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volume 17
march 2015

There's a new key in town


  Harmonic transformation and reinterpretation in the Eagles' "New Kid in Town"
by Douglas S. Thompson
  Left: The Eagles, playing "New Kid in Town" (Melbourne Australia, 2005)

The musical idiom of Rock music leaves ample room for original and unexpected modulations. Douglas S. Thompson here discusses the outstanding example of the Eagles' song "New Kid in Town." In this song, tonality — while avoiding the typical modulation in the bridge section — cleverly switches from section to section in ways that strengthen and enhance the song's cohesiveness.

1 An array of harmonic possibilities. In the song "New Kid in Town," released in 1976 by John David Souther, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey (Eagles), [1] the employment of tonality is exclusive. More important, harmonic ideas form linear and non-linear relationships in which harmonic transformation and reinterpretation are intrinsic elements. This is determined in the tonal hierarchy.
Tonality is central to the musical language of modern popular music — its genres and subgenres. This is evident to the extent that songwriters of modern popular music, who inherited the tonal legacy, found new and inventive ways to organize musical ideas within tonality. [2] Much of what makes tonality appealing is that it involves functional harmony. This provides a logical syntax for harmonic progressions. Moreover, it is multifaceted in its application, offering an array of harmonic possibilities, which forms a cohesive network. Central to this cohesive network is the idea of transformation and reinterpretation.
Where modulation occurs, transformation and reinterpretation often play a dynamic role in the process. In this case, it is a defining characteristic. To be clear, in this song, the process of modulation is not simply used to generate superficial levels of tonal space, [3] which is often the case in modern popular music, but it is integrated into the fabric of the song. The result is a well-crafted and tightly knit tonal design.
  There are four keys employed in the song: the tonic, relative minor, lowered-mediant, and relative-minor of the lowered median/tonic minor. Furthermore, pivot chords play an essential role in the tonal design. Specifically, the supertonic and subdominant chords are used in this capacity. Their employment is twofold. First, they act as catalysts, which provide transitions between modulating sections, and second, their nature is teleological. Namely, they aim to strengthen the cohesiveness of the song through corresponding relationships that are formed in the tonal hierarchy.
2 Key scheme. The structure of the song follows standard conventions. [4] There is an introduction, a bridge, a coda, and inbetween there are several pairs of verse-chorus. Remarkable is that each has a distinct and identifiable key. The key scheme is outlined in Table 1 below — see also Appendix 1.
 •  Introduction: E major (mm. 1-8) (I-V7-IV-V7-I)  
 •  Verse 1 (A): E major (mm. 9-24)  
  There's talk on the street ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-IV-V7-I)  
  People you meet ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-IV-V7-I) [c#: Vsus-V]  
 •  Chorus 1 (B): C# minor (mm. 25-32)  
  Johnny come lately ... (i-IV-i-IV)  
  Everybody loves ... (i-IV) [E: ii7-V7]  
 •  Verse 2 (A'): E major (mm. 33-48)  
  You look in her eyes ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-IV-V7-I)  
  But after awhile ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-IV-V7-I) [c#: Vsus-V]  
 •  Chorus 2 (B'): C# minor (mm. 49-56)  
  Johnny come lately ... (i-IV-i-IV)  
  Will she still love you ... (i-IV) [E: ii7-V7]  
 •  Bridge (C): E major (mm. 57-74) (I-V7-IV-V7-I-IV-I-ii7-I)  
  There's so many things ... (V-I-V-I-vi-II7) [G: ii7-V7]  
 •  Verse 3 (A''): G major (mm. 75-90)  
  There's talk on the street ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-IV-V-I)  
  You're walking away ... (I-ii7-V-ii7-V-V7-IV-V-I) [e: V7]  
 •  Chorus 3 (B''): E minor (mm. 91-98)  
  Where you been lately ... (i7-IV-i7-IV)  
  Everybody loves him ... (i7-IV) [E: iv7-V7]  
 •  Coda: E major (mm. 99-136)  
  Oh, my ... (I-iii7-IV-V7-I-iii7-IV-V7-I-iii7-IV-iv)  
  Oo-hoo, everybody's talking ... (I-vi)  
  Oo-hoo, everybody's walking ... (I-vi) etc. (I)  
  Table 1: Key scheme of "New Kid in Town"
  (modulations and pivot chords are indicated between square brackets)
3 From E major to C# minor. The song begins with a brief introduction. The harmonic progression is I-V7-IV-V7-I. It immediately establishes the tonic key, E major. [5] The progression is succinct and entirely diatonic; the tonality is clearly defined and unambiguous in these opening measures. Next, verse 1 (which directly follows the introduction) continues in E major, and it too is entirely diatonic. The chords, EM, F#m7, BM, AM, and B7 are employed in this section. They are organized into two parallel phrases, x and x', see Figure 1.
