So there's this song called "Tell Me What's On Your Mind" by Allah-Las. I'm pretty sure the song is in D minor. At least the lead melody is, and the Internet says so as well. But their main Chord Progression is D F C F. So no Minor Chords. I'm wondering how this is possible. I mean I get it that it just sounds nice, but what's the theory behind it. Can you always replace a Minor Chord with a Major one? Or at least the root. And if yes, why is it possible to play the Minor Pentatonic above it? I'm pretty confused to be honest. Would love if anybody could help me.

  • Without listening to the song, it's a standard blues/jazz thing, flirting between major and minor. The same flirting happens when you play notes from the minor scale over a major chord. Take a song in X major and play X minor pentatonic or blues scale over it. The same flirting happens when you switch the backing chords between major and its parallel minor or the parallel minor's relative major, for example first play like in D major, but then take chords from D minor or F major. Try it. Play songs, chords, toy around with it. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 8 '20 at 22:49
  • thank you for your quick answer. I've been playing for a bit more then 2 years now, all self taught, and I've always kind of played around and tried to find out what sounds nice and what doesn't. But now I'm at the point where I think I have to learn all the theory behind what i'm able to do. So now I try to spice up my soloing on the fret board by playing other modes etc. So to me it sounds like I just have to feel the blues for those Major/Minor Changes haha – Finn May 8 '20 at 23:00
  • "So to me it sounds like I just have to feel the blues for those Major/Minor Changes haha…” - yes! To me musical theory or “rules” are a roadmap that show you lots of different ways to get from one place to another, some more direct and some more eccentric. The more you learn the more you find alternate, perhaps not-so-obvious routes. And the more you travel, the more you’ll discover unmapped, “rule breaker" routes that better suit your personal journey. In this case it’s only rock& roll (but I like it,) and rock & roll (not to mention its parents, blues and jazz) is all about breaking rules! – wabisabied May 9 '20 at 0:02
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    Basically, what you ask has been going on for 60+yrs minimum. The playing of minor - usually pentatonic notes over a major sequence. It's what the blues, and a lot of jazz is based on. By using flat 3, flat 5 and flat 7 notes, all of which have a dissonant tendency, the song is 'spiced up' by these 'sweet and sour' notes. They just don't appear to belong (they're certainly not diatonic!) and it's mainly the fact that they shouldn't be there (theory-wise) but they work, in certain situations, that makes us think 'hang on...'. – Tim May 9 '20 at 16:46
  • " I mean I get it that it just sounds nice" is "the theory behind it". That is how theory evolved, as a means to describe what just sounds nice. Not everything fits into western music theory. There are whole cultures with music that does not have a theoretical description or justification. – ggcg May 11 '20 at 20:43

In addition to the comments on the question itself, it may help to recognize that, when determining a tonality, preference is often given to the roots of the chords.

Since the D chord in this example is major, we may think that we are in D major. But since the roots of the successive chords are F and C—both indicative of D minor—we tend to view the entire progression as in D minor.

This is not a universal rule, and there are plenty of caveats and non-conforming examples. But in "traditional" music theory, all things being equal, we give preference to the collection of chordal roots as opposed to the collection created by all of the chords tones themselves.


The D major chord is clearly D major and would seem to indicate a D major key. But F is the minor 3rd of D so in that context you have the tonality of D min in the progression. Also, the C is the b7 of D. There is no key that contains these chords. You might try G major with the C and D being the IV and V but that is not very satisfying. F major would have the Maj F as I and the Maj C as a V chord. The D would be the relative minor and making that Maj is not uncommon in Jazz for example (see Oleo, Anthropology, Dexterity, etc). Not having heard the song I'd say that it is a variant of a common device and playing minor melodies over it works. No need to over analyze it. It is my experience that a lot of modern musicians perambulate about cycles of major chords, or even "power" chords, in ways that do not stay in key. Playing D min or blues over it would work just as playing F maj over it would work despite the b9 (or #1).

