Tribe Called Quest

Altered Chords - How to incorporate into songwriting

Electric Relaxation + Award Tour

(0:28 - 0:44)

 Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)

Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)

Song Analysis

These two songs come from the album Midnight Marauders by Tribe Called Quest. Similarities include the use of altered chords and a syncopated "dotted quarter note" rhythm, commonly found in Latin music. The key signature of these songs cannot be easily pinned down. For example, the tonal center of Electric Relaxation sounds like D# major. However, that would make the progression a bVI - V7sus4 - I6 - IVadd9 - bIII - bII.

With half of the chords in the progression being altered, there is enough ambiguity that we could easily say it is in the key of D# minor. That would make the progression a VI - v7sus4 - I6 - IV6 - III - bII.  In both cases, the progression features three altered chords. 

Something similar happens in Award Tour, where the modulation from major to minor tricks the ear, making it difficult to pin down a single interpretation. This freedom is symbolic, but entirely subconscious for the listener. Mentally we hear the freedom without knowing how it works, and this lends power to the lyrics. 

Electric Relaxation Chords

BM - A#m7sus4 - D#M6 - G#add9 - F#add9 - EM6

Award Tour Chords

GM - AM - Am - GM - Gm - FM - Am - GM

Jazz techniques - avoid the tonic

BRUNO MARS

That's What I like / Backstreet's Back

(0:08 - 0:24) verse and (0:37 - 0:51) for the bridge

That's What I like Chords

VERSE: Ebm9 - Ab11 - Fm7 - Bb11 | Bb7

( ii - V - iii - VI)

The song behaves like it's in the key of Db Major, in which case the verse chords can be read as ( ii - V - iii - VI), where the V and VI chords are both dominant 11 chords (with the 3rd omitted). The VI chord is dominant because it's functioning as the V of ii. 

CHORUS: Ebm9 - Fm - Abm7 - GbM7 -  Ebm9 - Fm - Bbm7 - Ab7 - F#9

( ii - iii - V - iii - VI)

The chorus changes up the order and introduces a few new chords, including the Abm7 chord. This is in contrast to the Ab9 chord we heard before. The Abm7 chord is functioning as a minor V chord on its way down to the IVMaj7. Since this Ab major 7 chord belongs to the home key of Db Major, we are pack in the pocket. A brief diversion like this can do wonders for refreshing the ear during a new section of the song. 

Note the similarity of key signature (Bb minor, pop aesthetics) to Backstreet Boys - "Backstreet's Back"

(2:38 - 2:50)

Kendrick Lamar

Be Humble

The phrygian mode

(0:14 - 0:25)

Be Humble - Phrygian Mode (Hirajoshi Scale)

The bass line for this song is the only instrument to feature clear melodic movement. It is composed of three notes (D#, E, and A#) in the lower registers of an acoustic piano. Halfway through the song, a one-note synth rhythm comes in at the upper register, playing an A#. These two musical ideas are notated below:

The regular emphasis of D# in the bass anchors it as the tonal center, with the E note functioning as a flat 2 and G# as the 4. In the soprano we hear an A#, which would be the five. Therefore if all of these were put together in order, we get the first, second, fourth and fifth notes of a phrygian scale. 

Although the bass line features only three notes, they are actually kind of strange and borrow from an aesthetic that we hear more often in eastern music. Here is an example of traditional Japanese music played on the Shamisen (stringed instrument), also in the D# phrygian mode. Note that the Japanese have their own system of musical modes with different names and scale degrees; this one is very similar to what is called the Hirajoshi scale. 

Glissando and Anticipated Return

Drake / Mario

PassionFruit / Let Me Love You

(0:13 - 0:34)

The chord progression for Passionfruit is shown above, however the chords are represented in double time for the sake of brevity. In reality, each chord is held for a total of four measures. Although the 16 measure phrase begins and ends with E Major 7, the actual key signature is G# minor. Therefore the chord progression is VIM7 - ivm7 - vm7 - [im7 - VIM7] with the final two chords taking up two measure each. I call this an "anticipated return" because you hear the first chord of the phrase at the end of it as well, anticipating the return-arrival to the first measure. 

