Depeche Mode were one of the British bands that emerged in the 1981-82 synth-pop explosion, initially gaining popularity as a Vince Clarke-led group. Their debut album Speak & Spell has a happy, light sound, but after Vince Clarke’s sudden departure Martin Gore took over as the primary songwriter. With Gore in charge of songwriting and composing, Depeche Mode’s music started to explore darker themes and chord progressions.
A big part of Martin Gore’s songwriting style is using minor chords and keys as well as swapping chords that would usually be major chords with minor chords. This is a big part of the Depeche Mode sound and is complemented by their analog synth and digital sampler-based productions.
Depeche Mode have had a huge influence on many modern bands, including Nine Inch Nails, whose debut album Pretty Hate Machine was spurned on by seeing Depeche Mode on the Black Celebration tour; Chvrches, whose new album was inspired by Depeche Mode, The Cure and Brian Eno; Deftones, who have covered To Have and to Hold and Sweetest Perfection; and Arcade Fire, who initially described The Suburbs as “Depeche Mode meets Neil Young”.
This article focuses solely on Depeche Mode’s songwriting, looking at seven Depeche Mode songs and analysing the music theory behind their chord progressions. I’ll also look at how they craft their melodies to fit in with their more unusual chord progressions.
Music Theory: Roman Numerals and Minor Keys
In music theory, Roman numerals can be used to represent chords independent of which key they are being played in. The I chord represents the root note, the II chord represents the chord built from the second interval, the III represents the third diatonic chord, and so on. A C | Dm | Em | F chord progression could be written as I | IIm | IIIm | IV.
Writing chord progressions in Roman numerals is useful for music theory analysis because it decouples the chord progression from the key. For example, the popular I–V–VIm–IV progression will have the same theory behind it whether it’s played in the key of C, the key of Ab or the key of F#. Roman numerals make it clear where different songs use the same chord progressions, even if they’re in different keys.
Here’s an example: a I | VIm | IV (or one six four) progression in the key of C is C | Am | F. In the key of G that progression is G | Em | C and in the key of Eb it’s Eb | Cm | Ab. Although these progressions will sound slightly different as they’re in different keys, the mood they evoke and the music theory behind each of them is the same. Genres like blues and rock n’ roll almost exclusively use the I | IV | V chord progression, changing keys to suit the song or vocalist.
Here are the all the Roman numeral chords in the key of C major:
Depeche Mode like to compose in minor keys; if you’ve listened to any of their post-Speak and Spell albums then this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Much of their music is moody and bleak and minor keys naturally have that character. Below I’ve written all the diatonic chords in the key of C minor key with their roman numerals. A Im | ♭III progression in Cm is Cm | Eb and a IVm | ♭VII progression in Cm is Fm | Bb.
Things get interesting when you start borrowing chords from outside of these diatonic keys. One of Martin Gore’s common approaches to songwriting is write in a minor key and swap the major chords in that key with minor chords. When writing in the key of C minor the Eb could be swapped with an Ebm chord, or the Ab with an Abm chord. This “turn every chord into a minor chord” approach is one of the secret weapons behind Depeche Mode’s signature sound and what I’ll explore in these next seven examples from Depeche Mode’s discography.
Let’s start by looking at Halo from Depeche Mode’s 1990 album Violator. Halo is built around a repeating bassline that starts in the key of Em*. Midway through the verse the bassline is transposed down 4 semitones to Cm. From a theory perspective, this is a ♭VI chord but switched from a major chord to a minor chord. This could be written as ♭VIm and it produces a much darker harmonic sound than the major chord would. It also catches the ear because the Cm chord contains notes that aren’t in the key of E minor, such as the Eb note.
In the example below the E♮ (natural) note is replaced with a C over the Cm chord, as leaving it as an E♮ would clash with the bassline.
The Halo bassline was likely written using a sequencer such as the ARP Sequencer often used with the ARP 2600. When you transpose a riff or melody using a sequencer it won’t necessarily fit into the diatonic key of the song. Em and Cm might not be chords that you’d often put together sat at the piano, but with a sequencer chord sequencers like this can come naturally.
*Halo is actually in E♭m but I’ve transposed it down a semitone so that the notation doesn’t have a six-flat key signature.
- Halo Beat 00:00
This sequencer-led composition is a great way to open up new sounds, but it raises a challenge for writing melodies over the top. The vocal melody in Halo uses the E minor pentatonic scale to sing over the Em section. The problem is that the E minor scale won’t work over the C minor part, as the notes will clash – the E is a semitone away from the Eb note within the Cm chord. Instead of changing any notes, the melody simply ends on a G note (the 3rd of Em and 5th of Cm) and then leaves plenty of space for the instrumentation to shine through.
- Halo Melody 00:00
Enjoy the Silence
The verse of one of Depeche Mode’s most well-known tracks, Enjoy the Silence, uses a similar minor chord trick. The chords are Cm | Ebm | Ab. The song is in the key of Cm, and diatonically the Eb chord would be major, with a G♮ as the third. In the Enjoy the Silence verse the Eb major chord is replaced with an Eb minor chord, which instantly adds a darker, broodier sound that we often recognisable in Depeche Mode songs. The progression in numerals is Im | ♭IIIm | ♭VI and we’ll see the ♭IIIm chord appear in several of their other songs.
The intro and chorus sections of Enjoy the Silence uses the Eb major chord, for a lighter, more diatonic sound. This technique of having lighter sections (diatonic chords) and darker sections (swapped minor chords) is a classic Depeche Mode trick and can also be heard prominently in Shake the Disease.
