| home   authors | new | about | newsfeed | print |  
volume 9
october 2006

Locked into the Hotel California


  Or, expanding the Spanish progression
by Ger Tillekens
  Even the beginning guitarist can easily learn to play the Eagles' song "Hotel California." The song structure is built upon seven simple chords, some of which have the same or nearly identical finger settings. The way in which these chords combine, though, is rather complex. Interpreting the music of this song seems as difficult as decoding its lyrics. Ger Tillekens here contributes to the debate by analysing the basic chord pattern as an expanded Spanish progression that gives the song its Spanish feel and acts as to keep it firmly locked into the moment.

Cryptic lyrics ... Many progressive rock songs from the seventies express their authors' misgivings about the direction taken by the counter culture of the late sixties. An outstanding example, no doubt, is "Hotel California," the title track of the fifth Eagles' album. Released on December 8, 1976, after some eight months of studio work, the album quickly went to number one in the United States, all in all selling over ten million copies. The single followed step on March 12, 1977. The gloomy, Kafkaesque lyrics describe how the song's protagonist, after a long ride through the desert, arrives at a luxurious hotel and, after encountering some of its strange guests, learns that he's not allowed to leave the place. We may assume it's not the lyrics, though, that made the song so popular. In a radio interview, guitarist Glenn Frey reportedly once stated: "We were listening to a lot of Steely Dan records at the time and we were impressed with the way that they could make junk sculpture lyrics about nothing and make them work into a song."

The lyrics, sung by the band's percussionist and front man Don Henley, are indeed rather cryptic, leaving ample space for interpretation and, yet more so, misinterpretation. Some explain the song's story line as a metaphorical description of a drugs experience, others even as the portrayal of a Satanist church meeting. Its real theme, however, is the paradox of the pop/rock scene that, having started as a counter culture, now had spawned its own rank and fashion of artists with all the isolationist marks of an older elite. The fast evolution of pop music into an art scene had erected a fence within the culture itself, separating the artists not only from their audience but as well from their own past. Suddenly finding oneself locked-up in this cultural enclave: that's what the song is really all about. Or, as Henley himself once said: "Hotel California was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles." [1]
2 ... And a peculiar progression. Not many listeners will have been concerned about the song's contents, and we may assume that it is the music more than the lyrics, though the atmosphere of latter fits the former quite well, that made the song so popular. In this respect two elements seem to be important, which both may have been borrowed from other sources. At least that's what is being suggested by William Ruhlmann (2003) in his song review of "Hotel California," where he tags the song's harmonic feel next to its rhythm as its main constituents and adds: "It sounds as if, prior to composing the song, the members of the Eagles listened closely to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Bob Marley and the Wailers' Rastaman Vibration, both recent hit albums, and combined elements from each."
  The reggae influence, indeed, is unmistakably there. In a recent interview guitarist Glenn Fry even told, that the song's original working title was "Mexican Reggae" (Crowe, 2003: 12). The song's harmonies, however, show a remarkable resemblance with another prog-rock composition. Here, the authors of Wikipedia's entry to the song, rightly point at the Jethro Tull's "We Used To Know" from their album Stand Up (1969), while arguing that the chord progressions are nearly identical, and stressing the fact that the bands toured together prior to the release of the song. [2]
The actual construction of the song started with guitarist Don Felder supplying the rough guitar track with the song's main chord progression, that still easily can be extracted from the final result. Behind all the polish and power of competing electric and acoustic guitars, lies an intriguing harmonic framework of seven different chords, fraught in a peculiar progression. It proves to be an easy starter for the beginning guitarist, but — as we shall see — a riddle for the musicological analyst.
  In its final form on the album the song is built upon a verse and a chorus scheme. For each of the three verses the scheme is repeated twice with some variation in the mix of acoustic and electric guitars and in the rhythmic pattern. The chorus has slightly different lyrics when it comes around for the second and last time, as the third verse gets no follow-up by a chorus. The intro is also built upon the verse scheme, repeated twice by two acoustic guitars. The song ends with a typical prog-rock convention: two electric guitars duelling in a long solo. This solo again uses the verse pattern, in this case three times and then slides into the coda while fading out. The coda too firmly rests upon the verse scheme. This makes the chord sequence of the verse scheme, all in all recurring at least twelve times, into the song's major acoustic hallmark. We will take a closer look at it.
3 Chord patterns. The verse's chord pattern counts eight measures, each one assigned to a single chord (Figure 1). Only one of those chords returns twice, so all in all we have seven different chords. [3]
 | Bm                               | F#                               |
      On a dark desert highway,            cool wind in my hair,

 | A                                | E                                |
      Warm smell of co-litas,         rising up through the air.

 | G                                | D                                |
    Up ahead in the distance,             I saw a shimmering light,

 | Em                               | F#                               |
   My head grew heavy and             I had to stop for the night.
                 my sight grew dim,
  Figure 1: The chord pattern of Hotel California's verse scheme
  If we assign Roman numerals to this pattern according to what initially seems to be the song's native key of B Natural Minor, we end up with the sequence: |i|V|VII|IV|VI|III|iv|V|, which by closing on the dominant seems to ask for a resolution into the tonic and thus for its continued repeat. Though this sequence sounds pleasing and self-evident, at first sight it does not show any traces of any known progression. Moreover, the chords of F# Major and E Major are not native to the key of B Natural Minor.
 | G                                | D                                |
     "Welcome to the Hotel Cali-      fornia.                   Such a

 | F#                               | Bm                               |
   lovely place,             such a   lovely face.

 | G                                | D                                |
   Plenty of room at the Hotel Cali-  fornia.                      Any

 | Em                               | F#                               |
   time of year,            you can   find it here."
  Figure 2: The chord pattern of Hotel California's chorus scheme
  Though it uses the same chord combinations, the chorus slightly deviates from the verse pattern (Figure 2). As usual in pop music, the chorus moves towards a related key. In this case it seems to home in to the root of the second chord, taking D Major, B Minor's relative Major, as its tonal centre. If so, then the pattern comes out as: |IV|I|III|vi|IV|I|ii|III|. This time the sequence is more conventional, but again the F# (III) is not native to the key.


