Wednesday, February 4, 2015

'If You Were Here' & That Progression

Yesterday evening I bought a neat book on 80s New Wave artists. It was a simple "oral history" as it defined itself, with the frontmen or songwriters of the bands featured going into the backgrounds of their most well-known songs. For instance, A Flock of Seagulls frontman Mike Score talked about the band as well as the background to 'I Ran.' Tears for Fears - Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal - talked about 'Mad World' and their influences in their early songwriting and experiences as a group. Quite interestingly, at the end of their section, Smith noted that there was always one 'novelty' kind of band out of every 'good' 80s band, and referenced A Flock of Seagulls, and at the bottom of the page was Mike Score's response to Curt Smith's words.

There was a section on the Thompson Twins - a band of which I reviewed their song 'Hold Me Now' back in 2011 - and one of the authors of the book, in her intro to the section on the band, mentioned a song called 'If You Were Here' and how it played at the end of Sixteen Candles, etc. Having re-read my old review of 'Hold Me Now,' that song very quickly became old for me. And it's not in D major at all - the main notes of D-B-C-A put it in a D melodic minor scale to accommodate both the B and the C (natural minor uses a B, harmonic & major use a C). I should have written a proper review of the song after that spur-of-the-moment one.

Back to the song in the title of this post, when it was mentioned as the closing music to that John Hughes movie, I immediately took note of that because I liked the music at the end of the movie but never knew or tried looking it up. I did that late last night.

This one is in C minor. C-G-A♯-F. Can you tell what popular progression that is?

I-V-VII-IV (1-5-7-4)

I want to talk briefly about this progression, because like the I-III-VII-IV (1-3-7-4) minor progression I talked about a couple of weeks ago, this one is used and reused like crazy in popular music, more so than the one used in F♯ minor in 'Mad World' and all the others. Thankfully they're not all in the same key (most of them). I've talked about this many times before briefly in other reviews of songs using this progression. I never actually noted the whole scope:

'Ah! Leah!' (Donnie Iris) - C♯ minor (chorus)
'Rio' (Duran Duran) - E minor (chorus, the demo the song is based off of, 'Stevie's Radio Station,' is essentially that exact progression played note for note).
'Hotel California' (The Eagles) - B minor (verses)
'Where's the Love?' (Hanson) - G minor (verses)
'Memories' (Madness) - D minor (chorus)
'Driving in my Car' (Madness) - D minor (verses)
'We Are All Made of Stars' (Moby) - D minor (chorus)
'I'm Sorry' (The Payola$) - E minor (chorus)
'When Can I See You Again' (Toronto) - A minor (chorus, obvious in the keyboard).
'Something or Nothing' (Uriah Heep) - D minor
'Is She Really Going Out With Him?' (Joe Jackson) - A♯ minor
'Steady As She Goes' (The Raconteurs) - B minor

Songs that come close but are actually off by a semitone on the 2nd and 4th notes include 'So Lonely' and 'Message in a Bottle' (just the 4th note) (both in D minor) by The Police and 'Land Down Under' by Men at Work (B minor) (chorus). I guess 'Hold Me Now' could also be considered similar-sounding as well.

D minor is the most popular key out of all of those songs, and consider these are only songs I know. There are probably many others out there. E & B minor comes second in that list in frequency. The rest all show up once - in that limited list.

It's obviously an appealing structure of notes, having them in that order. Each song puts the progression into its own style and genre, somewhat refreshing it for the ears and making the song sound catchy and fun and often bright. And the key it's in makes a big difference as well. Having that progression in E minor gives you a very happy, resounding, bright progression, depending on how you play it (in 'Rio,' it sounds that way, whereas in 'I'm Sorry' it sounds more playful and chirpy thanks to the staccato guitar rhythm). In D minor, its popular key, it sounds cheerful and bright and catchy. A lot of the little music interludes in the TV series Community that begin a scene in the early season episodes have a guitar playing this progression in this key.

