Songwriting master Jonathan Byrd started publishing videos as “The Song Coach” a few months ago. The videos are always informative and well put together. This past week he released a video called Songwriting Hits with Major II Chords. His almost offhanded mention of “Dock of the Bay” caught my attention.
Let’s talk about both the major II and Dock of the Bay!
If you follow this blog, you know I eschew music theory numbers, but they do get helpful at a certain point. Anyhoo–let’s start with Chord Flow, then we can reverse engineer our way to what the Major II is.
Chord Flow (which is based on this circle of fifths) gives us this arrangement of chords:
Any three chords in a row give you the three major chords from a key. (I use the phrase BEAD Guides Chord Flow to remember this pattern). Chord Flow is useful because neighboring chords in this arrangement sound good together. Dock of the Bay is in G. Here are G’s three major chords.
Any four chords in a row reveal the chord Jonathon talks about in his video, the “Major II.” It’s the first chord in the pattern from left to right.
Here are a couple more examples. In the key of D, the E chord is the major II:
In the key of C, D is the major II:
The Major II is the left neighbor of the I chord’s left neighbor. That’s a little awkward to say, but the relationship is clear looking at the Chord Flow arrangement.
Why’s it called a Major II?
Let’s dive into where that name “Major II comes from. We’ll start by putting chord flow back in the order of the scale (basically alphabetical order).
Now let’s number those chords. I’m using roman numerals because that’s what music theory folks do. (Upper case roman numerals indicate major chords, lower case are minor).
G and Chord Flow neighbors C and D are at positions I, IV, and V. Am is at position ii. If we make Am a major chord, then we’ve got a major chord at position two in the G scale or a Major II chord.
The A major chord isn’t “in” the key of G, but because it’s a neighbor of the D chord in Chord Flow, it sounds great. This is a lot more fun to play with than to explain. And songwriters play with it all the time. (Jonathan mentions a ton of songs that use the major II in his video).
Dock of the Bay
Dock of the Bay uses the major II chord in both the verse and the chorus. But it also gets weirder than that (at least according to traditional music theory).
Here’s the verse progression:
This song is ostensibly in the key of G, but four of six of these chords ARE NOT from the key of G*. So how does that work? How are we supposed to parse what’s going on here?
First, we’ll focus on the chords we’ve already talked about, G, C, and A.
G and C are Chord Flow neighbors, and A is the major II chord.
Now back to the B chord. The first B chord is used to move to C. It’s one fret below the C chord and acts like a leading tone (a note that wants to go to the chord one fret above it).
It gives the progression a really tasty way of getting to C. This is a trick you should definitely play with at some point.
Compare playing G to C, then G to B to C. How do they feel different? Give G to Bm to C a shot as well. These are all fun changes.
What about the second half of the verse where the chords go from C to B to Bb to A? These are each one fret movements down from the C to the A chords. Moving directly from C to A might be a bit jarring in this song. (Try it out). Moving one fret at a time from C to A smooths that transition.
Here are the chords of the chorus:
Changing from a G to E and back to G? From the perspective of Chord Flow (or music theory), that’s a little out there. Sort of floating in the middle of nowhere. And that reflects the lyrics and feel of the song, doesn’t it?
Here’s how I think of what the chorus is doing. E and A are neighbors in chord flow, and moving from E to A often offers a sense of resolution in a chord progression. Each time the chords move from G to E in the chorus, it’s almost like that E chord is anticipating the A chord.
When the chorus ends on the A chord, we get that taste of resolution, though we’re still not quite settled. Since the song is in the key of G, a real feeling of resolution from ending on G. The A chord leaves us with a floating, suspended feeling.
Here’s the crazy thing–the most emotional part of the song is in the bridge–which kind of has the most “boring” chords, our old friends, the neighbors of G D and C.
Part of this is because it’s the first time we hear the D chord in the song. The other part has to do with the melody.
The verse melody is lazily following the bass notes of the chords. It can barely be bothered to get up, just following the bass notes of the chords, (the notes the chords are named after). Even with the strangeness of the chords, there’s a feeling of stagnation and malaise to the verse melody.
That all changes in the bridge. The melody jumps up an octave and D the left neighbor of the G chord is finally introduced. All the frustration and anger hidden under the malaise of the verse jumps out here. To me this is a wonder of composition and songwriting. And Otis gives us one more chord we haven’t heard yet with the final line of the bridge, “So I guess I’ll I remain the same.” It’s C’s neighbor, the F chord.
*Some food for thought; all the chords in Dock of the Bay are major chords which are type cast as happy, but is “Dock of the Bay,” a happy song?
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