Right: The Eagles line-up at the time of the recording of Hotel California; from left to right: Don Henley (drums, percussion), Joe Walsh (guitar, keyboards), Randy Meisner (guitarron, bass), Glenn Frey (guitar, keyboards) and Don Felder (electric and slide guitars)

Strangers to the key. The song's chord supply incorporates an F# Major as well as an E Major next to an E Minor chord. Taking the song's first chord as providing the key (B Natural Minor), we would rather expect F# Minor as the dominant and E Minor as the subdominant. We could, of course, explain the Major F# (V) as being part of B Harmonic Major, but that would leave us with an A Major (VII) that does not fit in with that particular key.

  The tonal compass of the melody also exceeds the limits of the scale by including the Major thirds of both these chords: g# and a#. These notes are strangers, or at least not native to the key. To keep things simple, we could just qualify these notes as "passing notes," or "accidentals." Indeed, they are only sparsely used in the melody line. When they appear, however, they are used quite effectively — as for instance in the final line of the second chorus that closes the sung parts of the song (Figure 3). Helped by some quick slides of the guitar, they enable the singer's wavering, shrill tone of voice. Both these notes, though, are more than passing notes, if only because of their crucial role in the song's harmonics.
  Figure 3: The closing text phrase of Hotel California
  To be clear, for a pop/rock song the verse's combination of chords actually is not out of the ordinary. As a musical style of its own, pop music is firmly built upon the principle of diagonal substitution of chords (Tillekens, 1998). So we could identify the Major chords of E and F# as stand-ins for their Minor namesakes. By applying this principle of substitution as its main device, pop music tends to break down standard progressions into, what Richard Middleton (1990) calls, short harmonic ostinato's. And, indeed, the verse's first three pairs of chords each constitute a neat I-V pair. These pairs, moreover, are connected by the daring but not unusual pop/rock convention of trading the V (F#) for a VII (A) and the IV (E) for a VI (G). Replacing the Major F# with its Minor namesake, finally, creates a diatonic progression, D-Em-F#m (III-iv-v), more commonly used to shift a Minor key towards its relative Major with a continuing VI (G) for a pivot chord. In this case, though, substitution does not seem sufficient to explain the song's characteristics. For one thing, the first lines of the song seem to possess some Dorian flavour.
5 A subtle feel of tone shifts. Indeed, momentarily discarding the deviating Major fifth, we could analyse the sequence as a modulation from B Dorian into D Major (Figure 4).
               | Bm   | F#   | A    | E    | G    | D    | Em   | F#   |
 B Dorian:       i      V?     VII    IV    [VI?]
 D Major:                            [II?]   IV     I      ii     III?
  Figure 4: The verse pattern as a modulation from B Dorian to D Major
  With its characteristic seventh (A) and its pivotal fourth (E), based on the sharpened sixth degree, the Dorian scale provides the chords of the verse's second line. The introduction of the Major IV gives the verse a Dorian feel, which extends retrospectively over the preceding part. The third and fourth line, next, can be treated as a shift towards D Major, the relative Major of B Natural Minor, except for the final F#. The modulation, though, lacks a good pivot chord, based on the common tones of both keys. This again points towards another solution.
  There's another way to dissect the chord pattern. Because it lacks a good pivot chord, the transition between the keys is rather jumpy as it lets all the constituent notes of the F# Major triad leap over a Minor third right into the G Major triad. The introduction of the F# Major triad, in fact, enables the harmonic equivalent of what Peter van der Merwe (1989: 131-132), in respect to melody, calls a "pendular third," which tends to leave the listener with the feel of a delicate tone shift. Next to the Major F#, the Major E is the starting point for a similar leap over a Minor third. And so, we can pull the sequence apart in still smaller sections, i.e. the harmonic I-V ostinato's (Figure 5).
               | Bm   | F#   | A    | E    | G    | D    | Em   | F#   |
 B Nat. Minor:   i      V?     VII
 A Major:                      I      V      bVII
 G Major:                                    I      V      vi
 F# Major:                                                 bvii   I
  Figure 5: The verse pattern as a series of short modulations
between harmonic I-V ostinato's
  Listening to the song's chord movements, the key seems to shift almost imperceptibly along with these ostinato's, taking us from the key of B Minor by A Major to G Major, and somehow in the end even leading us towards F# Major. However, these are no ordinary modulations, as the song's verse firmly keeps to its initial tonic. Unmistakably, yet, there is a subtle and almost permanent hinting at some tone shifts that seems to mimic something vaguely familiar. Luckily we have a few historic precedents at hand that may some shed light on the origins and mechanisms of this particular progression.