 

One of the dominant musical archetypes in this song is sliding-down glissando effect. It is heard throughout the song as part of the synth melody. It could be interpreted as a musical symbol that conveys a variety of emotions - something between relaxation and disappointment. You can hear the same effect used by Mario in his hit song "Let Me Love You". The primary difference between these two songs harmonically is that use of the major IVadd9 chord in Let Me Love You and the omission of the VI chord featured in Passionfruit. 

Passionfruit Chords

EM7 - C#m7 - D#m7 - [G#m11 - EM7]

VIM7 - ivm7 - vm7 - [im11 - VIM7]

Let Me Love You Chords

Cm7 - Gm7 - Fadd9

ii - vi - V

 

(1:10 - 1:42)

The VI - v progression

Drake / Childish Gambino

Hotline Bling / 3005

(0:32 - 1:02) and turnaround at (2:12 - 2:28)

This song seems to be in the key of D minor. Most of the time, it oscillates between only two chords: BbM7/D and Am7. These are functioning as the VI and v. In the sheet music above, the C Maj/G and D Maj are a reference to the subtle turn around that happens from 2:12 to 2:28 as he sings "Running out of Pages in your Passport, Hanging with some girls I've never seen before". During this final note we hear the picardy third, a classical technique where the root chord in a minor key is transformed into a major chord to signify the end of a phrase. Drake sings the sus 4 note, but after his voice drops you can clearly hear the major third. 

Compare the melody and chord progression from Hotline Bling with Childish Gambino's hit track "3005". This song is in F# minor and utilizes the same VI - v technique, however unlike Hotline, this song includes the minor i chord. In the vocal melody, you can hear a similar type of stepwise rhythm to what we heard in Hotline, though they land on different beats within the measure.

 

Drake - Hotline Bling Chords

BbM7 / D - Am7

Dm: VI - v

Childish Gambino - 3005 Chords

C#m7 - DM7 - F#m7 - DM7

v - VI - i - VI

(1:34 - 1:57)

Hotline Bling.png

Bieber / Chance / Lil Wayne

I'm The One / Blue Moon

The 50's progression - the millenial whoop

(0:40 - 1:15)

This song combines three cliches into one and results in a massive hit. Like many songs at the top of the pop charts right now, this song is a collaboration between multiple famous artists (Bieber, Quavo, Lil Wayne, and Chance the Rapper with DJ Khaled on the beats).

"I'm the one" Chords

GM - Em - CM - DM

( I - vi - IV - V )

The second cliche is a musical one called the Fifties Progression, also known as I - vi - IV - V. Since this song is in the key of G Major, the progression is comprised of GM - Em - CM - DM.

Here is a snapshot of the Wikipedia article on this progression. As you can see, Blue Moon is cited as one of the first song ever to use the sequence extensively, back in the early 1930's. I found a version of Blue Moon that's in the key of G Major. Try listening to them back to back!

(0:20 - 0:33)

The final cliche that I want to mention is the Millenial Whoop. It's a technique that combines the syllables "Oo" and "oh" with a melody that goes between the 5th and major 3rd scale degree. To better understand the phenomena, check out this video. 

The "Whoop" happens during first measure shown above, as the D descends to B and the vocals sing "whoa-eh-oh". 

Copyright laws

Ed Sheeran / TLC / Eminem

Shape of You / No Scrubs / Without Me

 

(2:06 - 2:55) for TLC section. (0:15 - 0:20)

Pop music is constantly borrowing from previous hits in order to blend in and sound familiar. Artist often reach back at least a decade to grab material. In this example, Ed Sheeran's megahit "Shape of You" has 1.8 Billion views on youtube and many millions more on Spotify and other music services. 