Finally we come to 'If You Were Here' which uses this progression in C minor. C as a chord on its own sounds down-to-earth and grounded to me. That as well as positive. In this progression? Well, at this point, the best musicians can do with it is play it out on keys it hasn't been used in (if there are any unused ones left) and reinvent its style and sound as much as possible to make it seem refreshing and once again appealing. Because I haven't heard 1-5-7-4 in C before, the Thompson Twins did manage, and quite well.

To figure out how this works, you have to analyze the notes and their relation to each other. This progression is a fusion of two already musically appealing relationships. From a 1 to a 5 is already appealing to the ears. The fifth note in a chord and progression is the dominant, the final note of a triadic chord - 1-3-5. C major is C-E-G. Theoretically, you can play a chord without the middle note and still recognize the chord. So the dominant and tonic are the most important. And going from a tonic to a dominant is particularly attractive when you're going lower on a keyboard or a fretboard. There are multitudes of songs - probably more so than ones in this progression - that are simply 1-5 progressions. This progression is made up of two sets of 1-5s - the 1-5 and the 7-4. On their own, they're equally five steps away from each other.

The second happy relationship between notes here is the relationship between the 1 & the 7. The amount of music simply in that order - 1-7 - could be tied with the amount of music using a 1-5 progression. It's simply a tonic and the subtonic; the first note and the one a full tone lower. Like playing D and then C. It's a good descending distance and works. It makes me think of going from an older sibling to a younger one. The first is taller and more of a leader, the other is shorter and grounded and a little more introverted.


Put those two together, 1-5 and 1-7, have the first and third note be the 1 of a 1-5 progression, and put the first and third notes in a relationship where the third is a subtonic from the tonic, and it's a fusion of great appeal. Then each musician gives the resultant progression a style rooted in a particular genre, and it's relatively refreshed over and over each time, especially in each different key.


For the case of 'If You Were Here,' with the synths and style the progression is played, in that key, it personally gives me a feeling, a sound, and expression of high, excited, great expectation. It also makes me think of childhood, of feeling this way as a young child. Except, with the subject matter and influence of the film it provided for, it's a childlike wonder, excitement, and expectation for seeing someone you love. Like greeting her at the airport, and as you wait in the arrivals area, you've got this childlike happiness, this glee of happy expectation, bubbling under the surface of your calm demeanour. It's the synth sound playing that progression that gives me this image and feeling.


I could easily map it out note by note. A 1-5 progression usually gives me depth and emotional integrity, absolute clarity and honesty, true feelings. Then it descends one tone down to the subtonic, to the 7, and it's like looking out at your circumstances with a happy, down-to-earth feeling, feeling reassured and good about everything. Then the final 4, a fifth away from the 7, the absolution of everything.

It works quite well in C minor. I'm pleased with how the Thompson Twins handled it. I also like Tom Bailey's voice in the song. It's green to me and I just like how it sounds, how he delivers. The only thing I don't like is the brass-sounding synth thing at the end of the progression. It sounds like it's supposed to sound romantic to me, but I think it overplays it too much. Otherwise, the song gives me a nice great expectation for seeing a certain kind of face, and it's a feeling so genuine it makes me feel at home and like a kid again. I hope I meet someone in the future who makes me feel that way, because that's what I envision through the music.

I'm glad I never came upon this properly while I was in that long-distance relationship. I would have overly attributed the music to her and the situation, which would have sullied it afterwards. A childhood peer of mine, someone I've known since junior kindergarten, moved out to Calgary last year to be with his girlfriend to solve his long-distance relationship with her. I applaud his success.

I've been writing this sporadically all day, so I'm not going to comment on the lyrics. I will, however, say that the Thompson Twins did a great job of using an over-used musical progression and re-inventing it in a nice key which gave me great synesthetic imagery and feeling. Good job.

Song: A
Lyrics (based on the sound of Bailey's voice): A-

Red Cloud
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