6 The Dorian twin-tone system. Travelling back in time, shortly before the rise of Western tonality we find some families of tunes and songs with a Minor flavour and with tone shifts resembling those of "Hotel California." Peter van der Merwe (1989: 102) qualifies these families as "modal frames" with each frame based on one tonic with next to it, at least, one strong co-tonic. Though some of these song families may share their names with the Gregorian scales, the concept of musical scales does not apply. For practical purposes "double-tonic" tunes, the members of these families, may be treated as combining two or more scales. Scales, however, are analytical instruments while modal frames, like musical styles, often encompass certain melodic and harmonic conventions and thus also require a certain kind of sensibility from the audience. Moreover, saying that a song employs two or more scales seems to imply a modulation, while modal frames only show subtle shifts between the tonic and its co-tonic as if being on different levels. [4]
  On top of that, because of their double tonics, these families of songs often foster ambiguous tone material. The family of Dorian songs, for example, may be seen as using the seventh degree as a co-tonic and even employing two enharmonic variants of this seemingly identical note. As such it forms a twin-tone system (Figure 6).
  Figure 6: The Dorian twin-tone system
  Figure 6 shows the tone supply of the Dorian modal frame, pictured in a tone grid. The grid shows the relevant chords of the frame with their fifths cycling horizontally from left to right and their Major thirds going vertically bottom-up. Consequently the Minor thirds in the grid are moving downwards diagonally. The Dorian mode derives it distinct feel and touch from the fact that the tonic and its co-tonic are melodically near but harmonically distant. Moving from the Minor tonic (i) to the co-tonic on the seventh degree (VII), Dorian songs seem to vacillate like a pendulum, suggesting an ongoing, never-ending repetition. Listen for instance to the old English folk song "Scarborough Fair." The melodic material at hand is always derived from the tonal area surrounding the chord that's being played. That is important because in a tonal frame certain tones may show up twice — in the Dorian frame even the co-tonic itself. Many Dorian songs, indeed, play games by switching between these enharmonic co-tonics, even within the reach of one chord.
Though enharmonically equal, the notes in question actually differ in pitch. As indicated by the marker, notes higher at the top of the tone grid are a bit lower than their equal tempered namesakes, while those at the bottom come out a bit higher. The difference amounts almost to 13.7 cent. Taking smaller steps of nearly 2 cent, the same goes for the notes at the left and the right. The deviations are small, but they all add up. In effect, the difference between the co-tonic on the top-left (A0) and the one at the bottom-right (A+1) comes out at 21.5 cent. Sung pure, such a difference lies within the range perceptible by the human ear, and catching these enharmonic notes the right way is an important element of modal frames. [5]
  The Dorian modal frame, by the way, fits in nicely with pop and rock music's lascivious use of the flat-seventh and by now has been stylistically incorporated, as testified by the Moody Blues' song "Nights in White Satin" and many others (Tillekens, 2002). As we can infer from Figure 6 the Dorian modal frame supplies the Major IV we find in the Eagles' "Hotel California" and also explains the slight tone shift we perceive in the step towards the Major VII (A) at the start of the second line of the verse pattern. The prominent Major V (F#) of "Hotel California," however, seems to point at some other modal frames.
7 And who but my lady Greensleeves? The next modal frame to consider consists of the basso ostinato family, reaching back to the Renaissance and including tune and song types like the passamezzo antico, the romanesca and the folia. It is a cluster of songs that, over time, has preserved a wide popularity and meanwhile has been widely studied by musicologists. An excellent example of a piece belonging to this family, is the English folk-song "Greensleeves," which varies slightly on the basic form of the passamezzo antico. It is built on two phrases which are both repeated twice: |i|VII|i|V|:|i|VII|i-V|i|:|III|VII|i|V|:|III|VII|i-V|i|.
  Figure 7: Tone set of Greensleeves
Figure 7 shows the tone set of this traditional. Though mostly played in the key of A Minor, it is presented here in B Minor to facilitate comparison. Its distinctive mark is formed by the introduction of the relative Major (III) as a co-tonic, starting the second phrase. [6] Because of this shift from the Minor key towards its relative Major, the second phrase can also be read as |I|V|vi|III|:|I|V|vi-III|i|.
Likening it with the Dorian modal frame, "Greensleeves" shows a similar step going from i to VII. The overall pattern, though, is not quite the same. [7] This song family is really one of a kind — not only for its relative Major (III) acting as a secondary co-tonic, but also because of the quality of its alternating the Major V (F#) with the Major VII (A). Because of this, one may even think of the latter as a kind of pseudo-dominant instead of yet another co-tonic. It does not matter, though, how we label this chord, for actually it not as much the chords nor even the harmony that are important, as well as the different levels they represent in the tone grid (Van der Merwe, 1989: 208-209). It is the Minor third, distancing the tonal areas of the Major V (F#) and the Major VII (A), that gives the song its pendular feel and, with it, much of its attraction.
  In respect to "Hotel California," the basso ostinato family supplies the Major F# (V) as well as the key's relative Major D (III). For that reason it is sometimes called upon in respect to this song. The chorus of "Greensleeves" ends up by rhetorically asking: "And who but my lady Greensleeves?" There being no girl in town to match his loved one may have been true for King Henry VIII of England, who is generally supposed to have written the song. However, looking at modal frames in respect to the Eagles "Hotel California," there's yet another and even far better candidate.


