Today’s blog starts in the dentist’s office. I’m in the chair, staring at a flow of intentionally calming waves which texture the ceiling, trying to think happy thoughts when a song comes on.
It’s Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”
The piano part grabs my attention. It’s just really good. It’s got all this chromatic (fret-wise) movement that I love.
I was absolutely planning on writing about something else this week, and I might be judging myself a little bit for doing it, but I have to talk about Mariah.
Axis of Awesome
We can breeze past this first part. “Always Be My Baby” uses the Axis of Awesome chords in E.
The progression is E A C#m A B* E.
In the final chorus, it changes keys (modulates) to F. That means all the chords move one fret up, so F Bb Dm Bb C F.
You could play a straight, no-frills version of this song with just the Axis of Awesome chords, but that would be a little boring. To create a sense of movement and fun, ‘Always be My Baby’s” songwriters added some chords. Those chords develop a sense of anticipation for the Axis of Awesome chords.
Anticipating the Axis
Two things create the sense of anticipation for the Axis of Awesome chords in Always Be my Baby.
- Using fret-wise movement from a chord one note below a target chord.
- Playing that chord one beat before the anticipated chord.
Let me show you. If we simplified the first line to just Axis of Awesome chords, it would be E moving to A:
These chords are neighbors in Chord Flow, and they sound great, But we’re going to add a chord and build it from the note one fret below A. That chord is G#m, and we’ll place it one beat before the A chord in the progression.
It just makes the progression tastier. It adds a kind of a Gospel or R&B feel to the progression.
In the following line, we move from A to C#m. Played without any embellishment, it would look like this:
But we’re going to add a chord built from the note one fret below C# and play it one beat before the chord, like this:
The third line repeats the first line’s progression of E G#m A.
In the final line, the A chord could return to the E.
This time we’re going to anticipate the E chord with its chord flow neighbor on the left side, B major, one beat before the chord.
This chord is still using a note one fret below E though it isn’t as obvious.
Check out this blog, and you’ll find that E’s “leading tone” is built into the B chord.
(This is the diagram from that blog, it shows a B7, but the principle holds).
It’s not as obvious, but it’s there.
It’s also not as tense as a chord built with the leading tone in the bass would be.
Adorning the Adornment
That’s almost everything, but the songwriters added just a touch more embellishment to the second line.
It’s an anticipation of the anticipation.
Instead of moving from A to Cdim to C#m, they added a B chord before the C diminished.
Adding the B here adds a little variety that keeps our ears engaged with the song.
*Diving a little deeper, what I’m calling the B chord here is an A chord with a B note in the bass (A/B). Calling it a B chord simplifies everything and gets the job done.
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