Looking at The Joke by Brandi Carlile

During last week’s Fearless Songwriter Challenge, I created the song prompts using lyrics from Brandi Carlile’s songs. I figured for this week, I’d stick with the theme and take a look at one of her most popular and powerful songs, The Joke.

The Joke is a power ballad. Lots of power ballads are built with Axis of Awesome chords. Brandi and her co-writers could have done that and called it a day. Instead, they made different choices to support the song and add to its texture. Let’s take a look at what they did using Chord Flow.  

Here’s a major Chord Flow: 

(The phrase ‘BEAD Guides Chord Flow’ can help you remember this pattern). The chords from the verse of The Joke are a loop using D Am G and D.  

Can you see how these chords lineup with Chord Flow? 

Am D and G are all next to each other in Chord Flow; they’re neighbors. But Brandi and her co-writers made an interesting choice. They switched what would typically be an A major chord to an A minor chord. This adds some melancholy to The Joke’s progression, and it won’t be the last time a chord is changed from major to minor in this song.  

The Chorus

The chorus of The Joke uses the verse’s D Am G D progression as its scaffolding but adds some tweaks. Chord-wise, everything is the same until we get to the phrase, ‘Let ‘em scatter in the wind.’ Here a Gm chord is added between the G and D chords.  

Take a listen. Can you hear the depth that the Gm chord adds at this moment?  

Now we’re coming up on the big moment of the song. The melody is rising. Brandi is about the reveal the truth she knows, “I’ve been to the movies. I’ve seen how it ends,” she sings. The chord unleashed to underscore this line is an F# major chord. Where in the world does that chord come from? It takes a cue from diminished chords and uses the leading tone of G, F#, to guide it to the G chord.   

Using a major chord one fret ‘below’ a target chord already in your progression is a powerful tool to add to your songwriter’s toolbox. 

After we’ve gotten to that G chord via an F# major Brandi bends time singing the highest note of the melody with another Gm chord before bringing us home to the D chord and the original chord loop, D Am G D. There are only five chords total in The Joke, making it a seemingly simple song, but there’s a lot to be said for the choices made that created a powerful progression from such simple chords.


New to Chord Flow? 

Here’s an intro: Chord Flow, Playing with the Basics
Here’s how it works in the Key of C: Chord Flow in the Key of C
Chord substitution with Chord Flow: ACEing Chord Flow Substitution

The Next Fearless Challenge begins Sunday, July, 24th

Success! You're on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s