Right: Many cities nowadays host a Hotel California. Even Paris has one, located in the famous quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The sleeve picture on the Eagles' album, however, was taken at the jet set location of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California as shown here

The Andalusian modal frame. The average guitarist will be acquainted with the Spanish progression. If not, one can easily pick it up by listening to an arbitrary flamenco piece. It does not matter which one, because it will always be there. The progression is mostly played starting on A Minor and progressing over G Major and F Major, to end up right into the dominant E Major; or: |i|VII|VI|V|. The sequence has a nice Spanish feel and is easy to play because one can hold on to the same or almost the same finger settings while sliding one's hand over the guitar's neck. Transposed into B Minor the progression comes out as |Bm|A|G|F#| and forms a tone grid as presented in Figure 8.

  Figure 8: Tone set of the Spanish progression
  Just like the basso ostinato family resembles the Dorian modal frame, the Spanish progression seems to conform to the basso ostinato family, even more so. Some musicologists, indeed, do regard the progression as historically related to this family. There's something special about it, though, as the F#, as soon as it makes it presence felt, can be perceived as closing the progression and thus changing the key, or at least making it unclear. Indeed, by leaping over sevenths — Bm -» A; A -» G; G -» F# — the key seems to be vague from the very start. Almost every single chord that's being played seems to shift towards a new level in the tone grid. That's why Olav Torvund (2002), discussing the Spanish progression on his guitar pages on the internet, writes: "Someone with more musical knowledge than I have might tell what is really the root of this progression, but I can't." Luckily, Peter Manuel (2002) recently wrote a lengthy article about it all. Taking the same feeling as a clue and offering the necessary historical arguments and examples, Manuel builds a strong case for the existence of an autonomous Andalusian Phrygian modal frame with the Spanish progression as its quintessential and most basic chord progression, and — it may come as a surprise — its closing chord as the main tonic.
Manuel calls this modal frame Andalusian because of its mixed Arab-Spanish descent, and Phrygian because it shares this mode's tonic and tone supply. Here, it is the tonic that counts rather than the tone supply. The scale of F# Phrygian, for instance, has the same notes as B Natural Minor and D Major, but it takes F# for its tonic. Manuel's Andalusian Phrygian modal frame is not a mode in the strict sense, though, as its tonic comes with a strong co-tonic on the fourth degree. [8] Applied to the Spanish progression, this implies we have to change our interpretation of the sequence. The progression, as Manuel argues convincingly, has not to be read as |i|VII|VI|V| but rather as |iv|III|II|I|, with its first chord only acting as a secondary tonic that serves as a temporary resting point. Now, how does this all apply to "Hotel California" and its chord progressions?
9 Merging modal frames. The Andalusian Phrygian modal frame is the musical matrix of flamenco music with its characteristic I-II ostinato's, which occasionally dive into the Spanish progression. Some more chords can be added to the tone set. Because of their shared tone sets, the Spanish progression can easily be extended with parts in related keys — as indeed happens in some musical forms that belong to this modal frame, like the Andalusian fandango that turns the Major VI into a temporary tonic for its verse part. In some Latin American folk musics, like the Mexican traditional "La Llorona," the Spanish progression combines with significant parts where the secondary tonic (iv) acts as the starting key and is strengthened in its function as a secondary tonic by the insertion of an intermediary subdominant (bvii; or: v of iv). [9]

