Hope everyone’s had a happy holiday and New Year celebrating with friends and family! I wanted to share a cool musical idea I’ve been obsessing with over the holiday break! I heard a cool song called “London to Tokyo” by Doyle Bramhall ii over the holidays that really struck me with a different feel in the song’s construction. The beginning of the verses sounded pretty mellow yet drove the song comfortably along at a medium paced 4/4 time. The guitars were playing a major sounding loop that resolved around the funky bass line. Pretty cool sounding vintage vibe track at this point. However, after a really quick hitting pre-chorus, the song does a complete 180-degree change in sound, tone, melody, timing, and feel in a magical way that can only be described as “Beatles-ish”. As a listener, I was totally hooked after one pass through a chorus.
Welcome to the wonderful sound of Parallel Major and Minor!
Borrowing chords from parallel major or minor keys has been popular with classical composers for hundreds of years, but it is usually a symbol of sophisticated chord progressions when done well in rock music. Some of the most notable users of Parallel Major and Minor were The Beatles, who used the technique under the teachings of their classically trained producer George Martin. Songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Norwegian Wood” are classic examples of parallel major and minor being used. Borrowing a chord, or using a chord sequence derived from parallel major minor, really helps gives songs a melancholy sounding shift. Using Parallels is a great way to give otherwise predictable sounding happy chord progressions in your music a surprisingly lift by giving you somewhere else to go harmonically.
So, lets start with a music theory quick review. In any major key you have Diatonic Triads, three note chords that come from the notes of your seven-note major scale.
Our First, Forth, and Fifth Chords (E, A, B) are all written in capitals which signify they are major chords from our capital Roman numerals. It’s important to remember that we classify things in music with Roman Numerals! The second, third, and sixth intervals are minor chords, signified by their lower-case Roman numerals in Fig. 1. Our seventh interval is the strange one out of the bunch. We classify the seventh interval in our Diatonic Triads as Diminished based on the degree sign vii° written next to the interval.
Using the key of E major to demonstrate our Fig. 1: E(I) f# (ii) g#(iii) A(IV) B(V) c#(vi) d#(vii°).
Using the key of e minor to demonstrate Harmonic Minor Fig. 3: e(i) f3(ii°) G(III) a(iv) b(v) C(VI) D#(VII).
Using the key of e minor to demonstrate our Parallel Natural Minor Fig. 2: e(i) f#(ii°) G(III) a(iv) b(v) C(VI) D(VII).
When thinking in terms of parallel minor it’s important to bring up an important factor that confuses most music students-Natural Minor vs Harmonic Minor. The real difference comes down to the seventh note in both of their scales. Both harmonic and parallel minor share ALL the same notes except for their seventh interval. Harmonic minor keeps the same sharped seventh interval like E major which leads to a different resolve to the tonic note than Parallel minor. Typically, the real sound we perceive as “the parallel shift sound” in a song like the Beatles would really be taking advantage of using the flatted III and VI intervals in your minor keys. This is what makes The Beatles sometimes sound the most Beatley.
Applying Parallels in your own music is a lot easier than it sounds. At any point your revisit the tonic, or I chord in your progression and you feel the need to go somewhere else, try shifting into the minor of that chord. You can write a short little chord progression in the parallel key, bring the progression back to the parallel minor tonic chord, and then shift back into the original parallel major key. A great example of what this sounds like would be the classic Beatles track “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. In this classic White Album cut, the Beatles have descending verse chord progression in a minor. The verse sequence is written in Natural Minor goes a minor (i), G (VII), f#/D (VI/IV), F (VI)- a minor (i), G (III) f#/D (VI/IV), E (V). This sequence loops throughout the track with Paul’s pounding bassline, and Eric Clapton’s lead guitar playing crying over the chords. After a couple verses, the song takes advantage of the minor sounding hook and modulates to the parallel major A major. The sonic difference is astounding! George Harrison uses a major sounding progression to shake up his song and it works wonders here with the chord progression: A (I) c#m7 (iii) , f#m (vi), c#m7(iii) bm (ii) E (V7).
The real genius of George Harrison’s chord progression is using a V7 E or E7 to bridge both Parallel Major/Minor progressions. Because both parallels share the same tonic note A, a good rule of thumb is taking advantage of the V chord to bridge back to either Tonic so you can switch between the parallels at will.