John Mayer Slow Dancing Question

SRVYJM

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294
All,
This is such a great tune to me. I was learning it by ear- thought I had done pretty well, then I purchased Michael Caswell's video on "Play John Mayer". Michael is a top notch player, really digging into the nitty gritty details of the song, and I was very pleased that I nailed much of it by ear that matched his approach, until...

Michael referred to the song as being in the key of C#Minor- but it's very clearly in E Major to my ear. Now- I know they are "enharmonic" and consist of the same notes and chords, but to me, this is clearly an E Major Hendrix-like vibe, not a minor tune in C#Minor. He even goes on to say the solo is in C# Pentatonic minor instead of E Major.

What are your thoughts? I mean, C#Minor and E Major may be relative/parallel keys/, but really, they're also worlds apart when it comes to resolving the chord progression and melody.
 
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itkindaworks

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I am by no means an expert in music theory, I do know about the major and relative minor. That song sounds minor to me.
 

SRVYJM

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Really? Wow- I could be wrong- obviously Michael Caswell thinks it's a minor tune, but it sure sounds like E Major to me.
 

Strat

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Well, if you can't yet hear that it's clear a minor key song try watching the JM live vid and u will see him playing the C#m chord.
 

lifeinsong

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1,844
I can see where it might be a little confusing for some people but it's definitely in the key of E Major. First clue is the way the Chorus resolves to an E Major chord. The body of the song is based off the VI chord which is C# Minor. I guess a lot of people focus too much on the way the song starts...just because the intro and verse start on a C# Minor doesn't automatically place it in that key. Listen to the actual harmonic resolution throughout the entire song...EVERY section of that tune resolves to E Major.
 
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JonR

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15,957
IMO, it's both. It is possible for a song to be in two different keys after all! And minor and relative major are the commonest pair for songs to flip between (typically minor in the verse and major in the chorus).

This song follows that pattern, in that the verse has a little more emphasis on C#m, because that's the first and the longest chord out of the three in the loop. The final E has a slight sense of resolution to my ears, but then the returning C#m claims "pole position" ,as it were.
However, the chorus seems to have more pull towards E (again, to my ears). There's the strong B major, which sets up expectation as V - followed by a deceptive cadence to Cm-A. Most significantly, his vocal resolves to E (on the E chord) at the end of the chorus, and that definitely sounds like the tonic to me at that point - as if it's all come home to E.

But it's true that we all hear music according to our experiences and prejudices. I'm used to hearing major keys as a stronger tonality than minor - maybe because of my age, and how much pop music was in major keys back in the 1950s and 60s. Nowadays, minor keys are perhaps more common, especially in R&B; the minor key sound is much more common in popular musical culture of the last 2 or 3 decades.
This is one of those songs that, if your ears are prepared for a minor key, you'll hear it as minor. If they're prepared for a major key, they'll be waiting for that E major chord to signal "yes we're home!"

Of course, to test my theory, we should all say how old we are! Are those that hear it as major older (on average) than those who hear it as minor? Or are there some other prejudices at play? (ALL our ears are prejudiced in some way, it's just a matter of recognising in what way.)

One thing we can say is that there is no G# major chord in this song, which would definitely tip the balance towards C# minor. So it's a balance between a modal C# minor (aeolian) and a traditional diatonic E major. And definitely a fine balance! (The ambiguous key centre is part of the appeal of the song, IMO.)

And what chord does he end on, when playing it live? E major! Not definite proof, of course, but a sign of what he felt the true key chord was; or at least the most suitable final chord, which is usually the best indicator of "key". (When people don't end on the key chord, that's because they want it sound unfinished.)

BTW, none of this makes much difference to how to solo on it! C# minor pent = E major pent. Same notes, same patterns, different labels. Resolve phrases to C# if you want to underline that, or to E if you want to underline that.
 
