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Back in 1975, Neil Young released his 8th album, “Tonight’s the Night.” The second track, “Speakin’ Out”, is interesting for a lot of reasons. We often think that songs need to be in one key or another, but here’s a great example of simply creating a short “harmonic diversion” that adds a ton of musical interest without getting overly weird. Without really changing key, it moves away from E major and back again within a few chords. It’s worth a closer look.
Here’s the chord progression Neil uses:
A Dmaj7 B E G D7 D#dim E Eaug5(add9)
As you can see, it sits solidly in A major, with a pair of chords in the middle, the G and D7, that pull you temporarily away.
I had recently been thinking about the harmonic strength offered by the Circle of Fifths progression (see my video here). Why it works so well is because progressions are strengthened when their roots move by 4ths or 5ths.
So if you get the sense that your progression is feeling a bit weak or directionless, start getting your chords moving by 5ths, and things will tighten up.
In a sense, this is what Neil Young does in his chord progression for “Speakin’ Out.” He creates a harmonic diversion to G major, strengthening that move by following it with a D7. The D7 strengthens that part of the progression, because D and G have roots that are a 4th apart. D7 acts as the dominant chord of G.
From the D7, he moves quickly back to A major by using a diminished chord on D# which leads easily to the E chord, and we’re back in A major, wondering what just happened.
The little visit to G major was so short (two chords long, to be precise) that we can’t really call it a “modulation” in the traditional sense of that word. A modulation (i.e., a key change) requires not just a change of tonal centre, but also time: we need to stay there for a while.
So I would simply call it a harmonic diversion… a little change of direction that lasts two chords. It works because the two chords he inserts have roots that are a 4th apart, and that 4th strengthens progressions.
Here are some standard progressions that use 2- or 3-chord harmonic diversions for you to try. They all start and end in A major, and turn in a weird direction in the middle. And if you have some creations of your own, add your comment below.
A F#m Bm E#5 Eb7 Ab Db Ddim D#dim E7 A
A D Bm C#sus C# F#m Bm E7 A
A E E/D A/C# G7/D C Bm A
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