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[2020-08-05] In Theory: Radiohead Thom Yorke - THUMB

In Theory: “Just” by Radiohead

08/05/2020 10:00 AM

by Jarred McAdams

There’s a tendency to think of music theory as a set of rules for creating good music -- follow those rules for your music to be “correct,” but break that and your music that sounds “bad.” But that's a fallacy; music theory doesn’t govern music – music theory describes music. It’s just a shared vocabulary for discussing how a certain effect was achieved and how it can be reproduced.

Radiohead’s “Just” seems to go out of its way to break a lot of the conventional rules of music theory. The chords don’t seem to come from any particular key; the melodies don’t conform to conventional scales and modes. On closer inspection, however, there are thematic connections tying everything together, and music theory does indeed give us the language to talk about them.

The song hovers around a key center of C Major, but there are so many notes and chords that don’t belong to that key that it can be misleading. This is an opportunity to use your ears and trust your intuitive sense of which chord feels like a resting place; there are sound theoretical reasons for deciding that we are in the key of C Major, but nothing carries more weight than the fact that our ears tell us that this chord is “home.”

One of the principal contributors to the off-kilter sound of this song is the relentlessly ascending octave motif; it’s established early on and used repeatedly throughout. By the end, the octaves are allowed to climb further and further upward, never landing on stable ground. This effect is achieved in part by the use of the octatonic scale (so called because it has eight notes instead of the usual seven). In this scale, you go up a whole-step, then up a half-step, then another whole, and another half, and so on. Since the scale is entirely symmetrical, there’s no clear sense of any note being the main note; all notes are equal, so no note feels like a point of arrival.

So we’ll have to look elsewhere to corroborate our sense of the song’s key. The only real key-defining progression we have in the song is F-C. Nearly everything else is derived through some kind of chromatic alteration or modal mixture.

The four chords that begin the song definitely have an odd ring to them, and don’t make a lot of harmonic sense at first. We start off with a C Major chord but are immediately thrown off with an Eb Major chord (borrowed from C minor). This moves down to a D, leaps up again to an F, and then moves back to C where we started – all Major chords. Here we essentially have the same pattern repeated twice: Up a minor third, then down a half-step, and then up a third again. Putting these four chords in scale order gives C-D-Eb-F – and as luck would have it, this is a subset of the octatonic scale featured so prominently in the lead guitar over this progression.

The verses start off with an A minor but immediately move to Ab Major (pivoting on a common tone of C). Once this transition is made, we again see a number of chords borrowed from the parallel minor (Ab, Eb, Bb), until the third phrase when the descending parallel Major chords drive us down to the key defining chord of F Major, foreshadowing the F#-F movement that will dominate the chorus.

The repeated C-F#-F sequence in the choruses can be parsed in a number of different ways, but perhaps the most obvious is to think of it in terms of the jazz theory concept of a tritone substitution. The basic premise of a tritone substitution is that chromatic harmonic motion can be enhanced by replacing a chord with the chord built on the note a tritone away from it (a tritone is another name for an augmented 4th). This concept is used here to strengthen the already strong pull from C Major to F Major.

That’s a lot of vocabulary for a four-minute song. Did Thom Yorke have all this in mind when he wrote the song? I doubt he did. I think he was probably using his ears to tell him what sounded the way he wanted it to sound, and that’s what I recommend to all of you as well. Learning how to talk about music articulately and concisely is useful, but listening carefully to the music and reaching your own conclusions about why and how it does what it does is a much more valuable skill.

Jarred McAdams joined the Rocksmith team in 2011. He studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and holds a Masters degree in Composition from Mills College. Jarred has served as a composer, performer, writer, and video producer for a wide variety of artistic and commercial projects and has worked on a number of music game franchises since 2008.

"Radiohead" by Daniele Dalledonne is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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