Radiohead have retained a unique sound throughout all the stylistic changes of their career. From the prog-rock undercurrents of OK Computer to the IDM-influenced Kid A and Amnesiac, the sampled & looped sounds of The King of Limbs and the cinematic atmosphere of A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead have always had a singular core mood to their music. From the bleak lyrics and sometimes grandiose instrumentation, the sound of Radiohead has a lot to do with the way their songs are written, and in this article I’ll take a look at Radiohead’s use of music theory in their songwriting.
An important part of ‘the Radiohead sound’ is their choice of chords in their songwriting; often weaving between major and minor keys to create an ambiguous, unsettled mood. This technique of shifting between parallel major and minor keys could be called substituted chords or modal interchange if you’re feeling fancy, but the basic technique simply consists of taking chords from outside the songs key to add new harmonic sounds to the song. In addition to this technique, I’ll also look at Radiohead’s use of the Phyrgian mode and pedal tones.
There’s no sound design or synth patches in this article, but I have previously covered Radiohead synth sounds in the Thom Yorke Synth Sounds article as well my Recreating Radiohead’s Keys and Synths with Software Instruments guest article for Reverb.com.
This article can be viewed with either accompanying music notation or MIDI piano roll diagrams.
Dollars and Cents
One of the obvious examples of Radiohead switching between major and minor keys is the song Dollars and Cents from 2001’s Amnesiac. The song is structured around a 4 bar sequence that spends two bars on a B major chord followed by two bars on a B minor chord. This results in a shifting of tonality between major and minor, or happy and sad, and because the song doesn’t resolve into either key, the result is an ‘unsettled’ sound.
Listen to the clip below to see if you can hear the point when the tonality shifts from major to minor. Although later examples in this article add more chords, they’re all based on this simple idea.
- Dollars and Cents 00:00
The same technique was used to compose Morning Bell from Kid A. The chords are Am and Amaj7 (a major chord with an additional major seventh note), and the chords are played in a 5/4 groove that adds even more unevenness. The Am to Amaj7 progression is used for the verse section and the refrain section uses the chord Gsus2 and D to add some occasional contrast and harmonic resolution to the A major key.
- Morning Bell 00:00
Sail to the Moon
Sail to the Moon, from the album Hail to the Thief, builds on this major-to-minor technique, shifting from an A major tonality to an A minor tonality. When the shift to minor happens, instead of using the A minor chord, the progression instead uses chords borrowed from the A minor scale, in this case C major and F major. Below I’ve written out all the diatonic chords in the keys of A major and A minor, and you can see that the Sail to the Moon chords of A, C and F have been borrowed from both keys.
The principle is still the same as in Dollars and Cents and Morning Bell: the progression begins in the key of A major before shifting to the key of A minor; the borrowed chords create the same happy-to-sad contrast by switching from major to minor. There’s also more Radiohead-favourite major 7 chords being used.
- Sail to the Moon 00:00
A further extension of this technique is the chord sequence in Decks Dark, one of the highlights from A Moon Shaped Pool. The key of the song is D major but the chord Bbmaj7 is borrowed from the D minor scale, resulting in a minor tonality shift when that chord is played.
- Decks Dark 00:00
Another section of Decks Dark flips the harmony on its head by starting on an F major chord, borrowed from the D minor scale, though we’re still in the key of D major.
Although the chords are taken from both the D major and D minor scales, Thom’s vocal melody stays firmly within the key of D major. In this way the vocal melody is the main support and the chords are there to create colour and drama. To avoid ‘harmonic clashes’ (playing a note that doesn’t work over a chord), Thom will usually sing notes that work in either D major or minor (the notes D, E, G and A) and only sing notes that only work in the major key when the progression reaches the major chord, for example singing the F# note over the D major chords at the end of this Decks Dark progression.
- Decks Dark 2 00:00
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief features one logical endpoint of this major/minor shifting technique. The song is in C minor, with the basic chord structure and vocal melody being firmly in C minor. However, each chord has been turned into a major triad, which results in some unusual harmonic shifts. The most important shift is that the root chord, Cm, becomes a C major chord, which gives the impression that the song is in C major. Have a listen and note how unbalanced the chord progression sounds.
