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The song Weird Fishes (Arpeggi) by Radiohead has a chord progression which has been shared in a website and I believe it is more or less correct:

Em7 F#m7 A A7 A6 Gmaj7

The song seems to be in key B minor - which makes sense since it covers all chords used.

So the chord progression seems to be like iv-v-VII-VI and does not contain B minor at all (which would be i) while it is the key of the song.

Is this (a song being in a key and not using the tonic chord of that key at all) correct and does this happen often?

  • There are also (even classical) compositions out there that have keys with accidentals (sharps/flats) in them but never use them. The famous Pink Panther theme song, if memory serves well, begins on a minor sixth and ends with a major second (I'm remembering the saxophone score, I don't actually remember the chords). So yeah, it's pretty common. Some modern classical and jazz music is chromatic in nature and avoids the whole chord/key thing altogether. Some doesn't even use "normal" notation systems. – Pyromonk Jan 20 at 23:41
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    Beethoven's first symphony starts with a lengthy introduction that goes on and on stepping around the tonic chord (C major), without ever actually reaching it. – Kilian Foth Jan 21 at 7:50
  • just a chord progression? do you mean a full phrase or full composition without a clear tonic? you could easily pick out a chord progression without a tonic, sequential harmony usually doesn't contain a tonic as it eventually leads to one. – Michael Curtis Jan 21 at 15:41
  • @MichaelCurtis: By "sequential harmony" are you talking about songs like El Shaddai? The chorus for El Shaddai passes through the tonic near the start, but uses it as one of a string of a secondary dominants. Transposed to C major, the chords are Dm G C F Bb E Am-G-A; Dm G C F Bb G C. It eventually resolves to the tonic, but takes awhile to get there. – supercat Jan 21 at 16:44
  • @supercat, not a particular song, but a type of progression, like [C7 F][D7G] or E7 A7 D7 G7... a sequence often leads to a new key. Within the sequence there often isn't a tonic. In other words sequential harmony is tonally ambiguous by definition. The basic answer to the question is simply "yes", but I think the OP may be after something more meaningful like a whole song or section that seems to eschew a tonic. – Michael Curtis Jan 21 at 17:00
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The key of the song tells you where the home note, tonic, is. When the harmony moves to the home chord, for example C major in the key of C major, it creates a sense of relief and being at rest. It's entirely possible to be aware of where home is, but still avoid going there, even indefinitely. That way you keep the listener feeling some tension and deny an easy solution or happy ending to the story.

You can try constructing such chord progressions yourself. Take an existing song that does go to the home chord, and substitute all those chords with something else.

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    Adam Neely gives a nice example of a song where it is unclear if the song is in D or in G, and so it doesn't feel very restful. – Bladewood Jan 20 at 18:10
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    Though this answer is true in general, with the song "Weird Fishes," It doesn't feel to me like it wants to resolve to B minor. I think this is, as Greg Martin suggests, in the mode of E dorian. – RaceYouAnytime Jan 21 at 16:40
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    @JohnTerMaat I hadn't actually listened to the tune, I just looked at the chords in my mind, but now after listening to it, I disagree with the E dorian claim completely. The implied tonic, most of the time until about 4:00, is D major. :) E minor feels like a ii chord, not at all like a tonic. At 4:01 they go to B minor and at that point it feels like a tonic. Home, rest. Then there's a C played a few times, giving it a brief B phrygian feel. It's either D major or B minor. Em doesn't feel like a tonic at any point, IMO. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 21 at 17:17
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    @JohnTerMaat test it yourself, press pause and play a D major with a strong low D bass note. :) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 21 at 17:36
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica I think you're on to something. The A chord does feel very "dominant". – Darren Ringer Jan 22 at 2:01
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Another interpretation of this song and chord progression is that is it not in a major or minor mode at all but in another mode, namely E dorian. The notes of the (modern) E dorian scale are E F# G A B C# D E, and all the chords you name can be found there; in addition, the keystone chord of the progression is an E chord, and the melody is plausibly anchored at E.

These alternate modes are not uncommon in popular music (mixolydian mode being the most common). Each mode can have a distinctive sound, just as major and minor do; and the dorian mode certainly can generate some restless feelings, with its chord progressions that resolve much less satisfyingly than in major, say.

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  • I think this is almost certainly the case with Radiohead's "Weird Fishes." In the case of this song, there is no feeling of wanting to resolve to B minor as the accepted answer implies. – RaceYouAnytime Jan 21 at 16:38
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    This E dorian theory is plausible in theory, but if it was true, you should feel at home and at rest on the Em chord, and considerably less at home on e.g. the F#m chord (which is played a lot). But that's not the case, I don't get a tonic feeling on any of the Em chords at all. From the start to 4:00 it strongly feels like D major is the home where the song never goes. Test it yourself. :) For example at 1:10 time, pause the song, and play a D major chord. Home! :D – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 22 at 7:05
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As others have pointed out, it's perfectly possible to have music in which the tonic doesn't occur but we nevertheless get a clear sense of tonality. The opening of Beethoven's first symphony is a great example.

But to me the song "Weird Fishes" just doesn't seem to have a strong tonal center. I don't think it's in any particular key. This seems intentional. The song seems to be about death, loss of identity, and escaping worldly existence. They don't want it to sound like, "He's dead, he sank to the bottom of the ocean, and it's all over. Done, resolved." They're depicting death as a beginning, as a lack of resolution. If you had a clear cadence, resolving to a tonic and feeling stable there, it would be contrary to the effect that they're trying to produce.

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Chord progression where tonic chord does not appear at all

The trick is in determining what the tonic (or implied tonic) is.

The traditional way to define the tonic is with dominant harmony (V I.) You could have a phrase that doesn't actually use a tonic chord, but if it ends with a convincing half cadence on the dominant, the tonic will be implied. Ex. vi IV ii V.

If you want the ambiguity of no tonic within a diatonic context (which is what Em7 F#m7 A A7 A6 Gmaj7 is, key signature of three sharps), then just play diatonic chords but avoid V to I.

A super common way to do that in a pop style is a vamp between relative major/minor, like Am to C. From those chords alone you can't tell which is tonic. Rhythm and melody could establish one of the other as "home" but strictly speaking the chords only can't. It could be vi I or i III.

Take this common progression D A Bm G - the Axis of Awesome - it could be nominally labelled I V vi IV, but it actually lacks a descending fifth progression (V I) and so harmonically it doesn't strongly define a tonic/dominant relationship. You could pick any of those four chords and treat it as home.

Progressions like this lots of repetition - a groove - because they don't contain a progression to form a final cadence. You could say it avoids functional harmony and frees you up to put chords it just about any order you like.

So, I would say "yes, it happens alot." Avoiding V I patterns is a device to eschew a clear tonic.

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