Neil Young and the Art of the "Harmonic Diversion"

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Neil Young - "Tonight's the Night"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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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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2 Comments

  1. Hey Gary,

    When I stumbled over your blog only a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I’ve got a lot to learn here. Great articles! I’m 24 years old, Norwegian, and recently started looking into music theory, just for fun (I often like to regard music theory as amusing puzzles). This blog is a very interesting read for me, so please keep those posts coming!

    I also wanted to contribute with a chord progression that I think meets your requirements of a harmonic diversion:

    A E C#m (or C#) D G/B C F D7 A

    This is my analysis so far: The progression is pretty solidly in A major, but diverts by fourths via the keys of D major, G major and finally to C major (C and F chords), before the D7 provides a nice bridge back to A major. However, another interpretation might be that the G, C and F chords are borrowed chords from A minor. Which interpretation is correct, you gather?

    Also, I’m not quite sure why the C# works as a substitution chord for C#m. Any ideas?

    Thanks!

    Arild

    • HI Arild:

      Thanks very much for writing. I enjoyed playing through your progression. I would say my interpretation is that the progression starts and ends in A, with the center section doing a circle of fifths from G major (with the addition of an altered chord, the flat-VII (F)). It’s interesting because in my understanding, the fourth chord, D, is a “pivot” chord, as it can be seen to be straddling between the two keys of A major and G major. The D7 at the end moves back to A, with the note C from the D7 chord moving chromatically to C# of the A major chord.

      I like the C#m more than the C#, but that’s just personal preference. The C# (major) chord works because it presents itself as a secondary dominant V/vi (in other words, it makes you feel that F#m is going to be the next chord), but it does a deceptive cadence to IV (D). The secondary dominant V/vi is the same chord used in the chorus of Roy Orbison’s song “You Got It”. In his case, however, he goes to the vi-chord.

      Nice progressions, Arild, and thanks again for writing!
      -Gary

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