Pop Harmony Master Class

May 19, 2016

Sophisticated and unconventional harmonies have infiltrated the pop/rock genre for decades. Perhaps most famously explored in the ’70s with the soft rock (or “yacht rock”) genre, many listeners gravitate toward Steely Dan or Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers for hip jazz chords embedded within pop song structures. Two artists who also use an advanced harmonic language almost specific to their individual songwriting styles are Todd Rundgren and James Taylor. It’s interesting to note that both musicians are first and foremost guitar players; Rundgren in a more “rock guitar” context, and Taylor with his signature fingerpicking style. But both Rundgren and Taylor also write at the piano, and their piano songs exhibit specific patterns and chordal cadences. When studying each of their vast song catalogs, you’ll start to notice common go-to progressions that put their sonic stamps on their piano-driven songs. Let’s dig into their signature styles with a few exercises below.

1. The Rundgren Pivot

Ex. 1 is an example of what I call the Pivot. We see lots of sus4/third/sus2 triadic movement, plus changing of the bass note to alter the harmony. The fourth chord in bar 3 is a Todd chord for sure, with its signature “crunch” up top.

2. Todd and the King

One thing that Rundgren and Taylor share is the influence of famed songwriter Carole King’s piano writing style. Ex. 2 is a good example of this. Don’t be afraid of an occasional major seventh, as seen in the first chord of bar 2. Also note the preponderance of sus chords with resolutions like the first Ab/Bb in bar 1 and the F/G in bar 3. Another true Toddism is the final resolution, not just to a straight major I chord, but a V/I chord with bonus ii/I after it.

3. Todd’s Harmonic Surprise

Ex. 3 begins with the V/I chord and resolves to the I. We also see pivoting chords again. Note that the third and fourth bars provide interesting surprise resolutions. Rundgren’s music often contains harmonic moments like this that keep the listener intrigued and tuned in.

4. The Gospel According to James

Ex. 4 illustrates Taylor’s affinity for walking ascending or descending bass notes with gospel-type chords, and diminished chords and resolutions. Note the V/I chord (the second chord in bar 2, and the second chord bar 3). Taylor’s cadences are rarely simple ii/V/I progressions, and usually involve polychords.

5. Revealing Resolutions

Ex. 5 shows how Taylor often stays away from typical ii/V/I progressions, utilizing sus chords and the V/I chord as a target resolution instead. (This can also be seen in some of Rundgren’s examples.)

6. Walking Man Walks

Ex. 6 shows how Taylor descends with a bass line. Try making up your own walking bass lines and finding different flavors of chords to fill out the harmony. Sing a melody that can function as a thread over the top of your harmonic progression, and you’ll be surprised what comes out. Remember, neither Rundgren nor Taylor shies away from using major seventh or suspended chords. So explore all of the possibilities available to you.

Practice Tip

“As a certified Rundgren fanatic, I have always been fond of certain signature ‘Todd chords.’ Even bands like the New Radicals have borrowed from his unique harmonic language. And playing with James Taylor for years has trained my brain to grow accustomed to his unique chord types and progressions,” says Jeff Babko, best known for his spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (You may have also heard him tickling the ivories in the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg movie Daddy’s Home.) Babko’s latest release, Crow Nuts, featuring David Bowie-bassist Tim Lefebvre, is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.

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