The Minor 4 Chord as Illustrated by Radiohead and Elvis Costello (and MXPX)

I love when songwriters throw in a chord that doesn’t technically fit the key. These chords add color, personality, and can alter the vibe of the song. Previously covered examples of this include the Flat 7 chord in a major key often used by Green Day and  the Flat 2 chord as used by the Foo Fighters and the Misfits.

Probably the most popular outside-of-the-key chord is the Minor 4 chord used in a major key.  In a major key, such as G major (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G), the chord built on the fourth note is a major chord – C major (C-E-G). To make the Minor 4 chord, we turn the C major into a C minor chord by using E♭ instead of E natural. Importantly, E♭ is NOT in the key of G major. However, when used the right way, C minor used in G major can sound awesome! But – it’s all in how you use it.

Radiohead Using the Minor 4 Chord as a Song’s Cornerstone

Radiohead uses the Minor 4 chord all the time and their first hit U.S. hit, “Creep,” shows a classic chord progression using the Minor 4 Chord: G-B-C-C minor (or I – III – IV- iv).

Here, Radiohead uses the same chord progression throughout the entire song, including for both the verse and chorus and the chord progression moves rather slowly. Let’s look at the verse and the chorus:

                                          G                                            B

When you were here before, couldn’t look you in the eyes

B (continued)                           C                                           C-

You look like an angel, your skin makes me cry

C- (cont.)            G                                 B

You float like a feather, in a beautiful weather

B (cont.)           C                                            C-

I wish I was special; you’re so fucking special

C- (cont.)  G                  B

But I’m a creep I’m a weirdo

B (cont.)                             C                    C-

What the hell am I doin’ here I don’t belong here

There are few things to note here. First, the Minor 4 chord features the note E♭. It also implies B♭ as the 7th of that chord. B♭ is the flat 3 in the key of G. Using a B♭ in the key of G will sound bluesy and dark. Here, Thom Yorke uses the powerful B♭ in his melody, but actually waits to use it until the end of the last line of both the verse and the chorus. Notice how strong that note sounds on the words “special” and the “long” in “I don’t beLONG here.”

There is another chord in this progression that is outside of the key: B major. This is the Major 3 chord. I am not going to cover it here though, because while present, in my opinion, this chord does not have nearly the effect the Minor 4 chord has in this song.

Next, songwriters typically do not use the same chord progression for both the verse and chorus; but, there are other ways to differentiate between sections. Here, Radiohead uses volume, guitar tone, lyrical tone change, and vocal approach to make the contrast. Lastly, I never thought about these lyrics too much, but while I was formatting them, I actually thought to myself, “those are some creepy things to say about someone.” That’s smart songwriting.

Our next example comes from MXPX. “Set the Record Straight” is from their 1998 album, Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo. Honestly, I don’t think this is a great song, but the verse is one of the most obvious and classic uses of the Minor 4 chord, so it makes another good illustration of the progression.

This song uses almost the exact some chord progression as “Creep,” but in the key of A major. The verse goes A – C# minor – D – D minor (or I – iii – IV – iv). Here, the D minor is the Minor 4 chord. Notice how the Minor 4 chord comes after the Major 4 chord, as in “Creep” as well. There are other ways to use the Minor 4 chord, but hearing it directly after the Major 4 chord is, without a doubt, the most common way you’ll hear it in pop music.

Elvis Costello Using the Minor 4 as a Spice

While the above examples showed the use of this chord as a cornerstone of the song, this chord is typically used more often as just a spice – used one time to change things up or give momentum into another section of a song. This is what Elvis Costello does in “No Dancing” from his classic 1977 debut, My Aim is True.” Listen to the song without looking at the chords and see if you can identify the Minor 4 chord.

Here are the chords to the verse: 

D                                                       A

Oh, I know that she has made a fool of him

D                                                            A

Like girls have done so many nights before, time and time again.

D                                                        A                    D                                  Gm

Life is so strange.  I don’t know why, but somebody, somebody has to cry.

D                         A        G                              D

There’s gonna be no dancing when they get home.

The G Minor chord is the Minor 4, here in the key of D. Notice how Elvis (yes, we’re on a first name basis) uses it to give momentum into the chorus.

Now that you know the Minor 4 chord, use it wisely. It is a strong and useful chord, but can be very heavy-handed when used incorrectly.






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  1. schnitzi April 17, 2015

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