Having had to take and largely suffer through 4 years of music
theory in college, it's unavoidable that I think about music
structure and harmony. Sometimes understanding those details
doesn't explain at all why things work or don't, but sometimes...
With this series, I plan on exploring some of my favorite bands,
songs and interesting tidbits going on under the surface that I
believe help make the music what it is. I'll try to keep it
straight forward for people who aren't really into music theory
Radiohead's "How to Disappear
Completely," and polychords
I was thinking about this topic when I made a cover of this
song. I remember the first time I heard "How to
Disappear:" I was on a train going from Boston to NY. I
was into Radiohead, but I didn't love them or anything. This
song made me love them.
It opens up with this
haunting chord played by strings, then guitar
and some synths come in. I'll put a link to the Radiohead
version on youtube below, feel free to play it while you
listen. The specific chord I'm going to talk about plays
through much of the song.
The structure for the open is this repeated pattern- two chords
back and forth (a D major and F sharp minor). That's all
fine, but the magic is the sustained string chord, those first
sounds you hear when the track starts, which is a
polychord. It's actually two different
chords played simultaneously: D major and f sharp major. I
love beautiful, sustained chords.
Polychords can give things really cool effects- etherial,
sparkling, powerful, depending on the chord choice. If you
play an instrument where you can do this (like piano), try it
out. Play an F sharp chord in one hand and a D in another.
The point is that they happen simultaneously.
Listen to another polychord-
one from from American composer Aaron
Copland. You may think you don't know much Copland, but
at least in the U.S. you probably do. If you don't, google
"Fanfare for the Common Man" "And Rodeo" (Beef, it's what's for
dinner). In the open to his piece "Appalachian Spring," he
has a beautiful polychord (link below).
The two chords he chose to make this polychord aren't haunting
like in the Radiohead song, but the sustained polychords impart an
otherwordliness in both examples. It's a pretty modern
Do Bands Think About This Stuff?
My favorite bands usually have pretty interesting music "under
the hood." Other popular bands have amazing performers, or
words like poetry. I wish I was into those things more (maybe
I'd dig Bob Dylan more), but I find myself drawn to the interesting
Sometimes bands with interesting music know the theory behind
what they are doing, and sometimes they don't think about it much
(Radiohead seems to). So, if you make music, experiment with
polychords sometime. Just play some different chords and hear
the complexity. Maybe you'll hear something in there to
inspire your next song.
If you don't write music, but you like to listen with some
insight, maybe this will give you a different type of appreciation
for "How to Disappear Completely."
Let me know if you like this kind of stuff, I could talk about
these things forever. Also, leave your own perspectives in
"How to Disappear
Completely" on youtube:
(youtube has an ad you can skip)
(polychord is at about 0:21)