The recent loss of Glen Campbell – a music business legend if there ever was one – got me thinking about and listening again to my favorite of Glen’s hits – ‘Wichita Lineman’, written by Jimmy Webb (it’s also by far my favorite Jimmy Webb song).
This led me to breaking down the music of the song… and being blown away. It’s amazing to me how, when I analyze a song I like – usually for these blogposts – I always discover that there are specific technical reasons for why I like a song, why it works so well. (Of course there are also aspects that can’t be explained… the synergistic mysteries of words and music coming together.)
So, looking at the chords of Wichita Lineman (not for today the great melody or lyrics), what comes up?
Probably the most unusual aspect of the song is its harmony; its chord progression.
INTRO | Fmaj7 | Fsus4 | Fmaj7 | Fsus4 |
VERSE | Bbmaj7 | F/A | C7sus4 | Dminor Aminor | G | D | D |
CHORUS | Csus2 | Csus2 | G/B | Gminor/Bb | D/A | A7sus4 || Bbmaj7 | C | Bb | Csus4 |
As you listen (and do listen – and play); notice a few things:
The 7 bar Verse contains two melodic phrases of 3 bars each with an extra bar of D added for the pickup to the Chorus. This gets us pleasantly off balance right away.
The chord progression is a roller coaster, a grab bag of surprises. Start by observing the variety of different chords in this brief song – triads, majors, minors, 7ths and major 7ths, sus4 chords, suspended chords (D/A), chords with non-root tones in the bass (G/B, Gminor/Bb).
This variety, combined with the harmonic misdirection described next, is what makes the song sound so consistently fresh and surprising. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it’s still hard for the ear to predict what the next shift is. And, as usual with a great song, a great melody leads us through.
The way the song plays with its key centers without hitting them is fascinating too. Check it out… The Intro starts in F… even though there’s an Fsus before the Verse, it seems like we’re in the key of F… the Verse is Bb, F/A, C7sus4, Dminor, A minor… but then a Gmajor chord (not in the key of F), followed by a Dmajor (after we just heard a Dminor)… harmonically speaking, we don’t know where we’re heading…
The Chorus chords are C, G/B, Bb, D/A, A7sus4…. at that point it sounds like we’re going to land on a D chord – the same chord that sounded like a V chord at the end of the Verse. But instead he hits Bb to C twice (under the famous ‘morse code/telegraph’ riff), indicating that, far from arriving at the key of D, we’re heading back to F (except we never quite land there, either – the Verse starts back on Bb – the IV chord of F).
It’s a classic of harmonic misdirection but, as with regular so-called ‘magic’, the trick is so natural and feels so good that you don’t even recognize you’ve been had! In fact you’re glad to be a victim of this sleight of ear.
Mainly, play through (and sing) the song a few times, considering the above. You’ll be glad you did.
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