The other way around, the progression can as easily be imported in other styles of music. That way it is used in many pop songs — as a riff or as base for a substantial part of the song, if not the whole of it. Some well-known songs are the Kingston Trio's "El Matador" (1960), the Ventures instrumental "Walk, Don't Run" (1960), Ray Charles' "Hit The Road Jack" (1961), Davey Graham's guitar piece "Anji" (1962), the Kinks "Sunny Afternoon" (1966), Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" (1971), Bob Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee" (1976) and the Dire Straits' "Sultans Of Swing" (1978). [10]
  To this list we can now also add "Hotel California," as the verse's progression can be regarded as a Spanish progression, interspersed with consecutive fifths as secondary dominants. Seen that way, it is an expanded Spanish progression. In fact, by adding these fifths the Eagles forge an extended tone grid that is a bastard combination of the Dorian and the Andalusian modal frames, that at the same time encompasses the complete tone set of the basso ostinato family as well. The Dorian part mainly resides in the measure in which the chord of A Major is being played, right between the F# Major and the E Major — a transition which implies a quick enharmonic shift from A+1 towards A0. The progression's main constituents, though, conform to the tone set of the Spanish progression (Figure 9).
  Figure 9: Tone set of Hotel California
A fitting label for a tone set like this, would be "mixed modal frame." By itself this combination is not an invention of the Eagles. Mergers of the original Dorian, basso ostinato or Andalusian Phrygian tone sets, can be found in many later musical vernaculars, like the Mediterranean modal heritage, the Celtic folk tradition and the French chanson, as well as their descendants and derivates like the Latin American counterparts of the Andalusian Phrygian mode, as discussed by Manuel (2002) himself. According to their origins they may differ in their preferred rhythms, their favourite progressions and their melodic treatment of ambiguous tones, and maybe even more so in the degree to which they learned to comply with western Major-Minor tonality. As a result, the feeling of tone shifts may vary between sounding utterly predominant and being almost imperceptible. In their own way, though, they all preserve a leaning towards the tone shifts enabled by their original modal predecessors. [11]
  The original Andalusian mode of flamenco music, and with it the Spanish progression, cultivates a strong feel of tone shifts. As the Spanish progression unrolls in the flamenco style, one may even consider each separate chord as presenting its root as the next, new key until the final one makes itself heard. The Eagles keep to the key of B Minor and its relative Major D. Therefore, no doubt, they lose something of this feel as they expand the Spanish progression by splitting its characteristic i-VII and I-bVII transitions with consecutive fifths. In reverse, adapting to Major-Minor tonality, a guitarist working in the flamenco tradition probably rather would have inserted preceding secondary dominants into the progression (Manuel, 1989: 73).
  The Eagles, however, preserve the feel of tone shifts by gluing their ostinato's together again with pendular thirds. Admittedly, the presence of these thirds is just a side-effect of bringing in the fifths. However, one certainly needs a keen pop sensibility to appreciate them and put them to good use in a song. It certainly is an inventive manner to import the Spanish progression, or at least its touch and feel, into the style of pop/rock music. The Spanish feel of the verse pattern, moreover, is strengthened by its closing on the fifth. This, as we have seen, is a harmonic peculiarity of the Spanish Andalusian style which takes this chord as its main tonic. There's a bit more to say about this.
10 Closing the Spanish progression. Following the example of Bob Dylan and the Dire Straits, one can import the Spanish progression unmitigated into the style of pop music, or one can bend it around a bit like the Eagles do. The progression's closing finalis, however, almost always remains a problem. One can opt for closing a song like Bob Dylan does in his "One More Cup Of Coffee" with the ringing sound of the progression's first chord. Or, one can join the Dire Straits in their "Sultans Of Swing," by turning back just before the final chord and to pass through the progression again in reversed order. In both cases the root of the Minor chord starting the progression, is confirmed as the song's key. It is, as Manuel (2002) mockingly says, the usual "gringo way" of closing the Spanish progression. The easiest way to solve the problem is to fall back on a fade-out, like the Eagles do. Their ending the verse and chorus patterns on the fifth, though, certainly contributes to their song's Spanish feel.
  The short chord sequence at the end of the Eagles' verse pattern adapts the closing ostinato of the Spanish progression to Major-Minor tonality. The quick semitone transition of this progression, which almost drops the G chord into the F# chord (II-I in Phrygian; bII-I in Major), is stretched out into a longer diatonic progression of G-D-Em-F# (VI-III-vi-V in Minor) that mostly segues into the verse pattern again. Acting as a dominant, the fifth asks for its resolution into the tonic. That way, most of the time, the verse pattern seems to roll on automatically. But, twice the progression also segues into the chorus, and here, again, we get the feeling that the song retains something of its Spanish forebear.
  Arguing for the Spanish progression's final chord as its tonic, Manuel (1989; 2002) suggests it's all a matter of conventions. In short, to appreciate a double-tonic tune you've got to get used to the modal frame's idiosyncrasies and to develop the right sensibilities. It is like learning another language or dialect. In this case, though, a more basic issue of tonal perception comes into play. The semitone switch from G to F# ([b]II-I) — flamenco's harmonic foundation and therefore also known as the flamenco progression — seems to take the key with it in its fall. The key really seems to shift, as if both chords resolve into each other. And, that is not only a matter of style and conventions, but also of psycho-acoustics and aural perception, as both chords directly connect by their roots, fifths and thirds being perfect leading-notes for one another (Figure 10).
  Figure 10: The tone trap (left) and its deflected Minor variant (right)