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SRVYJM

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294
Well, if you can't yet hear that it's clear a minor key song try watching the JM live vid and u will see him playing the C#m chord.
- What he's playing on the video has no bearing on the question. Of course he's "playing" C#m- it's one of the three chords in the intro- C#m-A-E. To my ear it resolves at the E- the C#m is the 6th chord and starting chord of the song- but that doesn't prove it's in the key at all. I can't "yet" hear that its a minor key song- I've only been playing for 30 years (J!). Seriously, I can't "hear" how you could possibly hear this as a minor song, the chords "fall" down to the key of E. I think all those Hendrix-y R&B double stops in the beginning also lend the feel of this song as an E major tune- not C#m. That's classic Hendrix to me. Reminds me of Wind Cries Mary or SRV's opening in Lenny- very E major (I know Lenny transitions to minor- but you can hear it clearly when he does- major to minor and back again through Lenny).

I can see where it might be a little confusing for some people but it's definitely in the key of E Major. First clue is the way the Chorus resolves to an E Major chord. The body of the song is based off the VI chord which is C# Minor. I guess a lot of people focus too much on the way the song starts...just because the intro and verse start on a C# Minor doesn't automatically place it in that key. Listen to the actual harmonic resolution throughout the entire song...EVERY section of that tune resolves to E Major.
- Totally agree- I was beginning to get concerned that no one else heard it that way. Thanks for the support!

IMO, it's both. It is possible for a song to be in two different keys after all! And minor and relative major are the commonest pair for songs to flip between (typically minor in the verse and major in the chorus).

This song follows that pattern, in that the verse has a little more emphasis on C#m, because that's the first and the longest chord out of the three in the loop. The final E has a slight sense of resolution to my ears, but then the returning C#m claims "pole position" ,as it were.
However, the chorus seems to have more pull towards E (again, to my ears). There's the strong B major, which sets up expectation as V - followed by a deceptive cadence to Cm-A. Most significantly, his vocal resolves to E (on the E chord) at the end of the chorus, and that definitely sounds like the tonic to me at that point - as if it's all come home to E.

But it's true that we all hear music according to our experiences and prejudices. I'm used to hearing major keys as a stronger tonality than minor - maybe because of my age, and how much pop music was in major keys back in the 1950s and 60s. Nowadays, minor keys are perhaps more common, especially in R&B; the minor key sound is much more common in popular musical culture of the last 2 or 3 decades.
This is one of those songs that, if your ears are prepared for a minor key, you'll hear it as minor. If they're prepared for a major key, they'll be waiting for that E major chord to signal "yes we're home!"

Of course, to test my theory, we should all say how old we are! Are those that hear it as major older (on average) than those who hear it as minor? Or are there some other prejudices at play? (ALL our ears are prejudiced in some way, it's just a matter of recognising in what way.)

One thing we can say is that there is no G# major chord in this song, which would definitely tip the balance towards C# minor. So it's a balance between a modal C# minor (aeolian) and a traditional diatonic E major. And definitely a fine balance! (The ambiguous key centre is part of the appeal of the song, IMO.)

And what chord does he end on, when playing it live? E major! Not definite proof, of course, but a sign of what he felt the true key chord was; or at least the most suitable final chord, which is usually the best indicator of "key". (When people don't end on the key chord, that's because they want it sound unfinished.)

BTW, none of this makes much difference to how to solo on it! C# minor pent = E major pent. Same notes, same patterns, different labels. Resolve phrases to C# if you want to underline that, or to E if you want to underline that.
- I'm 50 this year (wow- how did that happen) so I guess I fall squarely into the old guy Major camp- although I grew up with 70's hard rock and 80's metal so... think about that, us 50 year olds hit our stride in the 80's hair metal days! HA!
 
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T92780

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I look at it as both, but primarily, as C# minor pent box visually, if not to primarily play off root chord....for right or wrong.
 

Pat Healy

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I've always thought of it as a minor key song because 1. I play the lead line and solo using a C#m pentatonic scale and 2. even though it resolves to the E, the song is characterized by a melancholy, minor feel defined by the way the first phrase of the lead line moves over the C#m chord. IMO that's a more dominant feature of the song than the resolution to E. It could go either way...the OP makes a good case for it being in E major, but this just does not feel like a major key song at all to me.
 

T92780

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8,259
Major is happy, Minor is moody. Thinking major would lose the feel of song IMO. Perhaps those in major camp could record a noodle and share how it works, and or better?
 

JonR

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Minor is moody, yes, but major is not necessarily "happy". Play a major key song slow and it becomes less happy. Play a minor key song fast and it's no longer sad. (Is Hava Nagila sad? Is Rainy Night in Georgia happy?)

