Mac DeMarco Chord Theory

Although primarily known for his slacker image and lo-fi recording aesthetic, Mac DeMarco is also an accomplished songwriter with a distinct musical voice. Underlying his signature woozy guitar and synth tracks are chord sequences that bridge the gap between his rock and jazz influences, and he isn’t afraid to include unusual, out-of-key chord choices to inject a sense of mystery into his songs. He also knows just enough music theory to tie these chord choices together with his instrumental parts and vocal melodies.

I’ve previously covered Mac DeMarco’s synths patches in my Synth Sounds article, but here I’ll focus solely on his songwriting and chord progressions. I’ve combed through his back catalogue to find songwriting tricks that he uses throughout his songs and boiled them down to theory ideas that we can use in our own music. This article features ten transcriptions that can be viewed as music notation or MIDI piano roll diagrams.

Roman Numeral Analysis

An effective way to analyse chord progressions is to write them as Roman numerals, notating each chord by the scale degree it’s built from. The root chord is the I chord, the second chord is the II chord, and so on. We could write the chord sequence C | F | Am | G as I | IV | VIm | V. This helps us easily see common patterns across chord sequences, even if they’re in different keys.

When out-of-key, or ‘non-diatonic’ chords are used in a major scale chord progression, these are written with a ♭ symbol, like ‘♭VI’. This is a ‘flattened sixth’ chord, which in the key of C major is an Ab chord – a major chord a semitone below the diatonic VIm chord.

Transposing & Capos

Mac plays many of his songs using a guitar capo, which lets him transpose the key of his songs to better fit his voice. The songs Just to Put Me Down, The Stars Keep Calling My Name and The Way You’d Love Her were recorded in the keys of F#, G and Ab respectively, but Mac plays all three in the key of E major on guitar. He also tends to change capo position when playing songs live, as well as repitch songs via tape speed after recording them. To simplify the article’s examples, I’ve presented all the songs in the original recorded keys without a capo and included a note on which fret Mac uses a capo on.

The ♭VII Chord

Let’s start by looking at the chorus of Blue Boy, from 2014’s Salad Days. The song’s verse sets the song up in the key of G major with all diatonic chords. The chorus chord progression is G | Am | Em | F, which are all diatonic chords apart from the final chord, F, which is a ♭VII chord. The F chord is not in the key of G major, and ends the chorus loop on a note of tension. Overall, the chorus progression is I | IIm | VIm | VII. Mac DeMarco frequently uses the ♭VII chord in his songwriting to add tension at the end of a chord progression, or to add a change of harmonic flavour to his choruses.

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  • Blue Boy 00:00

The introduction of Dreamin’ features a guitar groove on an A chord which sets up the songs key of A major. The verse progression is E | G | D, which in the key of A major is analysed as  V | ♭VII | IV. The verse doesn’t use the I chord, which creates a cycle of tension that is only resolved when the song moves to the chorus. The ♭VII chord is the G major which carries a lot of emotional weight in the progression. The melody notes in the guitar part are really nice, especially starting with the C# note over the G chord, which gives it a Gadd#4 sound.

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  • Dreaming 00:00

Freaking Out the Neighborhood is another song that utilises the ♭VII chord. The song is in the key of A major, and the ♭VII chord appears in the verse as the G major chord in bar 7. This is followed by the V chord, E, which is initially played as a sus4 chord, a classic way to delay the V chord tension. This easily resolves back to the beginning of the chord progression, the I chord. This ♭VII | V | I turnaround creates classic songwriting tension-and-release that helps the chorus move along. The diminished 7th chord in bar 3 is also a nice, unusual chord use.

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  • Freaking Out the Neighborhood 00:00

The ♭VII chord was popular with rock ’n’ roll groups in the mid-to-late 60s, utilised heavily by groups such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Shadows who wrote songs with it to create a darker, more mysterious sound than the standard blues I IV V progressions that preceded it. Although the ♭VII chord could be analysed as being a borrowed chord from the parallel minor scale, musicians of the time likely used it as it was easy to play on guitar, just two frets below the root chord, and it sounded good. 

The ♭VII chord is also referred to as the subtonic chord, named as it’s a step below the tonic chord. It injects an interesting flavour into a major key song by introducing a note from the minor scale (the b7th), and analysed in terms of modes, it creates a mixolydian sound.

Jazz Influences

Rock ’n’ roll isn’t Mac DeMarco’s only influence, he also borrows ideas from jazz and bossa nova music, especially on This Old Dog. The song One Another takes a jazzier approach to the ♭VII chord, playing it as a dominant 9th chord, which is similar to a dominant 7th chord, only with an added 9th interval. The song is in the key of D major, and the ♭VII chord appears in the chorus as the C9 chord, which contains the notes C E G Bb and D.

One Another also features a IIm V sequence, which is a staple jazz chord sequence. In the One Another chorus, the IIm V is the Em | A7 sequence that start the chorus. The IIm V sequence can lead to the I chord for a IIm V I sequence, but they don’t have to resolve like this. In the second half of the One Another chorus, the IIm V is ‘interrupted’ by the ♭VII chord, C9, which creates heightened tension before finally resolving to the I chord in the final bar. Notated in numerals, the chorus progression is IIm | V | IV | ♭VII | IIm | V | ♭VII | I.

Listen to the audio clip below and notice how much the C9 stands out in the progression. The vocal melody also accentuates the chord changes; Over the Gmaj7 chord Mac sings the major 7th, F#, and over the C9 chord Mac sings as Bb and D, the b7th and 9th intervals.