  Modes with their tonics only a semitone apart are being attracted to each other, because they overlap at a crucial point. A step from the tonic to the second degree in the one corresponds to a step from the seventh to the tonic in the other. They tend to glide into each other, which — one of them being the tonic, the other the leading-note — puts the key's position at stake. The harmonic effect of putting the chords in question — a tonic and a leading chord — next to another in a progression is stronger yet. Because of all this, the Dutch mathematician Jan van de Craats (1989: 66) in his study of the Classical Style calls modes a semitone step apart closely related. For the same reason, he adds, shifts like these are mostly avoided in the Classical Style. Many good pop songs, however, exploit its effects to the fullest.
  The trick works both ways, ascending (I -» [b]II or VII -» I) as well as descending ([b]II -» I or I -» VII). As the chords shift into each other, the initial key becomes vague and it's not clear where it may finally land. It may keep to its origins or shift to its target. It may even be continued by way of a more conventional modulation to any other key. That's why, elsewhere, I've called it a "tone trap" (Tillekens, 1998: 183-190). For a moment the key is trapped in nowhere land, temporarily hiding where it will emerge again. In "Sunny Afternoon" the Kinks, indeed, start their Spanish progression a fifth above the song's key and prolong its march to bring it down to this key again. There are several versions of the tone trap, like the deflected Minor variant (i -» VII) that can be heard right at the start of the Beatles' classic "Yesterday," shifting the key from an initial F Major right into E Minor (Tillekens, 1998: 192-193).
  Next to that, there's also a light version of the tone trap. Indeed, that is exactly the one we find in "Hotel California" in the transition from the verse to the chorus pattern. This light version uses the chord combination of V and VI to shift the key from a Minor key towards the level of its relative Major and, conversely, of IV and III to bring it from a Major key into the domain of its relative Minor. To exploit the effect to the fullest, both the strong and the light versions of the tone trap prefer the use of two neighbouring Major chords instead of a Major one and its Minor namesake, as the former offers one more leading-note. Which, in turn, explains why the Major fifth is often used in this context. The effect, surely, is not as strong as in the original Spanish progression, but as the very same chords are in play, in "Hotel California" its use, again, adds something to the modal Spanish feel of the song.
11 Locked into the moment. The style of pop music itself is not build upon modes. As said before, its main device is substitution. It clings to one tonal centre, but it certainly likes to play with the key. Its own tone set is wide enough to incorporate other tone sets and mimic their conventions. It can easily import other styles, as the Eagles do with the Spanish progression, and mutate them, as in this case by inserting fifths and thus smoothing the transitions. The song itself, surely, is not kin to the Andalusian Phrygian modal frame. It is highly tributary to it, though, as it mimics its feel. In the same move, as we shall see, it also takes over some of the semantic properties of the Spanish progression.
  Chord progressions are not only there to accompany a melody. They almost always have a meaning of their own, indicating the shifting contexts of a song's narrative (Tillekens, 1998; 2000). And, looking at the lyrics of some songs using the Spanish progression, it is not difficult to detect its semantic qualities. In the traditional "La Llorona," for instance, a girl identifies herself with the Weeping Woman of Mexican legends who drowned her children because her lover deceived her and whose ghost is still haunting the river banks to take the lives of careless passers-by. Clearly, the girl has decided to join Llorana by drowning herself in the river. The progression can be heard in the second part of the verse with the girl declaring herself with some kind of urgency. Then, with the unwinding of the Spanish cadence, her soliloquy ends up in a calm, even resigned determination.
  The same combination of urgency and rest can be found in the Kingston Trio's "El Matador." Here a bullfighter is waiting in the arena for the bull to attack. Again, the progression's start indicates restlessness — one can almost see the animal pawing the sand. The matador, meanwhile, uses the interval to confirm his thoughts about his beloved one. In "Hit The Road Jack," Ray Charles finds himself being thrown out of the house by his wife, who does not want him anymore. The urgency and determination of the woman here are self-evident, while the male's voice clearly is trying to delay his forced leave. The element of postponement can also be heard in "One More Cup Of Coffee For The Road," where Bob Dylan is stalling his departure for the valley below by asking for a cup of coffee over and over again. In "Sunny Afternoon," the Kinks, in turn, make their British leisure class protagonist express his fear that his lazy life style is soon going to end and let him ask for some more respite.
  In all these songs the Spanish progression conveys a feeling of urgency that turns into a calm determination. Its fulfilment and execution, though, is being postponed by the progression's continued repetition. In each song something is about to happen but, at the same time, is being delayed for yet another moment. A classical finalis and tonic equates to the feeling of coming home. This metaphor does not appear fit for the Phrygian finalis, which rather seems to indicate a decision that has been taken or a depart that is due to happen, but at least for some time still can be deferred. It suggests a prolonged interval, in which time almost has come to a standstill. And, by turning around, over and over again, the Spanish progression keeps the listener firmly locked into that moment. In short, the feeling of the Phrygian finalis does not resemble the steady home of a settler as well as the temporary resting place of a wanderer — or, as the Eagles sing, a "stop for the night."
  In some of these songs the Spanish progression may be just a gimmick, but it sure works. It seems to work the same way for the expanded form of the Spanish progression. The protagonist of Jethro Tull's ""We Used To Know"" is remembering his turbulent past as a long waiting period for a more quiet future to arrive. The Eagles who are willing to leave the Hotel California, in turn, find themselves permanently locked up in the place. The lyrics of "Hotel California" were purposely written, like a movie, as an unfolding series of moments (Cuellar, 2004: 12). Contrary to most of their compositions, for this song the music came first. Written afterwards, the lyrics clearly adapt themselves to the semantics of the Spanish progression. The tone shifts neatly correspond with the start of each new song line, pushing the story almost inevitably forwards into yet another level in the tone grid. The urgency of the Spanish progression makes itself felt in the mood of the song's protagonist, while its rest and timelessness signifies the place where he ends up.