  Figure 1: "New Kid in Town," phrase structure and harmonic function
in verse 1. mm. 9-23
  The first indication of a tonal shift occurs in m. 24, where G#sus-G#M, signals the modulation to C# minor (chorus 1) from E major (verse 1). The new key — the relative minor — is established via the secondary dominant, V/vi (G#sus-G#M). It resolves unabated to C#m, see Figure 2.
  Figure 2: "New Kid in Town," modulation to C# minor, mm 23-25
This pivot chord ostensibly sets up the key of C#minor. In this section, the chorus, two chords, C#m and F#M are repeated three times. The relationship between the chords C#m and F#M is complex. Specifically, the function of F#M is problematic. To explain, F#M, like F#m can function as a subdominant in the key of C#m. [7] However, F#M has additional properties that set it apart from its subdominant counterpart F#m. The chord F#M contains the pitch A#, which, in addition to being the raised-sixth degree in the key of C#m, is the leading-tone in B major. The chord — F#M in contrast to F#m — possesses a harmonic energy that is more tonally active. Hence, it yields some of its subdominant characteristics to BM. [8]
4 A dualistic pivot chord. In other words, not only is F#M the subdominant in the key of C#m, but it also suggests the dominant of BM, which in this case — the key of C#m — is the dominant of the dominant of the relative major E (V of V/III). Still, F#M never directly resolves to BM. If it did, the distinction, V of V/III in C# minor, would have more weight. Granted, BM is eventually reached, but not directly from F#M. Instead, in mm. 30-31, F#M, on its third appearance in the chorus, is transformed into F#m7 (the third chord member is lowered a semitone, and the root falls to the seventh). Only then is there a move to BM (B7), which then resolves to EM.
The interceding F#m7, which at that moment in the progression is in transition, negates the strength of F#M's secondary dominant potential (the secondary leading tone is disengaged: A#-A). F#M is never fully realized as a bona fide secondary dominant because it does not directly resolve to BM. Consequently, F#M is neither positively affirmed as the dominant of III (BM), nor is it distinctly subordinate (subdominant) to the tonic C# minor. As such, I shall use the symbol Sigma, ∑ to represent its dual nature, rather than the conventional Roman numeral classification, IV or V of V/III, see Figure 3. [9]
  Figure 3: "New Kid in Town," harmonic syntax and function in the chorus
  It should be observed that in this passage the F#m7chord is a pivot-chord that connects the chorus to the verse. The chorus is in the key of C# minor and the verse (verse 2) is in E major. Functionally, F#m7 is iv7in C# minor, but because there is an immediate resolution to EM, via B7, it is reinterpreted as ii7, the supertonic of E major (ii7-V7-I), see Figure 4.
  Figure 4: "New Kid in Town," subdominant-supertonic pivot chord modulation,
mm. 29-33
  To be sure, the employment of such a pivot chord is in itself of marginal interest; however, in this case, it is part of a much broader application. It is part of a network of relationships that exists among the sections in which harmonic transformation and reinterpretation play a crucial role in the hierarchical structure. This will be addressed in detail later in the analysis. Last, verse 2 and chorus 2 follow the same harmonic scheme as verse 1 and chorus 1.