  • It's worth a listen youtube.com/watch?v=fiJYecS0vU0 I think the chord sequence is great, the edgy D major and how it quickly moves away back to D minorish taste via the F chords, it really makes it memorable and unique in some way. Like adding sour lemon to sweet icecream. We can describe it with theory, but IMO the more interesting thing is, how to have the courage to come up with stuff like this. :) You can replace the whole D - F - C - F chord sequence with, say, D - D - Am7 - Am7, and it will be kind of the same, maybe more r&b'ish, but a bit more boring too. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 11 '20 at 20:12
  • Not everything fits into western music theory. The blues is the prime example. – ggcg May 11 '20 at 20:30
  • It fits theory in the sense that we can describe it. But it (most probably) wasn't made from that point of view, so who cares about such descriptions. :) I think the most natural way to look at it would be with a guitar in hand, and explaining it in terms of things you do on the fretboard. Because that's how a lot of rock and blues is actually made - looking at the guitar, not theory charts from music school. Grab a guitar, start playing chords and notes, keep what you like, move your hand and fingers differently if you don't like it. (could be a slight oversimplification) – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 11 '20 at 20:39

I get it that it just sounds nice, but what's the theory behind it

You can make the observation that the blues often uses a minor third over a major chord and then try to make some comparison to this song. But just a stylistic comparison. It's true. And it probably is an appropriate comparison. But it doesn't explain why musicians do it.

I think an important theory idea to consider is the difference between tonal scale degrees and modal scale degrees.

The tonal degrees are the tonic and the perfect fifth above it and the perfect fifth below it. Those three degrees are present in many different scales and they set the solid foundation for a tonality (key or mode.)

The modal degrees are the third and sixth tones of the scale (and to keeps things simple include the second and seventh degrees.) These degrees determine the key/scale/mode like major, Phrygian, Freygish, etc. etc.

In very broad terms the tonal degrees stay in place, but the modal degrees can change around in various ways.

In this song there is a D major chord using F#, but there is also an F major chord the root of which is F natural. Also, while the D major chord is played there are melodic tones of F natural so that F# and F natural sound simultaneously.

The changing F# and F natural is the first concern. Generically those tones are the third scale degree above D, the mediant of D, a modal degree. This fits nicely into our general concept that tonal degrees stay fixed but modal degrees are variable.

Secondly the F# and F sound simultaneously. That may seem strange, because relative to each other the two tones are a very dissonant minor second. When two tones differ chromatically like this, but occur in close proximity or simultaneously is can be called a false relation (or cross relation.) In various "classical" music styles there are sometimes false relations in the minor more between form of the sixth and seventh degrees. The blues does something similar, but with the third degree.

But that's dropping back into stylistic comparisons. Why is this clashing of false relationships acceptable?

I think the answer is that while to the tones seem to "contradict" each other they make sense as belonging to individual parts. Parts here means contrapuntal or melodic parts. In classical style if there is a false relationship of the sixth or seventh degrees it's usually because two parts are moving in opposite directions and direction is a factor determining the quality of those degrees. In blues and rock the quality of the third is usually separated by part. The guitar may play the major third in accompanying chords, but the voice sings a minor third in the melody part.

If the parts are considered separately, you will normally find nothing unusual in the treatment of tones. Only when the parts are combined does the clash become apparent. You could say the integrity of the individual parts trumps the "vertical" combination of parts. Which is sort of like the classic counterpoint versus harmony view.

In this song - if I'm hearing thing correctly, and also watching the singer's left hand on guitar in the video - the guitar part has a smooth chromatic line on the top of the chords F# F♮ E F♮, while the refrain of the melody is built around an embellishment of a D minor chord D D D F♮ (G) A. The integrity of the two separate parts is perfectly clear. One is a slinky chromatic line, the other is a broken triad. Two parts that sound great separately go together and we don't mind the dissonant false relationship.

So, the theory behind it...

  • modal scale degree are variable in many styles of music
  • dissonant false relations work when the clashing tones make sense within individual parts
  • dissonance works when handled properly

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