Radiohead have retained a unique sound through 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 will take a look at Radiohead’s use of music theory throughout their writing.
An important part of ‘the Radiohead sound’ is their choice of chords and harmony in their songwriting; often weaving between major and minor tonalities to create an ambiguous, unsettled mood. This technique of shifting between parallel major and minor keys is called modal interchange or substituted chords, and involves borrowing outside-key chords 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.
- 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 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.
The principle is still the same – the progression begins in the key of A Major before shifting to the key of A Minor; the borrowed chords offer more tonal variation and sounds.
- 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 Phrygian 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 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, from Kid A, uses the C Phrygian scale in combination with the major/minor swapping techniques outlined throughout this article. The track starts with a C Major chord which establishes a C Major tonality before shifting to chords from the C Phrygian scale (the Db and Eb).
- Right Place 1 00:00
The song also uses an F Major chord from the C Major scale, which sounds like this:
- Right Place 2 00:00
The same Phrygian with a major I technique was used in Pyramid Song, which was written in the same week as Everything in Its Right Place. This time the chords are F# – Gmaj7 – A6, which are in the scale of F# Phrygian, except the F# chord, which has been shifted from minor to major.
- 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