I'm trying to figure out the theory behind these three chords and why they work together. At first I thought it was a C major scale since it tends to want to go there. But there's flats in there so maybe it's in F since there's a Bb, but then where does the Eb come from?

  1. C - G
  2. Eb - Bb
  3. F - A - C

I think this could also be written like:

  1. C5 chord
  2. Eb5 chord
  3. F chord

progression here in Synthesia.


In addition to Tim's great answer, we can also conceptualize this as being in C Dorian.

The Dorian mode is a major scale with a lowered third and seventh. C Dorian would thus have E♭ and B♭.

I think this is especially important to point out because of the A♮ (not A♭!) shown in your link. Another way to conceptualize Dorian is as natural minor with a raised sixth, which would be this A♮.

Dorian is very common in popular music. The I–III–IV of this excerpt is a very common feature of Dorian, as is the emphasized whole step between scale-degrees 6 and 5 (A and G).

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    @EzLo For metrical reasons, I hear C as tonic instead of F. To me, the C chords are treated as points of rest, whereas the F chords sound to me like they're waiting to resolve back to C. – Richard Aug 28 '18 at 10:06
  • I'd just like to add here that American Beauty is a great film, and part of its greatness is an especially sensitive and original soundtrack. Just sayin'. – Scott Wallace Aug 28 '18 at 10:28
  • I just noticed that Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel is in Dorian too! – foreyez Sep 15 '18 at 17:47

They just do! But for some theory behind, it's entirely possible to mix in a parallel key. So here, the Eb/Bb (certainly not D#/A#!!) is from C minor. And yes, it could be written as C5 Eb5 F5. There are those amongst us who would argue they're not 'chords', but that's for another post...

It could equally be in F, as those three chords also feature in that key.

That sequence was used a fair bit in the '60s - Knock on Wood comes straight to mind.I - bIII - IV. Or, thinking in F, I - bVII, You Really Got Me. (Although that's nearly in key G!!). Or On Broadway.

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  • The F chord at the end has an A in the top, so it's a full on F major chord. – trlkly Aug 27 '18 at 20:42

I think this could be in the key of C or F, both major or minor, depending on the melody and the rest of the chords, I could think in examples for all cases if needed. In the major case, Eb would be borrowed from the parallel minor key.

As already said, all notes fit in both C and F minor pentatonics, and power chords over pentatonic scales are an old trick I guess, can't go wrong.

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To my ear, it actually just sound like it's in B-flat major, but completely avoids playing the tonic chord, aka B-flat major. Since it avoids the tonic, it creates this feeling of always floating, never being anchored, like the bag in the scene.

If this is correct, then the chords would be analyzed as ii IV V, repeating.

You can try this out for yourself: end the progression with a B-flat major chord, with the top note also being a B-flat. To me, it sounds like I finally found rest.

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  • 3
    I don't think so since it wants to go back to C5. – foreyez Aug 28 '18 at 12:18
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    It sounds in C to me too. Part of the reason is all the pedal tones on C. No hint of Bb to my ears. – Scott Wallace Aug 28 '18 at 13:52

To me it doesn't sound like functional harmony, it sounds like pentatonic music with a weak key center in C. If it was functional harmony in the major-minor system, then we would expect at some point to get a V-i, and the V chord would have a B natural in it. That never happens. Since our ears are attuned to functional harmony, the lack of functional harmony makes it sound enigmatic. That works because the point of the scene is to get across something mysterious and ineffable.

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