James Taylor

A Simple Chord Trick That Makes Your Progressions Seem Complex (When They Really Aren’t)

I love when songwriters create music where it sounds like something complex is going on, but when you put the magnifying glass on it, it’s really pretty simple.

I’m focusing on chord progressions here, and the best example of a simple progression that sounds like it’s doing something a bit more involved is James Taylor’s “Mexico” from his 1975 album “Gorilla.”

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And the “trick” in “Mexico” is a pretty simple one: a key change between verse and chorus, where the verse is in E major and the chorus jumps up to F# major.

Using key changes (modulations) as a way to maintain musical interest is nothing new of course. J.S. Bach did it constantly: a piece might start in G major, and before long he’s off visiting another key. And another. And another.

And because Bach made such prolific use of key changes in his music, you get the impression that something complex is going on, but really each section is constructed with elegant simplicity.

With James Taylor’s “Mexico”, the intro and first verse are in E major, and if there’s anything complex going on, it’s the use of syncopation and alternating time signatures (4/4 and 2/4) in the intro.

When it comes to chord choice, however, the verse is a simple three-chord section: I, IV and V (E, A and B). The chorus adds a vi-chord, which is nothing surprising. From a chord perspective, the most interesting thing is that little trick of an abrupt key change from E major to F# major for the chorus.

VERSE (Key: E major)

A – E – B – A…

CHORUS (Key: F# major)

F# – D#m – C# – B (with A (bIII) near the end)

It’s a simple chord trick, and by making that quick key change, you feel that something complex is going on, when actually it’s all pretty simple.

He could have chosen to do the entire song in E major of course, and many would have. It would have worked. But by abruptly changing key for the chorus, he does something important: he increases musical energy for the chorus.

That key change gives the chorus a lift, a more focused sense of musical excitement, and it really makes the tune.

It’s a simple thing to do, and if you’ve written a song that uses the same (or almost the same) progression for both verse and chorus, it might be worth the time experimenting with doing a quick modulation to a higher key for your chorus.

It doesn’t have to be a whole-step modulation as James Taylor used… experiment with moving up to the flat-III, or to the IV chord as the tonic of your new key. In any case, that kind of change will help give your chorus a shot of musical energy that can take your music to a new level.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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