonic music clearly centred around A as a key centre using Bb as a flat 2nd, and a lot of pop/rock music uses the b7 more than the nat7, and so a song with no Bs & plenty of Bbs may very well be in C. – Some_Guy Jun 13 '18 at 21:47
  • I updated the question as a comprehensive answer to you all. Mind taking a look? – cloverblack Jun 14 '18 at 15:22
  • @Some_Guy If it's diatonic, it will contain exactly one tritone and the combination of notes that make up the tritone will limit the analysis to two keys. Any scale with zero or more than one tritones is not diatonic because it will either contain too few or too many half step intervals. As for the distinction between F lydian and C major not being important, I meant that particularly in the context of harmonic analysis. It is relatively unimportant to distinguish them in that context because the principles of functional harmony don't translate well to the modes. – Fugu Jun 14 '18 at 18:00

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