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Thread: Analysis of Dock of The Bay

  1. #1
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    Analysis of Dock of The Bay

    Just found this site, I'm pretty excited by what it offers.

    I was looking at Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay and I'm not sure how to approach it from a music theory prospective.

    It contains all majors chords (as far as I can tell).
    Verse: G / B / C / A
    Chorus: G / E / G / A

    I am at a loss to describe this modally or from what I know about chord theory. My best guess is that it modulates between C and E major.

    Let me know what you think, including if this post is in the right forum and if it's the proper kind of discussion for this board. (I really haven't looked around yet). Thanks.

  2. #2
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    It's key of G major right through (IMO), but you're right there's a lot of chords that "don't fit".

    It was quite common in those Stax soul tunes to write with major chords only. "Midnight Hour" is another one that does it.
    (As power chords, they would all be in key, but they are clearly major here.)

    The G-B change is not unorthodox, but the B would normally lead to Em (ie it would normally be the V of the relative minor). Going to C instead is not unusual, tho. (Compare the effect of G-Gaug-C, which also has that D-D#-E inner voice move.)
    The A major seems another odd chord, but a major II following a IV is not that uncommon. In pop/rock, it may be a simplification of the old jazz move from IV to #IVdim7.
    So compare the following:

    Dock of the Bay (Redding/Cropper)
    |G / / / |B / / / |C / / / |A / / / |G...
    Old jazzy sequence
    |G / / / |G7#5 / / / |C / / / |C#dim7 / / / |G...)

    In Bob Dylan's "Don't think twice" he also follows a major IV with a major II (key C):
    |C / / / |C7 / / / |F / / / |D / / / |C...
    (The same thing happens in one or two other songs I can't think of right now...)

    Normally that major II would be in 2nd inversion (A/C# or D/F#) making the resemblance with the dim7 stronger. (The 7th might be added too.)
    IOW, it gives you a rising bass line (although the bass might not actually follow it. The clever thing in "Dock" is that the rising line could continue through the repeat of the sequence:
    Code:
            chords:G   B   C   A   |G   B   C   A   | 
    ascending line:G   B   C   C#  |D   D#  E   E   |
    This line isn't played in the song, but you can see how it kind of makes sense of the chords, as a single thread, a hidden link. When trying to understand odd chords in songs, always look for inner voice moves of this kind. The way chords move from one to another is more important than whether they stay in key - as long as they get back to a key chord in the end.

    IOW, it's as if untrained pop composers have those old sounds in their heads (jazz dim7s, secondary dominants, augmented 5ths, etc), and are getting as close as they can using the only chords they know - major or minor triads.

    Chorus:
    |G / Eadd9 / |G / Eadd9 / |G / A / |G / E / |

    That add9 is a distinctive hook - a very nice element of subtlety in an otherwise bare sequence of triads. It could have been an Em(add9), staying in key and not sounding much different (in fact, a m(add9) chord would have had a sadder, more appropriate sound, arguably). It's almost as if there was a wilful desire to use ONLY major chords, even where minors might have worked!
    Against that, the fact that they do only use majors contributes a bright, positive philosophical air to an otherwise melancholy song: as if the singer is saying "yeah things look bad, but hey I'm going to get through it!" (This doesn't have to be a conscious intent of Redding or Cropper - they may not have thought about why they chose majors instead of minors, they just knew it felt right. Majors are sturdy and tough; minors are just a little, you know, limp?)

    In fact, with the A major chord too, the chorus is a little less secure as a G major tonality. You do get a sense they've moved to the parallel major of the relative minor (E major instead of E minor). I've played this song countless times, and never considered that this bit does sound a little like it's resolving to E at the end.

    The bridge is much more clearly G major, except for the F:

    |G / D / |C / / / |G / D / |C / / / |
    |G / D / |C / G / |F / / / |D / / / |

    The bVII (F) in a major key is now a standard element in pop/rock, although it was still a fairly new sound then.
    Notice the F-D change echoes the C-A change in the verse.
    bVII to V is also a fairly common sound in soul music of that period.
    Last edited by JonR; 09-13-2008 at 09:51 AM.

