"Learn to Fly" of the Foo Fighters is in the key of B

The sequence of chords of the B scale harmonized is

B - C#m - D#m - E - F# - G#m - A#º - B

I - IIm - IIIm - IV - V - VIm - VIIº - I

But the sequence of chords of "Learn to Fly" is

B - F#m - E

where the 5th grade is a minor chord where it should be a major chord (or 7th)

Why this (musically) works? Is there any explanation to this that can be applied to other contexts?

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  • Doesn’t that progression suggest the song is actually in E, which would F# the second degree which is normally minor? – Todd Wilcox Jun 30 '18 at 13:06
  • No. (Well, it might suggest it to the eye, but not to the ear, which is what counts in the end!) Popular music chord theory has got itself completely tied in knots (and modes!) IMO, through refusing to recognize that every major and minor key actually contains all twelve semitones - but not in equal quantities. There are countless examples in say Bach's chorales of chords like F minor, D major, D flat major, etc, in passages where the key that you hear is a rock-solid C major. – user19146 Jun 30 '18 at 14:34
  • The moment strange chords like "A flat major chord in a C major piece" and "D flat major chord in a C minor piece" pop up, I no longer believe that the key I hear is rock-solid. Polluted, yes; with modal implications, often. But never rock-solid. (I've heard both examples plenty of times in video game music.) – Dekkadeci Jul 1 '18 at 6:36
  • @Dekkadeci - fair point, but don't you have a feeling that at some point, the tune will return to home? Or does it give a feeling that actually, this is where the wilderness starts... – Tim Jul 1 '18 at 9:09
  • @Tim - Assuming they don't portend modulations, those chords give me the impression that the home key has been significantly weakened. For the second case, I often describe the key as "C minor with Phrygian implications". For the first case, I often describe the key as "C major with minor leanings". – Dekkadeci Jul 1 '18 at 13:29

It musically works because it sounds good! There isn't really a 'should be' in music. It's more of a 'could be' when addressing some theory. However, taking that theory further, it's agreed that chords from a parallel key work well (as here!).

The parallel key for B is - you've guessed - Bm. Several different chords become available using the harmony from Bm. And F#m happens to be one of them.

Also, containing an A and a C#, it hints at B9. Which is another chord that would lead directly to E, the IV of B.

  • Great point in the last sentence! +1 When I listened to the song, I almost thought the F#min chord was AMaj, as though the progression were BMaj-AMaj-EMaj with F#min substituted in place of AMaj (in order to hint at the parallel key of Bmin, as you say). – jdjazz Jun 30 '18 at 22:12

Like @Tim said. But let me expand a little.

Accept one basic concept. 'The key of a piece is a framework, not a restriction'. There is nothing wrong, unusual, or even worthy of more than passing comment when a song uses a non-diatonic chord. Then you'll not need complicated justifications like 'borrowing' (so OK, that chord's diatonic in some OTHER key? So what?) or 'modal interchanges'. You just need 'so what's that chord doing there?' And the best answer may well be 'because it sounds good.)

If it was F# (or F#7) we can easily hang a label on it. It's being a diatonic dominant (or dominant 7th). Good ol' hymnbook harmony. We could label F#m as 'borrowed' from the parallel minor. But does that help? (Anyway, it's quite likely a tune in B minor would still use the major dominant chord, then we'd have to use the same excuse backwards!)

Just accept that a diatonic chord with one note modified is a 'thing you can do without sounding particularly left field'. In a harmony exercise that F#m MIGHT signal a modulation to E major, via F#m7, B7, E. In that case there would be some point in considering it 'borrowed' from E major. But that's not, I think, what happens here. It's just nice.

  • Good answer. Except that some people really need the 'golden rules that make this happen'. I imagine a new theory book. One page only. No.1. Things happen the way they do, because they're nice. Not knocking! – Tim Jun 30 '18 at 15:44
  • My answer didn't dispute the framework. Just teach it AS a framework, not a restriction. – Laurence Payne Jun 30 '18 at 15:47

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