Non-Diatonic Melody Centers

…they feel so wrong, they feel so right.

From: Dan

To: Ian

Today’s challenge: songs where an “important” part of the melody (so no passing notes or notes you could drop without anyone caring) goes non-diatonic when the chords are still basically doing sensible diatonic things, and even better cases where crazy but important melody notes blatantly disagree with the underlying chord.

I was thinking about this when I was listening to “Heartache Tonight”, where the song is clearly in G and is a pretty traditional chord progression, but the note that really defines the melody in the chorus (and really defines the song), and is held for a good long while, is Bb:

In this case, at the beginning of the chorus, it’s more or less over a C7 (though it’s mostly only C7 *because* of the melody), so it’s not crazy talk, though still unusual. Later in this particular chorus (the second chorus), he really insists on the Bb over a bunch of other chords, still clearly in G:

                   [G]                    [G7]               
There's gonna be a heartache tonight, the moon's shining bright
   [C7]                     [Eb]
So turn out the lights, and we'll get it right

An even more pronounced example is “Long Tall Sally”, which may get by under the heading of “he’s just screaming his head off”, but the whole song is basically Bb in the melody over a G major chord:

I suppose you could argue that the instrumentation while the melody is playing is so sparse that we could disagree on whether it’s G major, but the song is pretty clearly in G major, and it’s clear that if we were playing this right now and forced to play a third, we’d all play a B (suggesting G major).

Related note: it’s awesome that Paul doesn’t tune this down even at 71 years old, and still totally rocks that Bb (this is the show I just saw in Seattle):

Actually even more awesome, this is almost THREE HOURS INTO THE SHOW. Not a perfect vocal, but he’s basically perfect on that main Bb. By the time Ozzy Osbourne turned 45, he was tuning down two whole steps (really) so he didn’t have to sing above E. At 71, Paul is going strong at Bb. God damn.

From: Ian

To: Dan

Here are my two admittedly weak examples, but both have the cool feature that the non-diatonic note is sung by the vocal harmony:

I don’t remember what key this song is in, but let’s just say Am. (Eds. note: it is.) And it’s full of D5 chords with Fs sung over them. Except in the 2nd and 3rd choruses, the 3rd phrase (“it felt so wrong, it felt so right”), the vocal harmony clearly sings F#. Awesome. Makes the entire song.

And another:

This one is less crazy, since the song (which is in F#) clearly establishes that A as a note that could appear in the song, but it’s still cool when the vocal harmony cranks one out during the chorus that starts around 2:50, and holds it for several seconds:


From: Dan

To: Ian

Oh, good call on I Kissed A Girl.

Just listened with guitar; your arbitrary guess of Am was correct. And even 5 seconds before that harmony, there’s a D5 that I would call Dm with 100% certainty (Am C D5 F E). Then that harmony line is A G F# F E. So that F# both keeps the descending line moving and, more importantly, adds your D major.

I have to say, you’ve heard me say a zillion times how much I love the iv in a major key, now I think I love the IV in a minor key at least as much. My favorite solo to play the whole time we were in Rewind was definitely Power of Love, not only because I hate solo’ing and it was only 25 seconds long, but also because I could insist on the F# every other measure (it was over Am D Am D Am D Am D).

Re: Undone. Yes, this A is totally an awesome example of the “what the fuck but it still works” notes that I was looking for. I’m not sure whether I’d call it melody or harmony here. If we can agree to call it melody, I think it’s the best example yet. It’s definitely louder than the other voice.

You also didn’t mention the SUPER Ian-y thing happens just a few seconds earlier: a passing bIII here in the middle of a super-vanilla I IV V IV progression that had repeated throughout the song:


From: Ian

To: Dan

I have one more offering on this topic, the outro of a song I know we both like:

I’m not sure what exactly is going on here, but the song becomes bluesy despite the chords not changing. I think I hear some A, G, and D (b7, b6, and b3; the chorus/outro is in B), whereas previously the choruses were straight up B major.

From: Dan

To: Ian

Yes, it sounds like in all the choruses before the outro, on “tempted by the fruit of” he does “D# D# D# D# D# E F# F# E”, but here he does “E D E D E D E F# D B”. Although it’s almost somewhere in between D and D#; I can’t quite decide what it is. I’ll go with D. Song is definitely in B (i.e. “rock B”, i.e. B mixolydian). Actually now that you point it out, I feel like this “get your tone all grind-y and put more dominant 7ths and b3’s in the melody as a song fades out” pattern is common, though I can’t name an example off the top of my head… I will keep an eye out.

I had to double-check after I wrote that paragraph that the main note in the melody in the other choruses was in fact E over a B chord. That’s something right there. Not as cool as your D, but…

Good example.

From: Dan

To: Ian

Oooh, I found just the outro I was looking for where the chords and lyrics are repeating other parts of the song, but the melody is chock full of brand new b7’s and b3’s, and the vocal tone is suddenly all grit-tastic: Got To Get You Into My Life. In G, but the vocals are drenched in F and Bb in the outro.


From: Dan

To: Ian

Oh, last one… if we can vaguely agree that My Sharona is in G major (the C and Bb are definitely major, the G is close, but I’m willing to roll the dice and call it major), the whole melody sits on the b7 (F).

Also, Ian, unclear why we haven’t talked about this song more since it uses the bIII, bVI, and bVII all in useful awesome ways, which is the perfect Ian-trifecta. Maybe our lack of discussion about this song suggests that you think it’s in G minor, which would make the melody still interesting, but less interesting, and the chords definitely less interesting.

Interestingly, I arrived at My Sharona because I was playing around with A Hard Day’s Night, which has awesome blue notes (bIII’s), as in “feel OH-kay”, that are reminiscent of this thread, but probably not “important” enough in the melody to count:

And that brought me to this awesome cover by The Knack, which has an almost eerie Beatles-i-ness, even as Beatles covers go, with the clothes and the screaming girls and the Beatles faces he makes… he totally looks like a young John Lennon there.

One thought on “Non-Diatonic Melody Centers

  1. Charles Eliot

    One of most common ways to introduce non-diatonic notes into a piece is by blurring the distinction between major and minor, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in blues. Most of the examples above fit right into line if you think of the b3 in the melodies as being “bluesy”.

    The blues idioms are so powerfully natural to our (Western) ears that pure pop songs can have tons of non-diatonic blues notes, especially b3 and b7. My favourite example of this is “Fun, Fun, Fun” by the Beach Boys. The guitar intro contains a flurry of b3’s, and the first bar of the melody rises to a prominent b7. For fun and edification, try playing the song as if it were a real Bessie Smith blues, without changing the melody notes. Works like a charm.

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