  3. #3
    Registered User SkinnyDevil's Avatar
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    Interesting analysis, Jon.

    As an aside, I think Cropper was using G, B7, C, A7 in the verse, and G, E7, and A7 in the chorus.

    Borrowed chords. Secondary dominants. The "push" is stronger from adding the major 3 (using the dom-7 instead of the m7) while the melody still rests comfortably on the other 3 chords in many cases. Other times, such chromatic tension fits more easily with them melody.

    Lots of song-writers have used this sort of thing to greater ("Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce) or lesser ("Wild Horse" by the Stones) degree since before the beginning of recorded music in every style of music.
    Last edited by SkinnyDevil; 09-13-2008 at 12:37 PM.
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    Awesome, thanks. I think I actually had a few of those thoughts while discussing it with a friend, but every time I made progress, got caught in the trap of wanting it to "fit" in a key.

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    When trying to understand odd chords in songs, always look for inner voice moves of this kind. The way chords move from one to another is more important than whether they stay in key - as long as they get back to a key chord in the end.
    YES. I have to remember to do this. I get stuck a lot this way.

    From G-B, I forgot about the harmonic minor. This makes perfect sense then.

    I'll have to take some time to see the internal voicing and how that ascending bass line fits.

    But your right, when I play over this, it wasn't even a thought, but I just played in G major. That wasn't really the question I guess.

    Next time I'll have to find a more challenging song, this must have been too easy for you.

  5. #5
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkinnyDevil
    Interesting analysis, Jon.

    As an aside, I think Cropper was using G, B7, C, A7 in the verse, and G, E7, and A7 in the chorus.

    Borrowed chords. Secondary dominants.
    Except that they don't go to the targets, their respective tonics. IMO, this makes them quite different entities.
    The B(7) in particular sounds like a secondary dominant, heading for Em, but of course Em doesn't arrive. (Unless we regard the E of the chorus as its long-delayed target - which I guess is possible.)
    The E7 and A7 are not secondary dominants - not in function anyhow. I guess maybe they retain an identity as "orphaned" secondary doms - which might explain why they sound "right", while the sequence keeps us guessing because they don't resolve.
    But I think the way soul (and rock) music uses chromatic majors (or dom7s) like this needs some other theoretical concept. "Borrowed chords" is fine, of course, but maybe doesn't quite cover it in every case.
    (There may be a concept I just don't know about... probably is, in fact!)

    Taking another longer view of it, it seems the whole tune is playing with a contrast between the keys of G and E, mixing them up together (rather than modulating from one to the other in sections). You have the IV and V chords of both keys (C, D, A, B), plus the bVII of G (F) for good measure.
    Of course, from a guitarist's point of view (Cropper), these are just all the basic major chord shapes (including 7ths) which he could be throwing into the pot without too much consideration. (That perspective of technical practicality and academic limitation is crucial with guitarist composers.)

  6. #6
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jpalatt
    From G-B, I forgot about the harmonic minor. This makes perfect sense then.
    But try playing harmonic minor scale over that chord (B7, and maybe C) - I think you'll find it's out of character with the song.
    Quote Originally Posted by jpalatt
    But your right, when I play over this, it wasn't even a thought, but I just played in G major.
    Yep, that's the natural centre, IMO, Otis's whistled outro is pure G major pentatonic. (And his vocal melody would be the best guide to the overall tonality - I haven't checked how it fits the different chords, but I would guess he only strays from a basic gospel/soul major pent when he has to.)

  7. #7
    Making the B and A chords into dom7s instead of majors will just strenghten a push that's already there. Because we still have the memory of a G note going into the B chord, this combination sets up a strong augmented push to C.

    During the A chord we'll still have a memory of a G note. (with kinda makes it an A7 anyways) This will create a medium tri-tone push to G. This tri-tone push is helped by a resolution in time(4 measures) and the fact that the chord change loops.

    Any close melodic movements will of course connect and smooth out the flow thats already there. (which is very important to do usually)

    SkinnyDevil and JohnR both have good explanations. I don't think anything I'm saying goes against the tension and release we all hear for this chord progression. I've just developed my own way to explain it that seems to work for me.

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