5 A deceptive move. The next main section is the bridge, and like verse 1 and 2, it is in the tonic key of E major. The tonic key is unexpected here because bridge sections typically modulate — to a key other than the tonic. However, in this case, the tonic key of E major is maintained in the bridge section in order to establish harmonic relationships in which transformation and reinterpretation are most effective.
  The sections following the bridge are verse 3, chorus 3, and the coda. They are respectively in the lowered submediant key (G major), its relative minor (E minor), and the tonic (E major). Notably, the tonal relationship between E major, G major, and E minor is important to the tonal hierarchy. G major and E minor are not only effective modulations per se, providing tonal variation in verse 3 and chorus 3; but more important, they are syntactic components in a more elaborate network. G major and E minor are strategically positioned between the bridge and the coda, which both are in the tonic key, E major. In other words, the bridge section remains in the tonic key of E major in order to bring about a juxtaposing tonal relationship, which hinges upon the lowered median key. Thus, the relationship E major (bridge)-G major/E minor (verse/chorus 3)-E major (coda) is the result. The key scheme is cogent and aesthetically sound, replete with variance and reprise.
  Furthermore, the bridge section, although it is in the tonic key, is — as expected — harmonically different from the preceding tonic-key material. It is an assimilation of harmonic material from the verse and chorus. The opening few measures, like the verse, are simply tonic, subdominant, and dominant harmonies in E major. But in m. 65 a harmonic shift to G major (verse 3) is initiated. Here, two complimentary phrases — antecedent and consequent — anticipate and prepare the modulation to G major. To be clear, at this juncture in the song (the bridge section), m. 65, the key is still E major. The antecedent phrase, in mm. 65-67, is dominant to tonic. The consequent phrase, like the first phrase, begins with the dominant, but it resolves to vi, rather than to I. The deceptive move from BM (V) to C#m (vi) in mm. 69-71 is then followed by F#M, see Figure 5.
  Figure 5: "New Kid in Town," modulation to verse 3 from bridge, mm. 65-72
6 Powerful structural elements. It is important to note that the harmonic pairing, C#m and F#M — although contextually different — echoes the harmonic pairing in the chorus, which was discussed above. Thus, I will designate F#M, with the symbol, ∑'. However, here, unlike chorus 1 and 2, F#M does not transform into F#m7 on its way to E major via B7 (completing the modulation to the key of E major from C# minor). Instead, F#M proceeds to Am7on its way to G Major in mm. 72-73. It should be noted that the move to Am7 is remarkable in that it emulates the major-minor transformation (F#M / F#m7) in the chorus (also discussed above), but in this case, the key of E major is not the destination, but rather, it is G major. As such, the Am7 is a pivot chord between the bridge, which is in E major, and verse 3 in the new key, G major. It is iv7 (borrowed-modal) in E major and ii7 in G major. This is realized when Am7 moves to D7 in the next measure, which then resolves to GM (the new tonic) in m. 75, see Figure 6.
  Figure 6: "New Kid in Town," pivot chord modulation, mm. 72-75
  Again, the chords F#M-Am7 echo the harmonic pairing F#M-F#m7 from the chorus. This relationship is significant not simply because, both pairs share the same major-minor qualities, but more important, because their functional status is parallel. In both cases, the function is predominant: F#M-F#m7move to B7, which resolves to E major; and F#M-Am7 move to D7, which resolves to G major. The corresponding transformation and reinterpretation unifies the tonal syntax. Also, the invariant pitch material from A# to A between these chords progressions is noteworthy.
  In the first case, the transformation from F#M to F#m7is simply achieved by lowering the third of the chord, A# to A. The root and fifth remain unchanged with the seventh added. In the second case, F#M to Am7, there are of course no common tones between F#M and Am7, but A# still moves to A, and the root and fifth of F#M move accordingly to Am7. A exists as a common element within both dominant chords. These are powerful structural elements, which at this point in the song, reinforce existing tonal relationships, see Figure 7.
