California Dreamin’ in Summertime

It’s hard to describe what it was like the first time I remember hearing California Dreamin’. I was in the car with my sister and her boyfriend. She was moving to college. A mix tape he’d made for her was playing. It was a sunny day. I was a newly minted teenager and was getting a first taste of freedom and independence. 

That’s when those first minor chords came plucked out of the radio. Followed by the perfect baroque pop of the Mamas and Papas singing in call and response, “All the leaves are brown. . . “ 

A lot is going on in California Dreamin’. But I want to focus on what happens after the E7 chord. Western music has a pretty strong guideline about what chords are supposed to follow a dominant 7 chord. (Dominant 7s are the ones that don’t have the word major or minor in their names). Dominant 7 chords “want” to move to their right Chord flow neighbor–here’s Chord Flow made of Major chords, for example. 

So in California Dreamin’, the E7 chord creates the expectation that we’ll hear an A chord or an Am chord–it’s a kind of pull, almost like gravity. 

But the Mamas and the Papas break that expectation and instead go from E7 to F: 

This is a cool trick. It’s building on the principle of the idea of a leading tone. A leading tone “wants” to move up one fret on the guitar. (I talk about the leading tone more here). Are there other songs that do this?

Of course! There’s, like, a million probably, but the first example that pops into my head is Summertime by Gershwin. Summertime spends a lot of time moving happily between two neighboring minor chords, Em and Am. Then suddenly, there’s a B7. The fairly strong guideline in western music suggests that the B7 should move to its right chord flow neighbor Em, like this: 

But instead, we get a wonderful moment where it moves up one fret to the C major chord:

The C then returns to the B7, which goes back to Em. In Summertime, that movement from B7 to C is like a fresh cool breeze on a hot, sultry day. This is a great trick to play around with, especially in minor keys. My friend Terri (who tries to keep me on the straight and narrow vis-a-vis typos and such) points out a similar thing happens in Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” 


The Prompt:

Art by Kate Pincus-Whitney. Find out more about Kate’s art here.

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

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