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  • Another One 00:00

The ♭VII chord can be played either as a dominant 7th chord for a jazz/blues vibe, or as a major 7th chord for a lighter sound. The upbeat The Way You’d Love Her takes both approaches. The key is E major and the verse features a ♭VII chord, Dmaj7, in bar 7. This chord has a lighter, dreamier sound than the dominant chord in the previous example. There’s also a IIm V, which is the F#m7 | B7 sequence in bars 3-4. The full verse chord progression is I | IV | IIm | V | IIIm | VIm | ♭VII | IV.

In the 3rd bar of the chorus, the ♭VII appears as a D7 chord. Notice how the dominant lends the chorus a more dramatic, bluesier sound that gives it a distinct mood compared to the verse. The chorus progression is I | IV | ♭VII | IV.

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  • The Way You'd Love Her 00:00

Dreams from Yesterday uses these harmonic techniques in the context of a bossa nova-inspired piece. The song is in C major and features a long, meandering chord progression full of IIm Vs and ♭VII chords. The first two chords are a II | V, with the II chord played as a dominant chord instead of a minor chord to create a bluesier sound. This also makes it a V chord of the G13 chord that follows it, which is an important concept in jazz and bossa nova music.

This leads to Gm7 | C9, which is IIm V sequence which should resolve to F major. Instead, it goes to Fm7 | Bb9 which is yet another IIm V. Replacing the expected F major with Fm7 is a smooth transition from one II V to another. The Bb9 is also the ♭VII chord of the song’s home key, C major, and is repeated as the final tension chord that ends the progression.

As you can see, moving through IIm Vs is the backbone of jazz songwriting. For a look at how far you can go with IIm Vs, take a look at the Real Book chords for Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice, which fits eight II Vs into a 12 bar blues setting.

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  • Dreams from Yesterday 00:00

The ♭III Chord

The ♭VII chord isn’t the only out-of-key chord that Mac likes to throw into his songs. Another favourite chord of his is the ♭III chord, which in the key of C major is an Eb major chord. The ♭III used in the setting of a major key has an unusual sound because it introduces notes from the minor scale into a major tonality without fully changing the key.

A great example of the ♭III chord in action is Moonlight on the River. The intro and verse chord progression is Gmaj7 | Em7 | Am7, which establishes the key of G major. To make the chorus more harmonically interesting, Mac swaps the I chord, G major, with the ♭III chord, Bbmaj7. The new chord isn’t in the key of G major, so this harmonically takes us slightly out-of-key and gives a different twist to the song. The chorus progression is also the basis for the hypnotic outro jam. This makes the chorus progression ♭III | VIm | IIm.

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  • Moonlight on the River 00:00
You can also hear this in The Stars Keep on Calling My Name, which is built around an E | Gm6 | F#m7 | B7. This track is in the key of E, and the second chord, Gm6, is the ♭III chord taken from out-of-key. In this example, it’s a minor chord, which gives it an even more unusual sound. The progression also ends on a IIm V sequence that resolves to the I that starts the progression. The full progression is I | ♭IIIm | IIm | V.
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  • The Stars Keep on Calling My Name 00:00

Mac also uses the ♭III chord alongside the diatonic IIIm chord to create an unmistakable harmonic shift between major and minor tonalities. This works effectively because the ♭III chord and IIIm chord share some notes. In the key of C, these chords are Ebmaj7 and Em7, which share the notes G and D. He does this in Another One and A Heart Like Hers, which are both from the Another One mini-LP.

A Heart Like Hers is in the key of Bb major and features a Dm7 | Dbmaj7 | Cm | Cm/G verse chord sequence. These are IIIm | ♭III | IIm chords, and the sequence sounds so nice because the Dm7 and Cm chords are from the Bb major key whilst the ♭III chord, Dbmaj7, is from out-of-key. The transition isn’t too jarring because the Dbmaj7 shares notes with the Dm7 chord (F and C) and because the bass notes in bars 1-3 are a chromatic descent from D – Db – C.

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  • Another One 00:00

Another One is in the key of C major, and simplified, uses an F | Em | Eb | Em | C verse chord progression. Notated in numerals, this is IV | IIIm | ♭III | IIIm | I, with the Em and Eb chords creating the ear-bending major-to-minor shift. This progression also works nicely because it again features chromatic movement in the bass of F – E – Eb and because it resolves nicely to the I chord, C, at the end of the progression.

Notice how the melody adjusts when it’s playing over the Eb chord. In bar one the melody plays an E but in bar 3 it plays an Eb note to avoid a semitone note clash. The chorus progression is Eb | Dm7 | C | F6, which is bIII | IIm | I | IV. and again features a harmonic shift with the ♭III chord starting the progression. 

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  • Another One 00:00

Further Reading

“Super simple chord progressions, as few chords as possible. Keep them straight major, minor, maybe dominant seventh, no problem. And that was the record that is record called Rock ’n’ Roll Nightclub.” – Mac DeMarco
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, or if you want to nitpick, let me know if the comments below. Below are some links to resources that explore the same ♭VII and ♭III chord examples as used by other artists.

Header artwork by Makarxart

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3 thoughts on “Mac DeMarco Chord Theory”

  1. Always interesting. There’s so much to say on all these alterations to “classic” chord progressions.
    Playing the E-G-D progression, I thought: sounds like Magical Mystery Tour. And then you say further on you say “utilised heavily by groups such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Shadows”.

    I’m discovering so much on young composers like DeMarco and their jazz influence. I discovered Men I trust from my birthplace after buying your Juno Jazz bank.
    On non standard jazz chord progressions, besides Coltrane (Giant Steps, etc.), I very much like Beatrice by british sax player Sam Rivers. Very catchy tune on a non standard progression.

    1. Probably as a result of the deaths at the Astroworld festival in Huston and Travis’ unprofessionalism and negligence towards the fans that died.

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