How Strange the Change: Songs in Which the Lyrics are About the Chords

I’ve been trying to think about what to call this practice. The chords themselves ‘mean’ something as music alone, especially in relation to one another. As dramatist David Mamet points out,

A G minor 11th means nothing in itself. It’s a jumble of notes. Given a key of B Flat, it means a little more. We don’t know what it ‘means’ until we hear its place in a particular composition. (Three Uses of the Knife 2002:52)

Music and words are very different things, that can communicate in very different ways, but in combination they can be deadly (in both senses of the word). David Byrne suggest that words can be

a dangerous addition to music – they pin it down. Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more. If done poorly, they can destroy the pleasant ambiguity that constitutes much of the reason we love music (How Music Works 2012, 199).

But what happens when the lyrics are about the actual music they’re combined with?

Every Time We Say Goodbye  – Ella Fitzgerald (Cole Porter) 

There’s no love song finer/but how strange the change from major to minor

Those Magic Changes – Sha Na Na (Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs)


This whole song, which many of us would know from the Grease soundtrack is about the emotional effect of a chord pattern. I think it’s brilliant.

‘Cause those chords remind me of the night that I first fell in love to
Those magic changes

Funny Peculiar – The Divine Comedy

You’re funny/Like a minor chord
There isn’t a reason for/They just throw it in there

Yet in these songs, the lyrics perform the chords,  and the chords perform the lyrics. These songs perform themselves, in that their chordal structure simultaneously realises that which their lyics designate; they are uttered while doing… so it could be that these songs are performative, which seems a strange word to use.

John Austin suggests such statements have an illocutionary force (what the speaker is trying to do in uttering the locution and a perlocutionary effect (the actual effect the speaker really has on the interlocutor by uttering the locution).

That kind of talk is a bit confusing, I find. Here the music and lyric combine to influence and change one another, and you don’t need to know any critical or musical theory to enjoy the symbiosis. The lyrics aren’t about the chords, and the chords aren’t about the lyrics – both are marshalled in the evocation and description of an emotional state.

Every Little Hair Knows Your Name – Jens Lekman

I wrote some songs when we broke up
but nothing came out so I stopped
Every chord I struck was a miserable chord
Like an F minor 11 or an E flat major 7

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley et al (Leonard Cohen)   

Well it goes like this:/The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift

Though apparently the minor fall and major lift are more about metaphor than music.

Tyrone and Lesley – Ukulele in my Pocket

its ladylike curves and four strings serve to release the music in me

it’ll turn your minor to a major key


Tim Finn – In a Minor Key

piano plays a minor chord
and I’m reminded of the day
when love gave me her rich reward
and took away my major woes
I stumbled on such sweet repose
in a minor key
(with thanks to David Kidd)

Prince – Electric Chair 

prince-86utcmYou whispered something
It took my mind out like a
G flat major with an E in the bass

(thanks to Samuel Vincent for this suggestion) This tune isn’t on youtube,  but you can preview or buy it here.




220px-Dirty_Old_Town_DublinersMaybe it’s just schmaltz or kitsch. These songwriting contrivances (apart from Prince’s) are also based very strongly in the pervasive idea in western music that Major=’happy’ and Minor = ‘sad‘. Yet you don’t have to look very far for evidence that that creative algebra makes sense on the face of it, but is a culturally determined equivalence.

I’m limiting my considerations to the lyrical description of chordal structures: there’s lots more options outside these boundaries to play with (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Do-Re-Mi springs to mind, or maybe this)…it’s not the sharpest set of internet search terms (songs/lyrics/chords) so you’re reliant on your own musical memory… but can you share any more?

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