Note that the original track is half a semitone higher, in the key of Dbm. This example is transposed half a step lower to make the notation clearer.
- Tinker Soldier 00:00
The Phyrgian Mode
Another common Radiohead trick is to draw from the Phrygian mode. Although a full dive into modes is beyond the scope of this article, the Phrygian mode can be viewed as an alternative minor scale that contains the same intervals as the minor scale with the key exception being the flat second interval (b2), which gives it an exotic sound. The Phyrgian mode is used a lot in jazz, metal and hip-hop, but its usage in alternative rock is rare.
Everything in Its Right Place
Everything in Its Right Place, the album opener for the groundbreaking Kid A, uses the C Phrygian scale in combination with the major/minor swapping techniques outlined earlier in the article. The main chord progression starts with a C major chord which establishes a C major tonality before shifting to borrowed chords from the C Phrygian scale. The borrowed chords are Db and Eb, with the the Db being a distinctly ‘Phrygian-sounding’ chord as it’s built off the flattened 2nd interval characteristic to the Phrygian mode.
Below is the full Everything in It’s Right Place chord sequence. Note the the time signature is in 10/4, which I’ve notated as 6/4 + 4/4 to make it easier to read. Radiohead are also a big fan of unusual time signatures. Also notice how the four-note melodic sequence before the chords uses notes from the C Phrygian scale as the switches back to major when the C major chord plays.
- Right Place 1 00:00
At the 0:36 mark the song uses an F major chord to add a more uplifting major section to the song. This is another chord from the C major scale that’s used to add another major flavour to the section. The shift to minor/Phrygian still happens the same way.
- Right Place 2 00:00
Pyramid Song uses a similar chord sequence to Everything in It’s Right Place, and the two songs were actually written in the same week as each other. This time the chord progression is F# | Gmaj7 | A6, which means that it starts in the key of F# major before shifting to chords from the F# Phrygian mode. If you transpose either Pyramid Song or Everything in It’s Right Place by six semitones you’ll see the chords are very similar.
- Pyramid Song 00:00
Another technique that Radiohead use in their writing is pedal notes. This is a straightforward technique for voicing chords – a pedal note (or pedal point) is a sustained note held through changing harmony.
In the Everything in its Right Place example above, the chords are all voiced so that the note C is the top note of every chord. In Pyramid Song, each chord has an F# note on top of the chord. In both cases, the pedal note is the root note, but in practice it can be any note that fits all the chords in the progression.
Pedal notes help to tie different chord sounds together, and can make otherwise unrelated chords sound like they belong together. Here’s a 2001 The New Yorker interview with Thom discussing the idea:
Interviewer: “There’s something very particular about the chords of your songs. You hold a single tone and skate from one chord to another unexpectedly.”
Thom Yorke: “Yeah, that’s my only trick. I’ve got one trick and that’s it, and I’m really going to have to learn a new one. Pedals, banging away through everything. I just find it really nice, because things can pull and push against it. I don’t know many chords, and what I do know is from guitar playing—to approach playing piano after playing guitar is quite peculiar… I used to write songs on the piano, but then I didn’t have access to a piano. I bought a piano after “OK Computer,” at a time when picking up a guitar just didn’t do anything for me at all… part of songwriting is having that naïve excitement about not quite realizing why you’re getting off on it, because you haven’t had time to pull it apart yet.”
I’ll finish this article on Daydreaming‘s mesmerising arpeggio piano section, which uses chord drawn from both the A major and A minor keys played as rich, extended arpeggios. The Dmaj7/A arpeggio establishes the section as being in A major but the next chord, Fmaj7, is borrowed from the A minor scale. The Bm7/A to Bbmaj7 shift is particularly clever as Bbmaj7 doesn’t belong to either key, and rather draws the harmony to the Fmaj7 at the end of the section.
- Daydreaming 00:00