Sunday, September 30, 2012
I V vi IV Chords for heroes, whether winning or losing
I-V-vi-IV has gotten a bit of deserved internet attention thanks to the Axis of Awesome. They even do us the favor of putting the Roman numerals up front and in sequence at the start of this video.
We're discussing this set of chords today not just because Axis of Awesome did such a great parody of how many top 40 hits have used these four chords in some way. We have to talk about this set of chords because they form, in a few variations, the bulk of the most famous tracks on U2's The Joshua Tree. With a few shufflings and rearrangements these chords become the basis not merely for "With or Without You" but also "Where the Streets Have No Name". Pay attention to the bass line here.
I IV I IV vi V VII (2x)
I IV vi V I
Hear it? It's basically the same four chords rotated into a different sequence. It's still effective and arguably much more effective than in the more obvious and predictable sequence precisely because it's NOT exactly what we'd be expecting. The more famous sequence of the chords, in the usually expected order comes a few tracks later on The Joshua Tree in "With or Without You".
I V vi and IV by themselves are obvious enough. Don't stop believing even though I can't live with or without you and I was born this way. These can be considered the chords for the anthems of heroes and the triumph of the human spirit. In fact these chords show up so predictably in this sort of musical/textual moment, whether it's "Don't Stop Believing" or "Let it Be" that the chords can stand as a kind of musical shorthand or shortcut to telegraph all that is beautiful and triumphant about the human spirit.
But you see, dear reader, there's an equally potent derivative of this set of chords which can be spelled out as vi IV I and V (if we don't reconceive the chords into another key). If vi becomes i (our new tonic) then yet another variation presents itself i VI III and VII. The chords as chords won't change at all but by building the harmonic axis point around a minor triad we've got a brand new take on an old set of chords. The major key version of this rotation of chords is "Don't Stop Believing" and the triumph of the hero. The relative minor derivative can be summarily described as the hero falls and we're going to use these chords like a diamond-tipped drill that will dig into your tear ducts and unleash a sea of sentimental misty eyes.
Don't believe me? I've got some words for you, "Fall of Gandalf".
And Frodo squeals "No!" just in case you didn't get the idea in advance what the musical cue was going to be. This is a classic example not only of the use of the heroic chords for the very literal fall of a hero but also for the time-honored Hollywood tradition of going on with instrumental music for an hour or so and strategically introducing the human voice at just that right moment calculated to make ya cry. But, hey, even I got misty-eyed the first time I saw the scene and I knew every second that it was brazenly strong-arming me with every musical and directorial and story-telling cliche in the book. But it was cleverly set up. Pacing and detail are important.
Shore was no dummy in saving this signature chord change until after Gandalf falls in a battle with the Balrog. This set of chord changes and the soaring treble voice are SO cliche that it's positively dangerous to even think of using this musical cue anywhere, except for the loss of a character that anyone who would pay money to see this movie would have been rooting for. Even though Boromir's death was more memorable Boromir was not that character and we're used to Sean Bean dying anyway (when I heard Sean Bean was cast in Game of Thrones I assumed his character would die by the end of season 1 and ... ). Since Ian McKellen absolutely brought his A-game to Gandalf and the pacing was solid and it's based on a fantasy classic then when the four chords of the fallen hero finally show up intoned by a chorus with a treble soloist wordlessly commemorating the fall of Gandalf you've been primed to cry like Pavlov's dog was primed to salivate at the sound of a bell. Curious how both dogs and humans can be manipulated to respond to musical cues, huh?