After releasing this track, Sheeran was strong-armed into crediting the songwriters behind TLC's song "No Scrubs" for the vocal melody idea that takes place as he sings "Girl I want your love, your love was handmade for somebody like me". The melodic rhythm is clearly similar, but he might have gotten away with it if it weren't for the lyrics. The original line was "No I don't want no scrubs, Scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me".

 

Ed Sheeran - Shape of You Chords

C#m - F#m - A - B
C# minor: ( i - iv - VI - VII )

TLC  - No Scrubs Chords

C#m - G#m - D#7 - G#m

G# minor: ( iv - i - V7 - i )

As you can see, the chord progression have some similarities. Both begin with C# minor chords, but they have different meanings in their respective harmonic contexts. No Scrubs is in G# minor, so when it plays that C#m chord, it's functioning as the iv within that key. In contrast, Shape of You is in the key of C# minor, so that chord represents the tonic. 

Musical plagiarism is a razor thin line. An artist's reproduction has to feature multiple recognizable attributes across a variety of domains in order to claim that the work was significantly derivative. In this instance, the melodic pattern of the melody, the lyrics, and the first chord of their progressions were enough to get Sheeran in trouble. 

( 1:06 - 1:12)

Just to make a point, check out Eminem's track "Without Me" in the video above and fast forward to 1:06, where he sings "Some vodka that will jump start my heart quicker than a shock when I get shocked at the hospital". This is an iconic lyrical moment in Eminem's career. Compare the rhythm of this section to the opening line "The club isn't the best place to find to a lover so the bar is where I go."  

Sheeran seems to have ripped this rhythm from Shady and even borrowed the thematic content (Shots of Vodka vs Shots at the bar). However, with only two common vocal elements (rhythmic and thematic), the instrumental side of the music would need to also bear some resemblance. They are palpably different feels - Without Me is intended to be much more annoying - and so a comparison would not likely stand up in court.

If you want more example of this, check out the case between Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye. I've written an article about it here. 

Variations on a formula (slow intro, upbeat song, short-burst melody, bass-line rhythm)

Calvin Harris

Feels / Slide

 

(0:00 - 0:31)  Em7 chord at intro

(0:26 - 0:46)

Calvin Harris - Slide Intro Chords

3/4 : AM7 G#m7 C#m9

You've got to give it up to Calvin Harris. Two of the top 50 songs in the USA right now are Slide and Feels. He managed to use similar musical ideas twice, just a few months apart, to create hits that resonate with each other. This happens in a number of other genres, where artists reconstitute their own music. One of the classic examples is the mashup between Nickelback's two songs "How You Remind Me" and "Someday". You can watch the mashup video here. 

Not only that - the bass rhythms are also derivative from past hit songs, Another One Bites the Dust and Rapper's Delight. The irony is that Queen's song, Another One Bites the Dust, came a year after Rapper's Delight and clearly sampled it. Perhaps this is why Slide and Feels work so well together; they are derivative on purpose. 

Calvin Harris - Slide Chords

AM7 - G#m7 - C#m7 - F#m7 - G#m7 - AM7
C# minor: ( VI - v - i - iv - v - VI )

Calvin Harris - Feels Chords

Em7 - [A - G] - F#m7 - B7

D major: ( ii - [V - IV] - iii - V/ii )

 

Slide's chord progression resembles a kind of musical palindrome, going from A to G# chords, hitting the C# and F#, and then returning to G# and A in reverse order. Feels does not make use of this technique, so this is one clear distinction between the two. 

That being said, these songs have more in common than their bass lines. The instrumental intro for both songs is slow, atmospheric and prolonged. Both of these slow intros are then interrupted by an upbeat party song.  Other than that, the obvious comparison would be the use of arching sixteenth notes in the melodies, completed by 5th interval leaps, and followed by silence. Harris mixes it up, using an ascending 5th in Slide and a descending 5th in Feels. 

