What's up with the F# in Elvis Costello's 'Welcome to the Working Week'?
April 10, 2015 3:54 AM   Subscribe

Remedial music theory question: I've been playing along to this song (which is amazing) and the chords are E, G#m, C#m, A, B – all fairly common E major stuff. However, the song includes both an f#m and also an f#maj chord, the latter of which is not part of E major.

1) Is it not actually in E major? If so, what's the key?
2) If it is in E major, what's the deal with the 'dissonant' A#/Bb in the f#maj chord? Is there a name for this particular trick? Do you know any other songs that do the same thing?
3) Is my music theory so off here that it's not even wrong? If so, which end of the stick am I holding?
posted by Cantdosleepy to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's normal for a song to wander out of the key a little, and that chord is one of the most common examples. "Secondary dominant" might be a good search term for you.
posted by bfields at 4:02 AM on April 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Agree that this is a pretty common songwriting move.

Do you know any other songs that do the same thing?
An example from a song I learned last week, Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", in, I think, the key of D:

the verse is:

A7("You must leave now, take what you...") G, ("....think you") D ("...need will last") twice
then Em ("yonder stands your..", G("...orphan with his.."), D ("..gun...") twice
and now:
F# (not F# minor!) ("..Look out the saints are..") G ("...coming..") A7("..through..")
and ending with the Em-G-D cadence

what's the deal with the 'dissonant' A#/Bb in the f#maj chord?
The dissonance resolves quickly so it is acceptable to the ear, basically.
posted by thelonius at 4:16 AM on April 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think my example would be analyzed as a 'borrowed chord' - F# is the V of Bm, which is the 'parallel minor' key of D. But I am self-taught with this stuff and I'm certainly open to the possibility that I am wrong there.
posted by thelonius at 4:24 AM on April 10, 2015

I was going to suggest that this is tonicization, in which a pitch other than the overall tonic is temporarily treated as the tonal centre - i.e. the "secondary dominant" that bfields mentions. The temporary tonic is most often the next tone on the circle of fifths, which is exactly what this would be if the progression was II-V.

However, looking at the actual song, the progression is II-IV-V. The IV doesn't fit with a tonal center of V, so I'm not sure what theoretical framework it would fit under.

Doesn't really matter as long as it sounds good, though.
posted by clawsoon at 6:00 AM on April 10, 2015

II minor is pretty common because it's a subdominant for VI minor, the parallel minor chords for a major-key song. It can also resolve to the subdominant. First example of II minor that comes to my mind is "Song for a deck hand's daughter" by James McMurtry.

II *major* is usually used as a clean, surprise break that resolves to the dominant, which resolves back to the tonic. First example of this is Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grievous Angel" on the third line of the song, "show you how it all went down."

It's not necessary for chords to only have notes that are in the major or minor scale of the song. Look up modes - I believe using the Lydian mode will get you a raised fourth.

Elvis Costello's music often has weird little chord changes that would sound weird if they were sustained but work because they resolve immediately. One time I was at a Chuck Berry concert and during a solo he let a note ring out that sounded...wrong. But he kept pushing it and repeating it, and three chords later things resolved so that the note worked perfectly.
posted by notsnot at 6:46 AM on April 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The F# major is a secondary dominant, specifically a V/V ("five of five") chord, which is the most common secondary dominant. The V of E major is B, and the V of B major is F#, so F# is the V/V in the key of E.

Its use here is ever so slightly unusual (as far as classical music theory would be concerned) because it doesn't resolve immediately to B, taking a detour first to A, introducing a chromatic "cross-relation" between A# and A-natural rather than resolving the A# leading tone up to B.

For many more examples and explanations of this kind of thing, check out Alan W. Pollack's Notes On The Beatles.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:54 AM on April 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Seconding Alan Pollack -- like half of all the Beatles songs have a secondary dominant. You learn to listen for them, especially if you like faking songs on the guitar, because otherwise they can really trip you up.
posted by goingonit at 7:14 AM on April 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Listening to the song it sounds like a brief modulation. Maybe to the minor 3rd, G#m? On the level of song writing and the theme of the song, the purpose is to brake up the monotony and accent the speculative verse.
posted by bdc34 at 7:41 AM on April 10, 2015

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