Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Songwriting technique (Isley Brothers)

Every now and then on this blog I’ll post some comments on a song which will be almost like a footnote to one of my songwriting books. Here’s something which came to me recently when I chanced to hear a track on the radio called ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ by Motown act the Isley Brothers (from the mid-60s). The song has an unusual intro and a striking first melodic phrase and it’s clear that something odd is going on in the harmony to create such an arresting start and a curiously unsettling first phrase. I identified the reason for this.

The song is in the key of C major. The intro chords are E-A-C-Bb-G. Momentarily we think we’re in E or A but the C cancels those out. It’s the presence of the E and A which are unexpected. The verse¬†progression is C-D-E-Am-Dm-G7-C-Bb-G. The Bb-G-(C) progression (bVII-V-I) is a classic 1960s change which is not much heard these days (there’s an interesting essay to be written about why certain chord changes are more popular and more used at some times than at others). But it’s the first three chords of the verse which are important. It is unusual to have two ‘reverse polarity’ chords one after the other, especially moving up the sequence of chords I-II-III. C-D-E is I-II^-III^, to use the symbol I chose in How to Write Songs on Guitar. It’s these two chords next to each other, coupled with the melody and the lyric’s title phrase, that gives the opening of the verse such a different flavour.

Reverse polarity chords are ones which have changed from being minor to major, or minor to major, against what they shouild be in a major key. In C major D, E and A (II,III and VI) should be minor chords; II^, III^ and VI^ (D, E, A) have turned into majors.

Try turning the progression C-D-E as I-II-III in C major into C-D7-E7. This gives a common note c to the chords C and D, and then a common note of d to D and E, making the progression smoother. Follow the Am with a Dm7 and you have a common note of c to link those chords, and then Dm7-G7 shares the notes d and f.

Classic Motown of the 1960s is a good quarry for songwriters looking for new ideas in chord progressions. Away from the famous hits you can find some real gems in terms of songwriting technique.

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4 responses

  1. Michael Bonett

    Indeed rare. Allan Moore in his Article ”Patterns of Harmony” published in the Journal Popular Music (1992) Volume 11/1 in the Appendix on Page 86, – classifies this progression as: Class C: Stepwise ascending harmony BEa. as C: I-II’-III’-VI-IV-V-I – and uses the same example song – Isley Brothers: Put yourself in my place!

    Also, Richard Scott in his Book ”Money Chords” (2000) in the chapter ”E-F#” progressions – on page 32 and 39 describes the E-F#-G#-A progression as occuring in the song Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (G) (1973) Chorus(C)C=E-F#-G#-A-B-A-E-B7. The verse (V) of this same song is described in a more (chromatic) ascending and descending fashion as: V=E-[F]-F#-[G]-G#-A-B-A-G#-F#-E-B7.

    Furthermore another song is mentioned in the same book/chapter on pages 30 and 42 – Ride Captain Ride (1970), this is described as Verse(V) V=E-F#-[G-G#]-A-E.

    Rikky – what do you think are these further examples to your finding! Highly interesting indeed! Many thanks for the post.

    Michael Bonett mbon008(at)yahoo.com

    May 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    • Hello Michael, thanks for your response. I was amused that ‘Put Yourself’ was quoted by Allan Moore for the same reason. The other examples you cite are songs I don’t know.

      The important thing to remember of course is that not all chord progressions with three majors a tone apart (C-D-E) are harmonically the same. For example, in C major you could have IV-V-VI^ (F-G-A) using a reverse polarity VI, and bVI-bVII-I (Ab-Bb-C) using the flat degree versions of VI and VII – this sequence I do describe in the books as it is often used to round off a chorus – bit both have a different function to I-II^-III^. But judging from your comment I’m sure you know that anyway, but I thought I’d mention it for other readers.

      May 25, 2011 at 7:40 am

  2. Ido

    I want to add that The Beatles used that trick of I-II^ (“Eight Days A Week”) and also I-III^.
    IT IS rare, however, to encounter a I-II^-III^ progression.

    That was very interesting, Thanks!

    July 27, 2011 at 3:40 am

    • They did indeed, but there is nothing exceptional about that – I-II^ and I-III^ are both very common chord changes (‘Eight Days A Week’ is mentioned on p.57 of the revised How To Write Songs On Guitar). My point was just about I-II^-III^ which is uncommon. Thanks for stopping by.

      July 30, 2011 at 12:52 pm

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