I started listening to “The History of Rock Music in 500 Songs” hosted by Andrew Hickey a few weeks ago. It wasn’t long before I checked out the episode about Aretha Franklin and Respect.
The song’s bridge caught my attention. Hickey said the bridge jumps from the key of C to F#. That’s as far as two keys can get from each other. I had to see what was going on for myself.
It turns out that Respect is a nearly perfect song to talk about a chord principle that’s really useful to understand as a songwriter. The verses and refrain of Respect are made up of three chords, C and its Chord Flow neighbors G and F.
(The chords are actually C7, G7, and F7, but the principle I’m talking about doesn’t depend on them being (dominant) 7 chords, so I’m ignoring that in this blog–don’t ignore it if you decide to cover of Respect).
The verses and refrain are essentially just two-chord vamps, two chords moving back and forth between each other. One of them demonstrates a classic way to build tension and anticipation in a song.
The verse is G moving to F and back again. This is the vamp that builds tension.
The refrain is C moving to F and back again. This is when the tension gets released.
Moving back and forth between the two neighbors of a chord builds tension, almost like a game of keep away. Sometimes I also think that the neighbors of a given chord are bodyguards. When you run into someone’s bodyguards, things feel a little tense. You want to see the person; instead, you’re stuck talking to the guardian/gatekeeper/goons of the person you want to see.
The verse’s lyrics are filled with Aretha demanding respect from her partner. That lyrical tension is supported by the chord movement from G to F and back again. When we hear the F and G chords played in succession, our ears expect to hear a C chord. Playing those chords without going to the C chord builds anticipation for it.
Then, in the refrain, we finally hear the C chord, and it’s like throwing a party. The tension is released when you get to that C chord. It’s fun to bop back and forth between C and its Chord Flow neighbor F.
Lots of songs use the trick of using a chord’s neighbors, but not the chord itself, to create tension. One I can think of off the top of my head is Mystery Dance by Elvis Costello, which uses nearly the same chords as Respect. Another good example is Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic by the Police.
The Police add more tension to their song using slash chords. The chords of the verse are G A G/B A/C#. (G/B and A/C# are just G and A chords with a different note in the bass). When the chorus lands on the D major chord on the word “magic,” it’s a party.
The bridge returns us to where this began, the weird key change Andrew Hickey talks about: C moving to F#. Except if you look at the chords, it isn’t that weird.
F is the last chord of the chorus, and it moves up one fret into the F#m of the Bridge. That sort of one fret movement happens all the time in music. The whole bridge is F#m to its neighbor B, then back to F#m, and it finishes by moving one more fret up to the G chord. The song stays on the G chord to start the next verse.
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