The Interchangeability of Major and Minor

A look into the harmony of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John.

So I was browsing Stephen Rae’s inspiration page which I’ll visit from time to time out of curiosity, where he mentioned Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a classic well known and rightfully well loved song as his favourite Elton John song.

While I don’t claim to be an expert in songwriting, and have still have trouble interpreting exactly what he means to say in all the lyrics, I am a composer and the song had some very interesting harmonic moments which I thought I’d look under the hood to see what’s going on.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

So the chords are as follows (skipping the intro):

Gm7 When are you gonna come C down

F When are you going to  B♭ land

I E♭ should have stayed on the C farm

I should have F listened to my old man

Let’s skip ahead as the chords repeat.

Bm E A  D Bm C

And we’re not done yet.

So F goodbye yellow brick A7 road

Where the B dogs of society F howl

You D7 can’t plant me in your Gm penthouse

I’m C going back to my F plough Am

Dm Back to the howling old A owl in the woods

B Hunting the horny back D toad

Oh E I’ve F finally C/E decided my Dm future lie

B Beyond  the yellow C brick

So let’s put this in a table. We are in F major. T stand for tonic (major F) and t stands for tonic minor (F minor). A strikethrough represents a chord that doesn’t belong.

Gm7CFB♭E♭CF
TIIVIIVVIIVI
tVII

Gm7 When are you gonna come C down

F When are you going to  B♭ land

I E♭ should have stayed on the C farm

I should have F listened to my old man

Reiterating the lyrics so you can follow along.

Nothing out of the ordinary here, but what’s with the E♭?

Structural Functions of Harmony

So I’ve been a fan of Schoenberg’s structural functions of harmony. After many attempts in understanding it (I still need to revise it to fully get the complete picture) it’s made the most sense in trying to understand harmony. There’s a chapter (VII) called the interchangeability of Major and Minor, basically stating because they share the same dominant chord, you can use any chords both the major and minor freely and it’ll still sound “right”.

This means you can use chords outside of the scale degree. So in this case in F major you can use chords from F minor and also D major and it’ll sound right at home. Why also D major? Because D minor has the exact same scale degrees in F major and by the concept of the interchangeability of Major and Minor, we can also include D major as well! If this isn’t clear, I explain this point a little more under the “Submediant Major” section.

So E♭ major is a chord that belongs in tonic minor, but does not belong in tonic major. Because of the theory of interchangeability, it sounds perfectly in place here. Using that theory, many chords open up to us. Let’s explore:

F majorIIIIIIIVVVIVII
TFGmAmB♭CDmEm
tFmG♭dimA♭B♭mCmD♭E♭
Chords marked “m” after are minor. The rest are major. T = Tonic Major t = Tonic Minor.

The case for pivot chord modulation

You may be thinking, can’t that E♭ major chord be explained using pivot chord modulation? Meaning we’ve actually modulated or changed keys to E♭ major? B♭ being the chord common to both F major and E♭ major and also being the V chord? This theory falls short because it can’t explain the C major following it as C major doesn’t belong in E♭ major. There’s no common chord to bring us back.

There is also the theory from Schoenberg that we are always in the key unless we’ve actually abandoned it by the constant use of other chords in other keys. The concept of monotonality. Because there’s not a continuous steam of chords from E♭ major, we can be sure we have not actually changed keys and modulated elsewhere.

Aaaaaaahhhhh

This is where the magic happens at the chorus and the best part of the song. Let’s see how it fits in.

B♭m7E♭A♭D♭B♭m7C
TIVVIIIIIVIIVV
tIVVIIIIIVIIVV

And what do you know. It’s pretty clear, this section has switched entirely to minor! Not only that, there’s a circle of fifths going on from B♭ to E♭ to A♭ to D♭. After all that minorness, we get a C major chord back into F major. Notice it’s not striked in the analysis as C major technically belongs in F minor by which I mean melodic minor. But after so much natural minorness, a sudden C major sounds fresh here and because of the interchangeability of major and minor, it doesn’t sound out of place.

Submediant Major

Now I mentioned previously that the scale degrees of Submediant Major (D major) can also be used because we’re interchanging from D minor (Submediant Minor) which has the exact same scale degrees as F major (Tonic).

So to clarify this point, while the song is in F major, there’s an underlining ambiguity that the song is also simultaneously in D minor as all the same scale degrees are present. The only reason why you could make a case for F major is because of the V – I cadence which firmly establishes it in the key. However the argument can be made for that very same cadence to be a VII – III in Submediant Minor (D minor). And with the concept of the interchangeability of Major and Minor, (in this case Minor to Major), we can argue that the scale degrees in Submediant Major are also open to us. Let’s prove this point.

Submediant Major in action

So let’s plug the next set of chords into a table and see what we get. SM stands for Submediant Major and sm Submediant Minor. Here’s a reminder where we’re at.

So F goodbye yellow brick A7 road

Where the B♭ dogs of society F howl

You D7 can’t plant me in your Gm penthouse

I’m C going back to my F plough Am

FA7B♭FD7GmCFAm
T (F)IIIIIVIVIIIVIIII
t (Fm)IIIVI
SM (D)IIIVIIIIVVII
sm (Dm)IIIVVIIIIIIVVIIIIIV
I’ve included Tonic Minor to demonstrate the chords don’t belong here this time around

The A7 chord that seemingly comes out of nowhere can be explained by the fact we’ve simply interchanged to Submediant major from Submediant minor. Sounds perfectly in place doesn’t it? Well, this explains it.

Dm Back to the howling old A owl in the woods

B♭ Hunting the horny back D♭ toad

Oh E♭ I’ve F finally C/E decided my Dm future lie

B♭ Beyond the yellow C brick

DmAB♭D♭E♭FC/EDmB♭C
TVIIIIIVVIVIIIVVIIVV
tVIVII
SMV
smIVVI

And here’s a perfect example of both Submediant Major AND Tonic Minor in action! It all sounds perfectly in place doesn’t it? That’s the power of the interchangeability of Major and Minor!

Let’s leave with an example from Schoenberg himself from Dvorak’s Symphony 9, 2nd Movement:

D♭ MajorF♭B♭F♭D♭B♭♭G♭D♭
T♭IIIVI♭IIII♭VIIVI
tIIIIIIVI
SMI
From page 99, Extended Tonality

Again, sounds perfectly in place doesn’t it? I’ll leave you with a handy chart to with all potential chords to explore.

Chords available to C major

C majorIIIIIIIVVVIVII
M (C)CDmEmFGAmBdim
t (Cm)CmDdimE♭FmGmA♭B♭
SM (A)ABmD♭mDEF♯mG♯dim
Underlined are extra chords available to C major

Chords available to C minor

C minorIIIIIIIVVVIVII
t (Cm)CmDdimE♭FmGmA♭B♭
T (C)CDmEmFGAmBdim
m (E♭m)E♭mFdimG♭A♭mB♭mC♭D♭
Underlined are extra chords available to C minor

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