Right: The picture on the back sleeve of the Eagles' album aptly shows the group trapped within the imagined world of their song

Varying the Spanish feel. I want to conclude this discussion, just like the Eagles do their song by again repeating its theme. Substitution of chords is the main trick of the trade of pop music. It makes it into a style that can easily absorb elements and themes of other styles and put them to its own use. "Hotel California" proves this ability by importing and simulating the feel as well as the semantic properties of the Spanish progression into the wider style of pop music. And, it puts them to good use. If we have to stick a name to it, we may call the Eagles' version an expanded Spanish progression. This is not to say, that the Eagles did study modal frames before constructing it. Guided by a keen pop sensibility, Don Felder probably found it by picking chords on his guitar. Still, the progression derives much of its attraction from its Andalusian modal predecessor.

Though pop songs tend to adhere to a single key, pop music's harmonic reach is wide enough to encompass the tone sets of modal frames. So, pop songs can play with tone shifts and even vary on them, just as modal frames themselves vary in strength of their tone shifts. Discussing "Greensleeves," Peter Manual (2002: 319), for instance, shows himself rather sceptical about the double-tonic status of this traditional. The sense of a single predominant tonicity here, he says, is self-evident. On this point, one can indeed disagree with Van der Merwe (1989: 207). Much, though, depends on the interpretation by the performing artist. Folk singers, for example, are likely to accentuate tone shifts, while pop musicians usually play them down and merge them in with their usual chord substitutions.
The style of pop music, however, leaves ample room to confirm a song's modal prototype. The Spanish feel of "Hotel California, can easily be increased by emphasizing the harmonic tone shifts of their expanded Spanish progression or by narrowing the wavering juxtapositions of g-g# and a-a# in the vocal lines, a clear mark of the flamenco style (Manuel, 1989: 73). Just listen to the cover made by the Gypsy Kings. Of course, it can also be done, in a more decorative way, by just adding a lot of acoustic guitars playing arpeggio's, like the Eagles themselves did on their live Hell is Freezing concert in 1994. Every which way, I have to say for myself, I like the song. [12]
1. For the artist scene of this place and period, see: Hoskyns (2005). For myself, I always speculated that the song's verses refer to colleague musicians, associated with California one way or another. The steely knives, mentioned in the first part of the third verse, indeed point at Steely Dan, as was admitted by Glenn Frey in an interview with Cameron Crowe (2003: 12). At the time, in a playful discussion with some friends, I tried to identify some other artists from the prog-rock scene. The girl with the Mercedes bends, we agreed, had to be, Janis Joplin, while the word "captain," in association with the "desert" and the state of "California" for us offered a direct link with Don van Vliet otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, especially because his album "Lick My Decals, Baby" (1970) had a track "The Clouds Are Full Of Wine."
  The combination of pink champagne and prisoners, we continued, had to be a reference to Pink Floyd and their song "You Gotta Be Crazy" — later reworked as "Dogs" — that was played during the group's American tours of April and June 1975. The "Night Man," finally, proved to be more difficult to point down, but I decided on Rick Wakeman of Yes-fame. Our inferences probably were all too far-fetched, but it was fun to spend an evening decoding the lyrics this way. Return to text
2. See: Wikipedia: Hotel California. Both chord sequences are indeed nearly the same. Jethro Tull builds its song on a repeated |i|V|VII|IV|VI|III|II|V|, whereas the Eagles progression comes out as |i|V|VII|IV|VI|III|iv|V|. The web site SongFacts, the most probable source of Wikipedia's information, also quotes Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull's front man, who in a BBC radio interview once laughingly said that he was still waiting for his royalties. Return to text
3. See the appendix: Chord tabs for the Eagles' song Hotel California. Return to text
4. Peter van der Merwe (1989: 209-210) introduces the concept of level to distinguish the "abrupt and emphatic nature" of tone shifts in modal frames from the "familiar chord changes of the classics." Characteristic features of these levels, this author adds, are (1) the chords almost always being in root position, emphasizing the level's foundation note, (2) with the fifth of the chord acting as the most important one next to it, and (3) the third being correspondingly weak, wavering between Major and Minor. Consequently, in modal frames chords mostly are unadorned triads. Our use of the concept differs a bit by first of all referring to the relative position of chords in the tone grid. Return to text
5. Setting the root of Bm to 0 cent, the root of A+1 comes out at 1017.6 and that of A0 at 996.1 cent — a difference of 21.5 cent. To both these enharmonic co-tonics of the Dorian mode, we have to add the natural seventh (A7) derived from the tonal area of the tonic (cfr. Van der Merwe, 1989: 209; Tillekens, 1998: 220-222). This one comes out, lower yet, at 968.8 cent, differing from A+1 by 48.8 cent or almost a quarter of a whole tone step. This way, the unadorned triads of modal frames offer ample room for melodic variations. Again, catching these differences the right way is one of the qualities of a good performance of double-tonic tunes. The presence of these ambiguous notes also testifies to the fact that while scales are made to avoid tonal ambiguity, modal frames are out to exploit it. Return to text
6. The basso ostinato song family is a collection of dance tunes based on a fixed, one-note-per-measure, ground bass pattern and/or chord progression (Van der Merwe, 1989: 207). During the Renaissance it became very popular in Southern Europe and consecutively spread all over the continent, even reaching Scandinavia (Kirton, 2005). The family has many forms, variations and even bastards (Gombosi, 1936). The oldest one, the passamezzo antico takes the binary form of |i|VII|i|V|:|III|VII|i-V|i|. The folia, better said La Folia, varies on this theme by switching the first pairs of chords: |i|V|i|VII|:|III|VII|i-V|i|.
  The second, identical phrase of both these progressions implies a tone shift towards the co-tonic of the relative Major. By that, it can also be presented as: |I|V|vi-III|vi|. The romanesca goes along with this reversal by taking the form: |I|V|vi|III|:|I|V|vi-III|vi|. This song family, more specifically the passamezzo antico, can be seen as giving rise to Western Major-Minor tonicity (Lowinsky, 1961; Anderson, 1992). Because of their tonal ambiguity, the songs themselves, though, in time were banned from or brought in line with the evolving Classical Style (Van der Merwe, 1989: 208). Return to text
7. The passamezzo antico closely resembles the Dorian modal frame because of the shared i-VII ostinato, which indeed has been called a "Dorian turn" (Gombosi, 1936: 19). Moreover, the pattern's closing sequence — VII-i-V-i — resembles a Dorian cadence. This has been taken as evidence for the Dorian modal frame being the family's point of origin (Lowinsky, 1961: 5; Anderson, 1992). The III, then, is treated as a substitution for this cadence's final chord, which by its insertion forces the cadence to resume its course now finally ending on i. This breaks the whole thing down into a five-measure and a three-measure part. This view has been contested by Palisca (1963: 83), who sees both phrases as four-measure-sequences and rightly argues for an independent descent from the practice of lute and vihuela improvisation based on harmonizing melodic tones through simple root triads.
  Also note that there seems to stick some fixed semantics to the ostinato's and their respective levels as used in this modal frame. Just as in "Greensleeves," the ostinato i-VII often indicates a distance from or a loss of a loved one, while the i-V ostinato expresses some deep-felt emotion in respect to that. The shift to the relative Major in the second phrase (III-VII or I-V), in turn, usually evokes a feeling of relieve with the lyrics expressing a joyful reminder or anticipation of better days. Return to text
8. Labelling modal frames according to Gregorian conventions may be cause for confusion. Aside from the original Andalusian Phrygian modal frame, Peter Manual (2002: 326) distinguishes a separate variant of keyboard fandango's and Latin American song types. Though belonging to the same modal frame, the Major counterparts of the latter, as represented by a song like "Guantanamera," correspond to the Mixolydian mode in their tonal qualities. Adding to the confusion, the Andalusian Phrygian modal frame itself — and with it its main progression — are commonly referred to as Dorian in the Spanish and Latin American literature, more specifically as the "Greek descending Dorian scale," according to early Greek and Byzantine nomenclature instead of the Gregorian one (Manuel, 2002: 312). So, the qualifiers Phrygian, Dorian and Mixolydian all may refer to the same or at least closely related modal frames. In reverse, songs like "Scarborough Fair" and "Greensleeves" that both may be called "Dorian," clearly belong to different modal frames. In short: though they may share their names, modes and modal frames don't have to be logically or historically connected in any direct way. Return to text
9. The Andalusian fandango pattern, Manual (1989: 73) argues, "may be seen as representing confluences of Phrygian tonality and common practice harmony." This pattern, including a digression into the relative Major of iv, looks like this (Manuel, 2002: 314-315):

                  ritornello     copla                  ritornello
               |: Am G   F  E :| C  F  C  G7 C  F  E |: Am G   F  E :|
   E Phrygian:    iv III II I                   II I    iv III II I
   C Major:                      I  IV I  V7 I  IV