  Figure 7: "New Kid in Town," invariant pitch material and common tones
7 Culmination and resolution. In verse 3, the modulation to the new key G major is virtually a verbatim transposition of its parallel counterpart in E major (verse 1 and 2). The melody is transposed up a minor third with the addition of a few textural changes. The modulation is refreshing, and it offers a new perspective on familiar material. The subsequent chorus is also a parallel transposition, relative to the new key of verse 3. Thus, it is in the relative minor of the lowered-mediant (E minor), which is also the tonic minor of the original key E major. To be clear, what makes the modulation so compelling is not the corresponding key relationship between E major/C# minor and G major/E minor, although this does provide interest, but rather, it is at the coda, where the tonic key returns from the relative minor of the lowered mediant. This is critical to the tonal design: it is the point where the structural continuity of the song and the potential of its hierarchical order are fully realized.
  The return to the tonic key, E major at the coda in m. 99 marks the culmination and resolution of harmonic events that have been defined thus far. The final modulation is masterfully executed. In short, the subdominant chord is once again the catalyst that facilitates the modulation. It undergoes a transformation and reinterpretation. To explain, recall that in the chorus, the subdominant chord iv (F#m7) is employed as a pivot chord that facilitates the modulation from the chorus in C# minor to the verse in E major. Likewise, here at the end of chorus 3 in m. 97, the minor subdominant, Am, is the parallel counterpart to F#m — a pivotal chord.
  However, verse 3 and chorus 3 are in G major and E minor, so that a parallel move with Am7, which is iv7 in E minor and ii7 in G major, would return to the key of G major from E minor, just as F#m7did in chorus 1 and 2, when it lead back to E major. This, of course, would preempt a return of the tonic (E major). Instead, the subdominant chord is reinterpreted and takes on a new role. Whereas, in the first case, in chorus 1 and 2, F#M, in the key of C# minor, is transformed, by lowering the third chord member a semi-tone, to become ii7 (F#m7) in the tonic key (E major), which moves to V7, and then resolves to I (EM).
  In this case, however, at the end of chorus 3, the chord AM — the parallel counterpart to F#M in chorus 1 and 2 — is also transformed by lowering the third chord member a semitone to become Am in mm. 96-97, but rather than proceeding to V7 (D7) of the lowered mediant key (G major), which would be parallel to chorus 1 and 2, it moves to V7 (B7) of the original key, E major. It is reinterpreted as the minor-subdominant (iv7) of the original tonic key — not the supertonic of the lowered mediant key. This is articulated when Am moves directly to B7in m. 98, which resolves to EM at the coda. Paradoxically, the resolution to the tonic key is the reification of that which is unexpected and that which is envisaged by convention, see Figure 8.
  Figure 8: "New Kid in Town," function of the subdominant chord
8 Additional relationships. In the final section (the coda), complementary harmonic material is reorganized to form additional relationships, which further unify the song. First, the form of the coda consists of two parts, which hinge upon the chord Am. Part I contains familiar material previously employed. For example, it is harmonically similar to the introduction, but rather than I-V-IV-V7-I, G#m7 is inserted between the tonic and subdominant. Hence, it is I-iii7-IV-V7-I. The new chord G#m7replaces the dominant. It is more colorful and less tonally active than the dominant. Furthermore, the progression is repeated three times, but on the third time, the IV chord (AM), instead of progressing to V (BM), is transformed into Am, at which point (m. 110), links the two parts of the coda, see Figure 9.
  Figure 9: "New Kid in Town," Major-minor harmonic transformation in coda
  Again, this major-minor idea exists as a powerful structural element. Its recurrence continuously unifies the harmonic syntax — even in this final section of the song. Following the Am chord, the second part of the coda begins. Part II is simply the repetition of the chords EM and C#m (I-vi).
