I think Stevie Wonder’s ‘Overjoyed’ is one of the best songs of the last 50 years. Certainly one of the greatest ballads.
Musically it’s masterful. It’s a pleasure to just listen and be moved… but let’s spoil everything by looking under the hood. (You need to play and sing this one. Video below))
Start with the intro; one so cool that many of us, me included, would be happy to build a whole song on it. But Stevie was so fecund at the time… it’s just the damn intro! It’s…
|| Bbmin/Db C7 | Bmaj7 C7 | Bbmin/Db C7 | Bmaj7 Bb ||
Once he hooks us with the Intro, the Verse starts out as simple and innocent as can be, with a I VI II V chord progression, and the melody using variations of Eb, D, and Bb. But the second time through it he begins to reveal the modulatory magic he’s about to unleash.
|| Eb | Cmin | Fmin | Bb | Eb | Cmin | F/A | G/B ||
He’s moving from the key of ‘Eb’ into the key of ‘C’. But check out how he does it. After keeping the melody solidly in ’Eb’ for the first 6 bars, he continues that with a C melody note going into the 7th bar. He could’ve easily just played Fminor under it, as he does in the 3rd bar, and stayed in key.
Instead be puts an F chord in that 7th bar, a game changer. Then, for the 8th bar, he moves the melody down a half-step, to a B (over the G chord). Now he’s truly, melody and chords, out of Eb.
This is a beautiful modulation. But he’s just getting started…
The Pre-Chorus, in 4 bars, starts in ‘C’ (the new key) but quickly moves us back to ‘Eb’.
|| C | G/B | Cmin F | Bb ||
Again he utilizes the device of a major chord where he just used a minor, or vice versa (in this case C, then Cminor. In the Verse, it’s Fminor, then Fmajor).
The Pre-Chorus melody leans on tender notes – major 7ths, 6ths, and 9ths. He also introduces the rhythmic motif – syncopated 16th notes on the first 2 beats of the bar – that will majestically carry the melody through the Chorus.
On the last beat of the Pre-Chorus the melody climbs up the scale of a Bb chord – Bb C D Eb F… and lands on the next scale note – G – on the first beat of the Chorus.
But… instead of getting the Eb chord we might expect, we get an Ab (the IV chord in Eb), thereby making that G melody note a major7… gorgeous!
In the first 6 bars of the Chorus the shape and rhythm of the melody stays very similar, but each bar of melody comes down whole step, At the same time, the chords of the Chorus are –
|| Ab | Eb/G | Fmin Bb | Bbmin C | Bb | F/A F/Ab | Fmin | Bbsus4 ||
Note how he uses that same major-to-minor idea going from the 3rd to the 4th bar (Bb to Bbminor), not only accommodating the Db in the melody with the Bbminor chord, but taking us to another key, up a whole step, in the 5th bar.
This is, imho, the real masterstroke that takes an already great song to another level. Stevie uses that C chord in the 4th bar to sing up the C scale in a (whole-step higher) parallel to what he did on the Bb 4 bars earlier. So now everything’s (briefly) up a whole-step.
Remember, what makes all this great is not that it’s ‘complicated music’. All the musical technique is in the service of the song’s avalanche of emotion. There’s no showing off, nothing tricky for it’s own sake. When you hear it, every move feels inevitable.
The Chorus only stays in the key of ‘F’ for a bar and a half, using that great F/A to F/Ab transition in the 6th bar to take us back to the home key of Eb.
And I’ll just mention in passing that there’s a whole other modulation sequence (up another whole step) on the repeat of the chorus at the end!
Whew! I’m exhausted!! ‘Overjoyed’ is an amazing melodic/harmonic journey over the course of only 20 bars; crazy!
As elegantly done as anything I know by masters of this kind of harmonically complex but still accessible (mostly because the melodies lead the way) songwriting – Irving Berlin, Richard, Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Lennon & McCartney, Becker & Fagen.
Tell me if you think I’ve left out any writers of this kind of song at this level, or even any songs along these lines that are worth mentioning in this company.
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