As we see, taking advantage of their relatedness, in the copla the key shifts towards C Major instead of A Minor. By using F Major as a pivot chord (IV of C), it then returns to the key of E Phrygian, ready to resume the Spanish progression.
  "La Llorona," is a Mexican traditional. In the Folk Revival of the 1950s it was brought to the attention of the English audience by Cynthia Gooding as a track on her album Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish, Spanish and Mexican Folk Songs (1957). Later on, Joan Baez made her own rendition of the song on her album Gracias a la Vida (1974). Though starting on Am (iv) and being followed by Dm (bvii; or: v of iv) as an intermediary subdominant, the song is in the key of E Phrygian, if only because the verses close with a Spanish progression. The feeling of a tone shift, however, is weak compared to the original Andalusian mode. Even more so, because we actually hear a Spanish progression (Am-G-Dm-E) with a D Minor where one would expect an F Major chord, which softens the transition between the final chords (see the appendix: Chord tabs for Joan Baez' song La Llorona). More recently, in the wake of the ongoing Latin Wave, a whole army of singers has covered the song. All in all, the song offers a good example for the weaker tone shifts of the Latin American counterparts of the Andalusian Phrygian mode, as discussed by Peter Manuel (2002). Return to text
10. The introduction of the Spanish progression into the realm of pop music can be retraced to two very popular songs, both released in 1960: "El Matador," composed by Jane Bowers and Irving "Lord" Burgess, at the time a great success of the Kingston Trio and released on their album Sold Out, and the Ventures successful instrumental "Walk, Don't Run," composed by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith in 1954. Only a short time later, Ray Charles probably made the most of popular music's new interest in the Spanish progression with his R&B classic "Hit The Road Jack," composed by Percy Mayfield. The song was released in 1961, in the wake of Charles' travel album The Genius Hits The Road and later added to it as a bonus track. The Spanish progression can also be heard in Davey Graham's famous guitar piece "Anji," originally released on his 3/4 A.D. EP (1962).
  The Ventures, Ray Charles and Davey Graham all stress the riff-like qualities of the Spanish progression. This also goes for the Kinks' hit "Sunny Afternoon" (1966) which employs the progression effectively in its catchy intro and the ending phrase of the verse, and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" (on Lead Zeppelin IV; 1971) where the progression can be heard right after the guitar solo. More extensively the progression has been applied by Bob Dylan for his gypsy ballad "One More Cup Of Coffee," to be found on his album Desire (1976), and the Dire Straits for their "Sultans Of Swing," the title track of the same-named album (1978). Return to text
11. In-between and within modal frames, the feeling of a tone shift may differ in strength. Discussing the differences between the harmonic ostinato's of keyboard fandango's and their original Andalusian counterparts, Peter Manuel (2002: 319), for instance, remarks: "Instead of oscillating between a reposeful "tonic" and an unstable "dominant" chord, these ostinato's are better seen as swinging, pendulum-like, between two competing tonal centres." Adding to its expressiveness, even within a tune or a song the feel of a shift may be made to vary with the lyrical or melodic context. Return to text
12. The Gipsy Kings gave the song a flamenco treatment for the album Rubaiyat (1990), issued by Elektra for its 40th anniversary, for which the label's current artists covered the label's all-time big hits. This version also featured as part of the sound-track of the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski (1998). In 1994 the Eagles delivered the song in an acoustic version at their live MTV Hell Freezes Over reunion concert, which is available on CD and DVD. Return to text
  • Anderson, Norman Douglas (1992), Aspects of early Major-Minor tonality. Structural characteristics of the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University. Available on the internet at Doug Anderson's Home Page.
  • Craats, Jan van de (1989), De Fis van Euler. Een nieuwe visie op de muziek van Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart en Bach. [Euler's F#. A new perspective on the musical style of Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach]. Bloemendaal: Aramith.
  • Crowe, Cameron (2003), "Conversations with Don Henley and Glenn Frey, August 2003." In: Carol Cuellar, The very best of the Eagles. Transcribed by Hemme Lutjeboer, Danny Begelman, Kenn Chipkin and Colgan Bryan. Miami: Warner Bros Publications, 2004, 3-21.
  • Cuellar, Carol (2004), The very best of the Eagles. Transcribed by Hemme Lutjeboer, Danny Begelman, Kenn Chipkin and Colgan Bryan. Miami: Warner Bros Publications.
  • Gombosi, Otto (1936), "Zur Frühgeschichte der Folia." In: Acta Musicologica, 8, 3/4, 119-129.
  • Hoskyns, Barney (2005), Hotel California. Singer-songwriters and cocaine cowboys in the L.A. canyons, 1967-1976. London: Fourth Estate - Harper Collins.
  • Kirton, Sarah (2005), "La Folia, the greatest hit of all time." In: Northern California Spelmanslag News, 15, 1, 4-8.
  • Lowinsky, Edward E. (1961), Tonality and atonality in sixteenth-century music. Berkeley and Los Angelos: University of California Press.
  • Manuel, Peter (1989), "Modal harmony in Andalusian, Eastern European, and Turkish syncretic musics." In: Yearbook for Traditional Musics, 21, 70-94.
  • Manuel, Peter (2002), "From Scarlatti to "Guantanamera." Dual tonicity in Spanish and Latin American musics." In: Journal of the American Musicological Society, 55, 2, 311-336.
  • Merwe, Peter van der (1989), Origins of the popular style. The antecedents of twentieth century popular music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990), Studying popular music. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Palisca, Claude V. (1963), "Review of: Tonality and atonality in sixteenth-century music by Edward E. Lowinsky." In: Journal of the American Musicological Society, 16, 1, 82-86.
  • Ruhlmann, William (2003), "Hotel California. Song review." In: All Music Guide, retrieved from the Internet on October 9, 2006.
  • Tillekens, Ger (1998), Het geluid van de Beatles. [The Sound of the Beatles]. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.
  • Tillekens, Ger (2000), "Words and chords. The semantic shifts of the Beatles' chords." In: Soundscapes, 3, 1.
  • Tillekens, Ger (2002), "Marks of the Dorian family. Notes on two Dorian double-tonic tunes." In: Soundscapes, 5, 1.
  • Torvund, Olav (2002), "Walk, don't run, to Spain for a meeting with Mark Knopfler and friends." In: Olav Torvund's Guitar Pages, retrieved from the Internet on October 9, 2006.
  The short sound fragments on this page are copyrighted: The Eagles - "Hotel California" 1976 © Asylum Records. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting.
  2006 © Soundscapes