 FEELS: Sixteenth notes followed by descending 5th and then silence.

FEELS: Sixteenth notes followed by descending 5th and then silence.

 SLIDE: Sixteenth notes followed by ascending 5th and then silence.

SLIDE: Sixteenth notes followed by ascending 5th and then silence.

It bears mentioning as a side note that Feels features Pharrell Williams, an artist who has been sued in court for plagiarism by Marvin Gaye. I wrote about this in detail over at Disinformation.com. You can read the article here

Chord modulation

Steely Dan / Eminem / Paul Simon

Deacon Blues / Lose Yourself / Still Crazy

Steely Dan - Deacon Blues Chords

CM7 - Gadd9 / B - BbM7 - Fadd9/A - DM7 - Aadd9/C# - CM7 - Gadd9/B - EbM7 - E7#9

 

This Steely Dan song Deacon Blues opens with a guitar riff that perfectly highlights the concept of repetitive chord modulation. If you look closely, you will see that there is a distinct two-chord pattern taking place. They move by an interval of a fifth; from C to G, then Bb to F, then D to A, and back to C to G, before doing a final turnaround on the E7#9 chord. Part of this pattern includes the use of Major 7th chords for the first and add9 chords with the major third in the bass. There are no minor chords in this whole progression!

I chose these songs to illustrate a concept that occurs a lot in popular music; the instrumental intro with modulating melodic phrasing. 

The next song in the list (Lose Yourself by Eminem) begins with an instrumental piano arrangement. It's melodic phrase is longer, lasting two measures, repeating twice before modulating down to the iv chord and repeating its shape. Just like Deacon Blues, it ends with a chord that features non-chord tones (the picardy third of A Major). Take a listen and we'll go over the chords. 

Eminem - Lose Yourself Chords

[Dm - CM6 - BbM7 | Dm - CM6 - BbM7 ] - Gm - FM6 - Em7 - AM
This progression is not a full modulation, strictly speaking, because the chords used are true to the key. You can see this when comparing the third chord in each statement to each other: BbM7 is the major VI and Em7 is the minor ii chord in the key of D minor. And clearly we are in the key of D minor, since the remainder of the song is essentially just a power chord alternating with a raised fifth. 
One more example of instrumental introductions comes from Paul Simon's track Still Crazy After All These Years. 

Paul Simon - Still Crazy Chords

AM7 - EM7 - B+ - Am7 - CM7 - [ DM6 to D7 ] - G - C/G - G 
In this example, Simon has grouped his musical phrase into three measures of 3/4. He uses the B augmented chord to segue into the Am7 chord, where he repeats the melodic shape at a lower register. When it's finished, he does something neither of the other two examples did and resolves to the home key of G Major. 

The value of using more than two chords 

Flying Lotus - J Dilla

Massage Situation - EveryTime

J Dilla - Everytime Chords

[Fm7 to Fm6] - [Bbm7 to Bbm6] - [GbM6 to Cm7/Gb] - [Fm7 to Fm6]

Flying Lotus - Massage Situation Chords

Fm / Bb - Abm7
F minor: i - biii7
 
These songs are fairly similar, both aesthetically and in their tonal center, the Bbm7 chord behaving as the "glue". Massage Situation is the simpler of the two songs, featuring only two chords. I love the way it sounds at first but find myself getting bored after a while. In contrast, Everytime provides a little extra chord variation. 
Everytime features a four measure phrase comprised of ascending two-chord pairs. The first two pairs share the same format with a shared bass note and movement from minor 7 to minor 6 (note: this means there is a major 6th interval over a minor triad). The third pair swaps the order and uses parallel keys, making it a major 6 chord switch to a minor 7th chord with the Gb note sustained. In the fourth and final pair, we hear an anticipated return to the home key of F minor. 
Both songs are in F Minor.