12 February 2012

A musical realization

My apologies for the following overly music-nerdiness, as well as to my good friend Matthew Tobin, who probably put this sort of thing in my head in the first place. (Incidentally, be on the look out for a new blog by Tobin on the topic of music transcending genre, with far less technical jargon.)

My wife and I sat down at a local Mexican establishment for some much needed midday sustenance. Feeling a bit scholarly for a moment, I began to analyze the canned background music: Spanish-language pop. The first song was a standard four-chord song with the progression 1-6-4-5. It got me to wondering whether there were names for songs using similarly functioning chords. That standard four-chord arrangement is what I usually call the "Magic Changes," after the song from Grease which spells out exactly how the song is composed and the effect it has on its narrator, an unnamed listener.

The next song that came on was a three-chorder with the main progression 1-5-2-5. It uses a standard classical cadence (ii V I), which began a conversation about Pachelbel's Canon as its own type of song. To refresh, that progression is (to use classical analysis) I V vi iii IV I IV V. I posited that these "standard progressions" could be found throughout concert and popular music. Then I made the startling discovery that the progression in Pachelbel's Canon was directly related to the verses in The Eagles' "Hotel California." My wife's eyes began to glaze over.

In order to prove my point, I began writing chords and numbers on the back of our receipt. I began with Pachelbel.


Then I said, "Now, check out 'Hotel California.'"


I stared at these figures for a short while. They didn't add up the way I thought they did, in my head. Sure, there are similarities, but I wanted a match. Then it really dawned on me. Check this out.

The comparison has to do with how the chords function. So, I re-analyzed "Hotel California" using Roman numerals.


I'm aware that "secondary subdominants" isn't really a thing, BUT, in this case, each group of two chords FUNCTIONS as mini plagal cadences. (That is, IV to I.) I must note that the relationship between i and V also functions this way. Looking back at the Canon, I searched for an answer. Maybe, I thought, that vi chord functions differently. Thus:

D: I V iv/iii iii IV I IV V

A series of plagals ending with a strong IV to V cadencing into the next phrase. "Aha!" I said in a manner not unlike Archimedes discovering volumetric displacement. The chords are not exactly the same, but how they function relative to each other is.

This discovery led my wife to roll her eyes and ask if we could go. And go we did, me proud of my accomplishment and her wondering if anything good would be on TV later.

(I should note that my wife is actually very musical; she's just not much into theory. I don't blame her. As a side note to this side note, at this particular establishment, a man at the soda fountain asked me if she was my wife, then told me she was very pretty. I said, "Thanks! Well, I think so." That scored me some points.)

So, I ask the Internet populace, what does your ear say? Have you found songs with the same or similar progressions, or songs that sound the same or have similar melodies? Have a bone to pick about my pompously in-depth analysis? Do tell!


  1. I don't have enough theory to follow this, but I do remember a video that is related, at least.


    1. Great video! There sure are a lot of songs with that I V vi IV progression!