  The coda marks the end of the song, and to be sure "New Kid In Town" is more than the sum of its harmonic content. Melody, rhythm, texture, and lyrics are essential components and play an important role. However, their importance in this case is secondary to the harmonic content, which is notable for its exceptional qualities. These qualities, which involve harmonic transformation and reinterpretation, are fundamental to the integrity of the song. They are enduring attributes that have currency in their aesthetic value. They are in part what distinguish the song "New Kid In Town."
1. Eagles, Hotel California: "New Kid in Town," CD B000002GVO, Elektra/Asylum Records, 1976. Return to text
2. Here the term tonality is applied in the broadest sense. It encompasses the wide range of harmonic sonorities and syntactic relationships that are derived from modes and/or scales. For discussion on this topic, see: Everett (2004), Biamonte (2010), Doll (2007), Temperley (2011), Clement (2013), Moore (2003), Winkler (1978) and Nobile (2014). Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention Richard Bobitt's Harmonic Technique in the Rock Idiom (Bobbitt, 1976). It is a pioneering work in the field. Return to text
3. This type of modulation is commonly called "The Truck Driver Modulation." It is especially pronounced in songs that extemporaneously modulate up by half-step, usually in the last verse or in the coda. For example, see Doug and the Slugs "Too Bad," Cognac and Bologna, 1980 (A&M-Universal). Return to text
4. See Covach (2005). This essay is informative and provides an excellent introduction into the subject. Return to text
5. For the sake of clarity, keys are written out, e.g., E major, E minor, etc., and chords are abbreviated, e.g., EM, Em, E7 etc. Return to text
6. Measure numbers correspond to the recording. See Note 1. Return to text
7. This relationship exists in other syntactic models, such as the dorian mode. For example, "Holding Back The Years" by Simply Red, is built entirely on two chords, Dm9-GM. GM never "resolves" to C. Moreover, in "I Saw The Light" by Todd Rundgren, a different analytical problem arises. The verse consists of two chords, the alternation between Dm7-GM. However, at the end of the verse, there is a resolution to Cmaj7, which immediately leads back to Dm7-GM, via Em7. Is it D dorian: i-IV, or C major: ii-V? Return to text
8. Music theory texts explain the formation of the major subdominant chord in the minor key as being derived from the melodic minor scale, see: Kostka, Payne and Almén (2013), and Aldwell, Schachter and Cadwallander (2010). Return to text
9. For a different interpretation of this passage, see: Folse (2004). Return to text
  • Aldwell, Edward, Carl Schachter, Allen Cadwallander (2010), Harmony and voice leading. 4th ed. Kentucky: Cengage Learning.
  • Biamonte, Nicole (2010), "Triadic modal and pentatonic patterns in Rock Music." In: Music Theory Spectrum, 32/2, 95-110.
  • Bobitt, Richard (1976), Harmonic technique in the Rock idiom. The Theory and Practice of Rock Harmony. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Clement, Brett (2013), "Modal tonicization in Rock. The special case of the Lydian." In: Gamut, 6/1.
  • Covach, John (2005), "Form in Rock Music. A primer." In: Deborah Stein (ed.), Engaging music essays in music analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 65-77.
  • Doll, Christopher (2007), "Listening to Rock harmony." New York: Columbia University (Ph.D. dissertation).
  • Everett, Walter (2004), "Making sense of Rock's tonal systems." In: Music Theory Online, 10/4.
  • Folse, Stuart (2004), "Popular Music as a pedagogical resource for musicianship. Contextual listening, prolongations, mediant relationships, and musical form." In: Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 18, 65-79.
  • Kostka, Stefan, Dorothy Payne, and Byron Almén (2013), Tonal harmony; with an introduction to Twentieth-Century Music, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Moore, Allan F. (2003), Analyzing Popular Music. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nobile, Drew F. (2014), "A structural approach to the analysis of Rock Music." Dissertations and Theses. 2014-Present. Paper 83. New York: CUNY, The Graduate Center.
  • Temperley, David (2011), "Scalar shift in Popular Music." In: Music Theory Online, 17/4.
  • Winkler, Peter. K. (1978), "Toward a theory of Popular Harmony." In: In Theory Only, 4/2, 3-26.
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