…doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember.
The ’50s and early ’60s have something of a rep for harmonic simplicity. Ask anyone with half a guitar to “write you a ’50s song”, and you’ll get a slow I → vi → IV → V progression, probably pausing for a bridge that starts on the IV, only to return to I → vi → IV → V. Incidentally, the song will also have the words “you” and “love” in the chorus, but lyrical complexity is beyond the scope of this post.
I’m not here to convince you that the ’50s and early ’60s were really a period of experimental jazz-prog. In fact, I pretty much agree that for ~15 years, chords were definitely almost as simple as Wikipedia would have you believe.
But I do think we’re throwing the II and the iv out with the… damnit, I really thought that metaphor was going to work. What I’m saying is there were a few songs that you probably think of as:
I → vi → IV → V
…that were actually more like:
I → vi → IV → V → something really interesting → I → vi → IV → V
This is similar to the general perception that all ’80s hair bands were only as good as Ratt and Warrant, but actually Guns n’ Roses is awesome and gets unfairly lumped in.
So this post, as per the title, is about “doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember”. Note it’s not just “interesting chords from the ’50s” (of which I’m sure there are a jillion), it’s songs you probably think of specifically as ’50s progression songs that are actually hiding harmonic good times beneath a thin veneer of I → vi → IV → V.
The [Em]snow glows white on the [Cadd9]mountain tonight
Not a [D]footprint to be [Am]seen
A [Em]kingdom of iso[Cadd9]lation, and it
[D]looks like I'm the [A]Queen
Turns out Meghan Trainor’s “No Good For You” does the same, arguably in a more interesting way:
I miss that [Em]happy friend that I had
[A]You've been acting so sad
Won't you come [D]back? yeah [Bm]yeah
You never [Em]take your time with your girls no more
[A]Always with your new boy
But he ain't all [D]that
But [B]you don't know yet
…the Doctor of Rock’s guide to matching your musical goals to musical starting points.
Recently a friend asked for my thoughts on whether he’d end up a happier musician by focusing on one instrument (depth-first) or spreading his time across instruments, composing, recording, singing, etc. (breadth-first). I’ve spent most of my life as a breadth-first musician with a short attention span, but I don’t really come down on one side or other. My thoughts ultimately boiled down to “first try to figure out what aspects of music make you happy, then work backwards from there”.
I’m going to more or less paste these thoughts in this post. So if you’re ready to take some advice from a mediocre hobbyist with no notable musical experience, read on!
It’s in Bm, but let’s say it’s in Am to simplify notation. The first two verses and choruses, and the solo, are all in Am. Then there’s a brief bridge in D, and I would definitely say that’s a real key change, before it goes back to the chorus, this time in E. The solo → bridge → chorus transition looks something like:
Listen to your h[Am]eart[F] when he's c[C]alling for y[G]ou.
Listen to your h[Am]eart[F] there's nothing e[C]lse you can d[G]o.
I don't kn[C]ow where you're g[G]oing and [F]I don't know [C]why,
but listen to your h[Am]eart[F] before[G] you tell him goodbye[Am].
[Am] [F] [G] [Am] x 2
[C] [G] [F] [C]
[Am] [F] [G] [G]
BRIDGE(in D) (note the G → D cadence to smoothly move into the bridge)
[D] And there are voices that want to be heard.
[Bm] So much to mention but you can't find the words.
[A] The scent of magic, the be[G]auty that's been
[A] when love was wilder [B] than the wind.
Listen to your h[C#m]eart[A] when he's c[E]alling for y[B]ou
Listen to your h[C#m]eart,[A] there's nothing [E]else you can [B]do
I don't kn[E]ow where you're g[B]oing and [A]I don't know w[E]hy,
but listen to your h[C#m]eart[A] bef[B]ore you tell him goodb[C#m]ye.
I like this because it’s not fancy at all, but still contains two key changes and everything fits together perfectly. It’s good clean Scandinavian pop. Nothing superfluous. Like Ikea furniture.
The core question here will be, as per title, how long do you have to spend in key [x], as measured in time or chords, before it feels like a key change, rather than a bunch of non-diatonic chords?
But the song I’m going to use as a prop has another property that I want to ask about first, which will be spoiled if I send you right to the candidate key change… so first listen *only* to the first 12 seconds (until the melody starts) (all the links and videos I’m including will start and stop at the right times). All the chords you’ll here are [B][E], or really [Bsus4][E/B].
Since you’re about to become a father, I think it’s time for us to have “the talk”. The one where we prepare you for empty chasm of harmonic complexity in which you’re going to live for the next 6-14 years. Right now, you’re probably under two incorrect impressions:
“My child and I are not going to listen to silly kids music, he/she is going to be raised only on [The Beatles / Radiohead / Bach / insert your own dreams and aspirations here], and I will fully avoid exposure to songs about ladybugs who eat ice cream.”
“I know kids music is simple and dull, but it can’t be that bad.”
Think of a pop/rock song with two vocal parts where at least 30% of listeners would disagree with the other 70% about which part is the melody/lead. Call/response not allowed, needs to be simultaneous harmony vocals. Octaves not allowed either (though I can’t think of a clear case where that’s an issue).
[G#m7]You used to [C#]tell me, we'd [F#m7]run away together
[Bm7]Love gives you the [E]right to be [Amaj7]free.
You [D#7]said be [G#]patient, just [C#maj7]wait a little longer
But [Bm7]that's just an old fanta[E]sy
If you’re keeping track of non-diatonics, that’s two III’s, a #IV, and a a VII.
Summary of quality things that happen:
I never object to a vi → II.
That III7b5 going into the chorus. None of the transcriptions I can find online even mention the b5 in this chord, which makes me sad. I also don’t quite know whether to call it a b5 or a #11 or what the difference is.