- Enjoy the Silence Chords 00:00
The verse vocal melody leans into the chord change, starting with a sung G note over the Cm chord shifting to a Gb note over the Ebm chord. This works because G is the 5th of Cm and Gb is the minor 3rd of Eb minor. The resulting vocal line is musical and melodic, fitting the underlying chords nicely.
- Enjoy the Silence Melody 00:00
Behind the Wheel
Behind the Wheel takes the complexity up a notch, with two borrowed minor chords that take the tonality far away from the root home chord. The first two chords are Bm | Dm or Im | ♭IIIm – this is the same initial two-chord sequence as the Enjoy the Silence example, only we’re a semitone lower in this example.
While Enjoy the Silence goes to a major ♭VI chord, Behind the Wheel goes to a minor ♭VI chord just like in the Halo example at the start of this article. The final chord change from Gm to Bb is unusual since we started with a Bm chord but it works because there is only one note different between chords (G Bb D → G Bb Eb). Although it doesn’t belong in the initial key, the chord change sounds smooth and works.
During the intro melody notice that the F# note that plays over the Bm chord has to be shifted down to an F♮ to work over the following chords. This is another example of modifying the melody scale to fit out-of-key chords.
- Behind the Wheel 00:00
The vocal melody in Behind the Wheel takes advantage of the fact that all four chords, Bm, Dm, Gm and Bb all share a common note: D. The melody mostly stays on the D note, harmonised in octaves between Gahan and Gore, venturing up to an F♮ over the Bb chord at the end of the sequence.
- Behind the Wheel 00:00
Dressed in Black
The gothic-sounding Dressed in Black, from ’86’s Black Celebration, features similar harmonic composition tricks. The intro of the song uses the chords Bm | Gm which is is a Im | ♭VIm progression also used in Halo.
- Dressed in Black 1 00:00
At the start of the verse section, the chord sequence changes to Bm | Dm7. This is a Im | ♭IIIm progression similar to the first two chords of Enjoy the Silence and Behind the Wheel. In the diatonic key of B minor the D chord should be major but here it’s been swapped with a minor chord.
- Dressed in Black 2 00:00
Shake the Disease
Shake the Disease, a non-album single from 1985, switches between diatonic major sections and a harmonically shapeshifting chorus sequence. The chorus starts with a Dm | Fm chord movement, similar to the Im | ♭IIIm sequences we’ve seen so far in Enjoy the Silence, Behind the Wheel and Dressed in Black. The chord sequence then goes to Db and Bb. The Db is a major chord a semitone lower than starting minor chord, similar to the Bb minor chord in the Behind the Wheel example.
Depeche Mode usually use arpeggios and melodies instead of standard block chords in their songs and Shake the Disease’s synth part is a great example. Most the arpeggios also use colourful intervals like 7ths and 9ths to make the parts more interesting.
- Shake the Disease 1 00:00
Dave Gahan’s vocal melody in the Shake the Disease chorus follows the harmonic changes. Through the first two bars, he sings the 5th over Dm (A) which is lowered a semitone to fit the 3rd of the Fm chord (Ab). We saw the same melodic trick in the Enjoy the Silence verse example. A nice touch is in bar 5 where the vocal melody follows the synth arpeggio
- Shake the Disease 2 00:00
- Sacred Chords 00:00
Here’s the verse vocal melody for Sacred. The C#m scale is changed to incorporate the A# note over the A#m chord (this changes it into a C# Dorian scale for you jazzheads reading). In bar 7 the melody uses the A♮ to revert back to the natural minor sound.
- Sacred Melody 00:00
Waiting for the Night
Waiting for the Night is the logical end-point of this “turn every chord into a minor chord” idea. Going back to the sequencer-driven composition idea I mentioned at the start of the article, Waiting for the Night was composed by programming the main sequence into an ARP 2600 step sequencer and using the ARP’s keyboard to transpose the sequence.
The first two chords are Cm | Ebm or Im | ♭IIIm – just like in Enjoy the Silence. The following chords are Bm | Ebm | Abm | Bbm. There are a lot of harmonic jumps here, with the Bm chord sounding particularly strange in isolation.
- Waiting for the Night Arps 00:00
The sequence doesn’t use the minor 3rd which makes it a little easier to move around. However, the vocal melody usually hits the 3rd over each chord such as the Eb over Cm and the Gb over the Ebm chord. When the sequence is transposed down to B this could be analysed as having more of a B dominant seventh sound than minor as the melody sings Eb/D# over it.
Below is my transcription of the Waiting for the Night vocal melody. The parts with two notes show where the vocals are harmonised with Dave Gahan singing the lower part and Martin Gore singing the higher notes. In Gore’s part you can see how he sings the Bb over the Eb chord but a B♮ over the Bm chord.
- Waiting for the Night Melody 00:00
If you made it this far, thanks for reading and hopefully this article will serve as songwriting inspiration! Try experimenting with swapping major chords with minor chords and vice versa to see what sounds they produce. An when writing melodies, often you only need to change one note to make it fit over the borrowed chord.
Make sure to check out my Trent Reznor Chord Theory and Radiohead Chord Theory articles for even more music theory ideas, and let me know in the comments which other artists you’d like to see a Chord Theory article on! Below you can download all the MIDI clips from the examples in this article for further analysis.
Do you think it’s a sign of quality if a song is written in minor chords?
If I write a song, most of the chords—but of course not all of them—are minor chords. Then again, I don’t start writing a song with the intention to be a sad one. It just happens, you know? Many people have told me that the songs that I covered on my new record feature the same topics like songs I write for Depeche. I guess that this is not a coincidence. I probably just feel like walking on safe territory. I just like that kind of music. – Martin Gore