Just in case you’ve not heard it before or need a reminder:
This track has been mixed by Australian dance trio PNAU. This new mash-up incorporates elements of four classic Elton John tracks, including Sacrifice (1989), Rocket Man (1972), Kiss the Bride (1983) and Where’s the Shoorah? (1976) – four contrasting themes superimposed on one four-chord loop.
I find these chords interesting. Repeating from the beginning to the end of the track are Bbm7, Ebm7, Gb and Fm7 – three rich minor sevenths and a plain vanilla major triad. So what’s interesting about them?
Well, the chord sequence itself is not so unusual, even though the key of Bb minor may be unfamiliar to many musicians, particularly guitarists – only keyboard players use keys like this. All keys are pretty well equal on a piano (Elton John’s instrument), whereas on a guitar you’d normally choose something easier to play. Drop down a semitone and you have Am7 Dm7 F and Em7.
Whether you play this song in Bb minor or A minor, it’s obviously still minor – and that means a more melancholy feel. My guess is that in the last 50 years at least 90% of all pop songs have been in major keys but their minor sibling has recently experienced a massive revival. In February, I analysed the top 20 tracks in the Apple Music Global Top 100. Twelve of these were in minor keys.
The most common use of minor keys is in dance music-influenced tracks like Cold Heart. And in many cases, they use the rich extended chords we see here. While minor seventh and major seventh chords (along with 9ths, 11ths and 13ths) have been used extensively in jazz, and some classical music, I mostly associate them with RnB. For me, the one musician who really brought cool, sophisticated RnB to the public’s attention was Stevie Wonder – of course, you may have other ideas. Anyway, cool and sophisticated is definitely how the Cold Heart chord progression sounds …
What is also interesting to me is how this Bb minor loop sits behind a selection of Elton John songs that were most definitely major! Let’s take an example of the first verse of Sacrifice, which also starts Cold Heart:
It‘s a human sign, when things go wrong
When the scent of her lingers and temptations strong
The original chords were Db Gb Ebm Ab whereas in the new version the chords become Bbm7 Ebm7 Gb Fm7. This shift into a minor key actually works really well and where the melody interacts with the new chords it creates some really nice dissonances.
Then there’s the Rocket Man extract:
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me round again to find
The original achieves this with the chords Db Db Gb Gb (I’ve transposed this from the original to fit with the new version); whereas, the minor loop is going Bbm7 Ebm7 Gb Fm7, as before. Note how the two actually coincide on the third chord, Gb. However, most people would find the final Fm7 almost completely incompatible with the original melody – it’s really dissonant and creates a palpable tension. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just unusual.
Elton John’s original songs use major keys, classic harmonies and traditional song structures. Cold Heart imposes a minor key and a loop-based structure that takes the melodies into places for which they were never intended. I don’t know how deliberate this process was musically but it works and, in the end, that’s all that matters.