- Today I’m going to show you how to turn the chords for Hallelujah into an elegant arpeggio accompaniment.
- Before we do that, however, I’d like to take a look at the harmonic structure (chords) of this song. What I love about Hallelujah is how the chords reflect the meaning of the words, particularly in the first verse. I’ll explain this in a minute.
- First of all I want to talk about the key. Cohen chose the key C major which is one of the most common keys used in western music. There are no sharps of flats making C the 1st key in the circle of 5ths. C major is the key from which all others spring. It’s the biblical equivalent of “in the beginning was the word.” In other words “in the beginning was C major.”
- The first chord you played on the ukulele was most probably the C chord (0 0 0 3).
- In the opening four bars the chords move back and forth between C major and A minor. In other words major – minor – major – minor. The A minor chord is in fact the relative minor of C major. If we consider C as the I chord then A minor is the vi (lower case Roman numerals indicate a minor) chord. The notes that make up these two chords are very similar. The C chord contains the notes C E G, while A minor has the notes A C E. Both chords share the notes C and E. While there is only one different note in each chord the emotional effect is huge. Why?
- Well, the best thing to do is grab your ukuleles and play the chords so you can hear the difference.
- Slowly play the notes of the C major chord. Listen to the overall sound and note how bright and happy that C major chord sounds. C = light.
- Now play the A minor. The minor chord sounds sad and melancholy. Am = dark.
- Moving from C to A minor, C to A minor creates an emotional rollercoaster – happy, sad, happy, sad. It is very Yin and Yang in the juxtaposition of opposing yet complimentary forces.
- This is very interesting when we think about the opening lyrics: “I heard there was a sacred chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” David is best known for slaying the giant Goliath but he was also a musician so the ‘sacred chord’ is a biblical reference. But which chord is the sacred chord? Is Cohen implying it is the major chord or is it the minor? In other words is the sacred chord happy or sad?
- The effect is quite unsettling. If those two chords were angels would the Lord be pleased with the happy C major angel, or the sad A minor angel? I don’t want to get into a theological discussion but it is thought provoking. If C major represents a good angel like Gabriel then A minor could represent the fallen angel Satan. Choosing your sacred chord is a test of faith and one that seems particularly poignant in these difficult times. Is God pleased by the plaintive chord of our human suffering? Or will good prevail? As well as projecting his own religious doubts Cohen seems to be leaving it for us (the listeners) to decide. Either way both the lyrics and the happy-sad-happy-sad harmony give us pause for thought. Do I believe in god is good, or cruel?
- In my CV reading the song unfolds as a search for hope and light.
- Moving on to the next line the lyrics are slightly dismissive as the narrator chides the listener. It doesn’t matter anyway because “you don’t really care for music, do you?” Which implies a lack of faith.
- The accompanying chords are F major, G7 and then C – these are very familiar chords when playing in the key of C major. C is the I chord. F is the IV chord. G, or G7 in this case, is the V chord. So, bar 6 is the IV chord (F), bar 7 is the V chord (G7) and bar 8 is the I chord, or C major. The progression is both familiar and comforting in its predicability. Cohen is conforming to the I, IV, V chord progression which is the harmonic foundation of Western music. It’s interesting that he choses these chords. They are all major and consequently positive.
- Or is he suggesting that we are inevitably controlled by cosmic forces so it doesn’t matter what we think or do?
- The G7 in bar 9 acts as bridge into the next phrase and now Cohen does something very simple but quite sublime. Even though he has just indicated that the listener doesn’t care for music he is, like a patient and benevolent god, determined to explain to the unbelievers why we should care and be responsible for our actions: “well it goes like this…”
- If you listen very carefully to the relationship between the music and the lyrics you will hear how they are inextricably linked. Let me explain.
- Firstly let’s look at the lyrics for bars 11, 12 and 13: “The 4th, the 5th, the minor fall and the major lift.” Now let’s look at the chordal response.
- The 4th is F major. The 5th is the G7. Note that this is the only time in the song there is a chord change mid bar (b.11). Then in bar 12 we have the minor fall to A minor. And what a loaded word fall is suggesting both the fallen angel Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve.
- But immediately our spirits receive the “major lift” as we move to an F major chord. It’s simple but so effective to use the chords to emotionally paint the lyrics and tease the listener! I love it!
