We Used to Know Changes

Jethro Tull has a long, deep catalog. The Early album “Stand Up” has a track called “We Used to Know” that has very unusual changes. These changes were picked up by The Eagles and used as the basis for “Hotel California.” What gives them their unique sound?

The main difference between the changes in the two songs is the Key. I’m going to look at the version used on the earlier tune, which starts with an E minor. Here are the changes as found posted online:

Em | B | D | A | C | G | F# F#7 | B

Here’s how that sounds.

Lets start by looking at the Root notes. With the C natural and F# Minor, the root notes all fall into the G Major scale, or its relative minor, E minor.

The chords are played as pairs per line, with the main transition being that of a fourth.

  • From E to B is a Fourth down (or a Fifth up).
  • From D to A is a Fourth Down.
  • From C to G is a Fourth Down. From F# to B is a Fourth Up.

This is common. The transition between lines, on the other hand, is minor thirds or smaller

  • From B to D is a Minor Third Up
  • From A to C is Minor Third Up
  • From G to F# is a half Step Down.

What is clear is that this is not in any one key. There is no Key that has both the notes of E minor (E G B) and B (B D# F#). There is a sequence in which sharps are added to a scale as we traverse around the Cycle of fifths: F# C# G# D# A#. Thus the G natural of the E chord means it cannot be in the same scale as one that has a D#.

The B and the D cannot be in the same scale for similar reasons.

A and C cannot be in the same scale as the A has a C#.

G and F# cannot be in the same scale.

So what is going on here? Borrowing. Lets look at the pattern of chords in a Major scale. Ignoring the Key, the major scall has the following pattern of chords, with capital for major chords and lowercase for minor chords.

I ii iii IV V vi viiø

and if we look at the relative minor (Aeolean mode) we get:

i iiø III iv v VI VII

In the Key of A minor (easiest with no accidentals) the order of chords is:

  • A minor
  • B (half) diminished
  • C Major
  • D minor
  • E minor
  • F Major
  • G Major

Another way to look at it is that there are 3 major chords a fourth apart, and 3 minor chords a fourth apart, plus a diminished chord.

C is down a fourth from F and up a forth from G

A is up a fourth from E and down a fourth from D

What would this progression look like if we constrained it to the Eminor/G major set of notes? The chords there are:

  • E minor
  • F# (half) diminished
  • G Major
  • A minor
  • B minor
  • C Major
  • D Major

And thus the progression would look like this:

Em | Bm | D | Am | C | G | F#ø | Bm

Here’s how that sounds:

Very similar to the sound from “We Used to Know.” but more regular. This progression is used so much that our ears expect to hear it.

So the different in the two progressions (thus far) is due to changing the third of two chords, The B and the A, and converting the F# diminished to an F# Major (a difference of two notes). These can be viewed as borrowing from the relative majors of each of the respective minor chords: B Minor Borrows the D# from the B major scale.

It is this sound I wrote about before all over again. And analyzed according to the harmonic series, too.

How did they come up with this progress? Simple, they play guitars, and it is dead easy to play a this progression on a Guitar with Barre chords: Each measure is one position, with the first chord being the inversion that you play on the higher pitched strings; e.g. Major Barre Chord #2 in that diagram. The second chord is played on the lower pitched strings; e.g. Major Barre Chord number one. Switching from Major to minor is then the difference of one note, and one finger.

Even the last measure: The F# to the B minor is in the same position, just the order of the inversions is reversed.

It is also much much easier to play the F# major chord than it is to learn a new finger position to play the half diminished chord. You can get a really similar sound by playing that F# with a Dominant 7th….but that is a tale for another blog post.

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