Neil Young's Cortez - Key question

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by daacrusher2001, Sep 29, 2008.

  1. daacrusher2001

    daacrusher2001 Silver Supporting Member

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    Hi, not sure if this is the right place to ask this, but it seemed appropriate...

    I'm not a theory expert, and I've been playing around with Neil Young's Cortez and have a naive question around the key of this song. It seems to be in E, but I'm not sure I fully understand how the progression fits this key (Em, D, Am7).

    Do any of you play this song, and if so, would you be willing to explain why this is in the key of E?

    Also, from a soloing point of view, it seems like it's mostly in Em. Other scales that might work here?

    Thanks, and if this is the wrong place for this question, let me know...
     
  2. haslar

    haslar Member

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    The chords are Em7 D Am7 C9.
    The key is indeed Em.
    I'm not a theory expert, but I know that defining the key of a tune is not a straightforward task.
    But in this cas:
    - The song starts with Em
    - There is no modulation, and the Em scale is used throughout
    - all the chords used use Em scale notes.
     
  3. JonR

    JonR Member

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    I agree, E minor (natural, or E aeolian, to be precise) covers the whole thing.

    I don't want to start a Sweet Home Alabama-style dispute over this :eek::crazy:rolleyes: - but it would be possible to hear the centre as Am (A dorian), seeing as that chords lasts twice as long as the others, and comes at the end of the cycle. But I still hear the gravitational centre as E.

    IOW, the answer to the OP is the key is what SOUNDS like the key. Chords can point various ways theoretically, but what feels like the most comfortable tonal centre of the song? What chord would you end it on? (The album version fades, but Young certainly ends it on a huge Em chord live. No doubt there...)

    The chords last long enough for other modes to be worth trying on each chord - eg E dorian/D major over the Em and D. Maybe A minor/E phrygian on the Am and Em.
    But I would stick with E aeolian overall, going for interesting chord extensions to add variety and intensity. Eg, 9ths are great on all the chords; 11ths on the minors (and a sus4 maybe on the D).
    It's not a tune where I'd want to disrupt the mood with chromaticism, or even blues scale; but that's just me ;) .

    (Where's the C9, btw? I don't hear one.)
     
  4. daacrusher2001

    daacrusher2001 Silver Supporting Member

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    Thanks...Em seems to fit. I can hear it, but I was curious about the theory behind the progression. Again, not being a theory expert, I'm not sure I can explain the progression.

    I also don't hear the C9, not sure where it comes in.

    BTW - the Warren Haynes/DMB version of this song, especially from the Central Park show, is really good. I have a recording of the Dead playing this, also with Warren Haynes...it's good, but not as good as the DMB version.
     
  5. JonR

    JonR Member

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    i-VII-iv (in aeolian) if you want roman numerals (chord function).
    Still doesn't really "explain" it, just describes it - which is all that theory generally does.;)

    An explanation of why it sounds the way it does (Em being "home") would be to do with our familiarity with the natural minor scale and key.
    The other possible option (A dorian) is a little less familiar (at least in a rock context), and in a minor key or mode, a major chord is more likely (IMO) to be heard as a bVII than a IV. So the D has (to my ears anyway) a plainer relationship with the Em than with the Am.
    It sounds more like D and Am are supporting the Em, than Em and D supporting the Am.

    But these things are not fixed in stone. It all depends on how you listen (and what you are used to hearing, the music you've heard before). You then use theory to give names to what you're hearing, that's all.
    Terminology doesn't explain anything, but at least it makes us feel as if we understand a little better! ;)
     
  6. jkaz

    jkaz Member

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    I'd also give the version by Built to Spill a listen off of their live record. Its quite excellent.
     
  7. ToneChestnut

    ToneChestnut Member

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    Keep in mind that Neil probably couldn't answer your question and doesn't give thought to stuff like that. He plays what he feels. Yes, I know you can understand theory and play with feeling, too, but talking about Neil Young tunes in music theory terms feels almost like ethnomusicology or something.
     
  8. daacrusher2001

    daacrusher2001 Silver Supporting Member

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    I'm not trying to overthink it...just trying to expand my knowledge. It never hurts to know a little more about music, even if it's just theory.

    A friend of mine often says, "the theory doesn't help you play better". Maybe he's right.

    I know that if I met Neil Young, this wouldn't be something I'd ask him...although he probably could explain it.
     
  9. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    I'm not disputing your comment, but how is it that one of the greatest songwriters in rock history does not know the things that we know?
     
  10. 57tele

    57tele Member

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    Because knowing what 'we' know doesn't bear the slightest relationship to being able to write a great song.
     
  11. kimock

    kimock Member

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    It's just G D C having a kind of bad day. . .
     
  12. mc5nrg

    mc5nrg Supporting Member

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    Relative minor of G is Em

    Chords in G
    G Am Bm C D Em Gbdim G

    So in Em
    Em Gbdim G Am Bm C D often in common chord changes the Bm is played as a major, like in a lot of minor blues changes


    Another example of this relationship:
    The basic chords built by stacking thirds of a C major scale:

    C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
    I ii iii IV V vi viidim
    relative minor of C is Am same notes stacked from A

    Am Bdim C D Em F G

    how many common tunes can you come up with with combinations of these chords?
     
  13. daacrusher2001

    daacrusher2001 Silver Supporting Member

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    mc5...thanks, I realized some of this after looking at it for awhile. The D is an interesting choice, and is really what got me thinking about it...
     
  14. daacrusher2001

    daacrusher2001 Silver Supporting Member

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    doesn't get much better than Warren and Dave jamming to this tune
     
  15. jpfeiff

    jpfeiff Member

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    Unless, of course, you got Neil jamming to this tune:AOK
     
  16. jerseydrew

    jerseydrew Member

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    I just thought I'd add my 2 cents and say that Cortez the Killer is probably my favorite Neil Young song!!!
     
  17. JonR

    JonR Member

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    Not just me, then!
    (He doesn't use blues scale much, so I'm not sure if you're using this as an example of "blues scale works well" or "blues scale not good idea")

    I like the way he focusses on chord tones, and holds back from easy lick cliche stuff... mostly anyhow. (The song is too long for him to be able to resist the whole way, but that would be too much to expect of anyone holding a Les Paul and wearing that kind of hairstyle... not to mention in front of that kind of audience, and having a chord sequence so empty that it's practically begging for it... His restraint and self-control is admirable, in the circumstances. ;) )
     
  18. JonR

    JonR Member

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    He knows more important things than we know.
    And he probably knows the theory well enough, in his head. He just might not know all the jargon some people on here do.
    He knows how to get the sounds he wants. That's all any songwrter needs. He doesn't need to know what they're all called in books.
     
  19. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    What are they? Now, we're getting to the good stuff!
     
  20. Jim Jones

    Jim Jones Member

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    Mine, too! I could listen to Neil jam on "Cortez..." all day.

    Jim
     

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