- In bar 14 “the baffled king,” perhaps another reference to David, is accompanied by an edgy G7.
- Then in bar 15 something unexpected happens in the harmony. The lyric for this bar contains the single three syllable word “composing.” The accompanying chord is the surprise because it’s an E7 and this is an unusual chord to use in a song in C major. Remember earlier I said that C major has no sharps or flats. But the E7 chord contains a G# and this is a note that doesn’t belong in the key of C major.
- The G# is a dissonance.
- What works so nicely on the ukulele is that from bar 12 to 14 the 4th string notes move from an open G (bar 12), to a G# (bar 13) and then to an A (bar 14). So we have this little chromatic movement of G, G#, A which gives a sense of rising and thus increases the harmonic and emotional tension.
- Meanwhile, the melodic notes crescendo as they rise in steps from C to D and then up to the highest note of the song – an E. The high E is repeated 3 times for emphasis before the melody descends.
- When I get to the E7 bar (15) I feel Cohen is making a statement using this unexpected chord. It fits but it also jars and effectively makes us sit up. There is a sense of anticipation. What is coming next? What is the baffled king composing? The word composing is also interesting as it is a word normally associated with classical music, rather than pop music.
- Turns out the “baffled king” is composing Hallelujah. This occurs in bar 16 and is accompanied by that melancholy A minor chord.
- Something strange is going here: Hallelujah is an expression of praise or rejoicing so the minor chord is odd. It suggests this is a plaintive hallelujah. Not a cry of joy but a cry of yearning. Locked down in the the time of the coronavirus I really feel a sense of anguish when I get to the chorus. Of course, Cohen didn’t foresee the crows of horror and uncertainty that circles us but it is a poignant moment.
- A C major chord would have been joyful and uplifting providing the much needed hope that we are all looking for. But, wait for it….
- Just as the song reaches this emotional climax everything suddenly stops. No melody. No accompaniment. Just the first beat of bar 17 and then two beats of silence. It’s only two quaver beats but the interruption is breath taking. Are we about to plunge over a cliff edge? It’s a moment of pure song writing genius.
- Silence is a device used by great composers such as Beethoven and it really jolts the listener. We almost feel cheated by the sudden interruption in the flow of music.
- So here we are teetering on the edge of an abyss. What follows the eerie two beat silence is both a relief and an exorcism. The chorus begins in the second part of bar 17 with the word hallelujah repeated four times. Once again the chords move from minor and major. Note the subtle shift from minor to major rather major to minor as at the beginning of the song. This time the chords are A minor to F major.
- It marks a turn-around. The mood is not happy – sad – happy – sad but sad – happy – sad – happy. The chord sequence acknowledges our despair but offers hope.
- Once again the notes of these two chords are very similar but their sound and emotional impact is markedly different. The notes are A C E for A minor and F A C for F major. Both chords share the notes A and C. What seems like a subtle difference – just one note, one semitone – makes a huge different. Together we move one step at a time towards hope and towards the light. What an effect!
- The similarities between A minor and F major are easily recognised in the chord shapes. Moving from A minor (2 0 0 0) to F major (2 0 1 0) the player only needs to add the 1st finger.
- Try playing these chords and as you move between them really, really listen the sound colours.
- Okay. This is just my reading of the first verse and the harmonic structure of the Hallelujah in the the time of coronavirus. I know we all hear this song a lot but still I love it and playing it exorcises my own anguish and search for hope.
The Arpeggio Pattern
- The arpeggio pattern is explained in the video but for those of you who like to have some visual aids here’s what I do.
- When I am working out an arpeggio pattern I firstly determine the rhythm of the piece/song and then decide how many notes I am going to play per bar. Hallelujah is in 6/8, or 6 quavers (eighth notes) per bar. So, the pattern I suggest is a six note pattern.
- In the video I explain why although there are six notes in the pattern they should be felt as two groups of three notes. The pulse is two (see the numbers in bold below). This creates a lilt and avoids the sewing machine effect created by playing every note with the same intensity.
- 1 2 3 4 5 6
- 1 2
- The picking pattern is p i m a m a starting on the 4th string: 4 3 2 1 2 3
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