You can play this song thinking "major key", and it can sound as sad as you like. The chords don't change. The scale doesn't change. The sound of each note against each chord doesn't change.
What creates the mood (or enhances the mood as you want) is (a) how fast/slow or loud/quiet you play, and (b) which notes you choose to stress against each chord.
E.g., on the major chord, just play the extensions - maj7, 9 or 6 - and you'll get a "sadder" sound than if you play the chord tones. The chord is still "major" - and those extensions are all major intervals! But the mood you create is very different.
Using "C# minor pent" is not sadder than using "E major pent" after all. The notes and patterns are identical. Play C# minor pent over an E chord, and it becomes E major pent. Play E major pent over a C#m chord, it becomes C# minor pent. The chord rules. To not be aware of this effect is to simply not be listening (to have your ears ruled by a theoretical idea and not by the actual sounds).
Given the chord and the scale - and no one's disputing the chords or the scales here - it's the notes you emphasise against the chords that make the difference.

It's true that - if all else is equal - major (chords and keys) will never be as intense, dark or moody as minor. When major gets "sad", it's more nostalgic, wistful or bittersweet than actually depressive or dark. I don't get "depressive and dark" from this song. I don't exactly get "happy" either. I get reflective, I get bittersweet.

As I said before, this song balances the major and the relative minor, throughout. Looking at it objectively, it makes no really definite resolution in either direction. It avoids a clear perfect cadence to either C#m or E. The cadence to E (such as it is) is the moodier plagal cadence (IV-I), rock's favourite cadence. It would have been too crude (and definitely against the mood of the song) to precede the E with a B or B7 at any time. But likewise it never precedes the C#m with a G#, to firmly nail C#m as tonic either.
Lines might begin on C#m, but they never end on C#m; in fact they always end on E (just not very convincingly). (When they end it on E live, you could argue that it gives it an inappropriate sense of "triumph", a sense of firm resolution that the lyric doesn't warrant. But clearly Mayer felt that the sound of the chords mattered more than fidelity to the theme of the song. He felt -for whatever reason - that it needed to end on E and not C#m.)

The very fact that it doesn't resolve - it remains open and ambiguous - is actually what creates the mood of this song. It's not a story with any kind of ending. It's a meditation.
In fact, the lyrics are a lot darker than the mood of the music. There's a definite relaxed sweetness to the music, which is not there in the lyric. The music may communicate nostalgia, rueful regret; it doesn't communicate the bitterness and anger in the lyric. Read the words first, you'd expect some heavy metal torrent of fury!
"I'll make the most of all the sadness,
You'll be a bitch because you can.
You try to hit me just to hurt me
So you leave me feeling dirty
Because you can't understand."

- Come on, we need Metallica to accompany that! :):dude
 
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Bluesful

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JonR - great thoughts as always and an interesting read. I'm curious though - do you like this particular song?
 

Lephty

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Absent a V-I resolution in either E or C#m, to me the real test to determine the key becomes, what chord would you END the song on? IOW, where does it sound the most "resolved?" The studio version fades out over the vamp. But this live version ends squarely on an E:



Not that it really matters--it IS ambiguous.
 

JonR

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15,957
It's not about what I hear, or the multitude of others, but what it is.
"Key" is the sense of an aural tonal centre to a piece of music. It's not the same thing as a "scale", which is essentially just a set of pitches.
The way we hear key is subjective, but usually the music's tonal centre is clear enough for everyone to have the same subjective experience, so there's no dispute.
But there are occasional songs where people's subjective sense of a key centre differs, because the music gives out ambiguous signals, or the sense of key centre changes during the song. In these cases, one's personal experience of listening to music seems to make a difference, prejudicing one's ear this way or that.
Those examples prove that key is subjective! Not an objective fact.
Isn't E the relative major of C#min anyway?
Yes. But E major and C# minor are two different keys. ;)
If the question is about which set of notes this tune uses, then that's objective fact. Easily determined, and we can all agree there!
But if it's about what the tonic, or key centre is (E or C#), then - on this particular song - we can have different views on that, depending on where we hear it come to rest. And we might hear it as both: one or the other at different times.
 




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