I’ve listened to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories a lot. I shan’t spout my own opinions on it, but the general consensus is it’s bloody marvellous.
During those myriad listens, the part of my brain devoted to musicology (located somewhere behind my Pre-Frontal Burger King Cortex) picked up on a couple of interesting patterns that I felt required further exploration.
My suspicions were subsequently fuelled whilst watching one of the Collaborators videos with Chilly Gonzales, where he revealed The Robots hired him to compose a section of music that would comfortably flow between two songs in jarring keys.
That’s all well and good, I thought, but if that level of detail was observed for one miniscule passage on the album, then lord knows what else was happening throughout the other 74 minutes.
In all my reading around the album, I haven’t yet found anyone suggesting what I am about to – or indeed, perhaps it is common knowledge and I am oblivious to the blindingly obvious. Anyway, I feel that the album was structured in such a way to give the listener a mathematically-dictated journey; that the entire duration of the piece was designed beforehand as one harmonic build and release of tension.
To my delight I discovered that this seems to hold true rather convincingly. I shall now endeavour to report my findings in as succinct a manner as I can.
In the track ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, our eponymous narrative hero imparts that “once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and music being correct you can do whatever you want”.
Considering the lengths the Daft Punk appear to have gone to in terms of sequencing Random Access Memories, this statement falls a little flat!
I thoroughly recommend sticking the album on with a guitar or piano handy so you can follow this text a little easier. I realise this may all be a tad indulgent for some readers, so I’ve tried to simplify wherever possible. This also means that some of the more sophisticated musical grammaticism has been left aside, so as to reduce the likelihood of boredom-induced haemorrhaging before the conclusion.
TENSION PART 1: Give Life Back To Music, The Game Of Love, Giorgio By Moroder & Within
From the offset ‘Give Life Back To Music’ introduces harmonic themes of interest when dissecting the remainder of the album.
The overriding tonality here is A minor, although strictly we are in the Aeolian mode of C major, A’s relative major. This seems like a minor point, but trust, blud, it’ll be significant later on.
The opening progression also showcases the DESCENDING MOTIF:
Am, G, F Dm
Again, this is worth remembering (both harmonically and melodically) as it appears numerous times throughout the album.
The opening and main progressions also introduce chord bundles that should be noted, as you’re going to be seeing a lot of them:
Dm G C Am
Dm /G C Em
That pretty much sets the tone for a while. As the track fades out, we are greeted by the opening bars of ‘The Game Of Love’. We remain in the A minor/C major Aeolian tonality, with just two chords repeated throughout:
These are, lest we forget, the first two chords of the DESCENDING MOTIF that opened the album. The endless rising and falling of this chord cycle not only cements the key in our head, but serves as a nice metaphor for the tracks that follow (especially the whole major/minor muddle in the middle).
‘The Game Of Love’ ends firmly on A minor, as ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ takes over…in A minor (well, C major Aeolian, innit – which *is* important, I promise).
Now, the main progression of this track increases our movement.
The first block of chords (Am, Em, Am, Em) can be seen as a mirror of the previous track (Am, G, Am, G), with the Em replacing G as its relative minor (also important).
The second part of the progression (F, G, Dm, Em, F, G, Em) is less repetitive, giving the impression that the music wants to travel somewhere new after being stuck in that Am, G/Em rut for so long, like a spring being coiled up and let go. This track firmly demonstrates Daft Punk’s penchant for cyclical chord progressions: from the swirling Am, G/Em, to that last Em that allows us to swing up a perfect cadence back to Am, they could theoretically go round and round forever.
So to the end of this initial block of tracks: ‘Within’ serves the harmonic purpose of seamlessly allowing a modulation to Bb minor – SEMITONE LIFT #1.
Now, this is an interesting key change as A minor and Bb minor are neighbours separated purely by a semitone step, which makes them quite awkward to segue between naturally. In Western Classical composition, the tendency is to modulate via related keys, usually separated by an interval of a 4th or 5th, where only a couple of notes differ between the two scales (*).
However, with a semitone interval between the keys, you end up in a situation whereby you’re left with only a handful of related notes and chords.
So what does Chilly Gonzales do? He identifies a common chord of A minor and Bb minor: F major.
We are no strangers to F major so far on this album, but look how it’s used in the (simplified) opening progression:
Am, C7, F, F7
The dominant 7th chords enable the first hints of chromatacism to appear, foreshadowing the shift to Bb with the top note of the C7 chord, and introducing an Eb in the F7 chord. Of course, both of these sound perfectly natural within the context of all that we’ve heard before.
But then the F7 is held, and used as a pivot chord for SEMITONE LIFT #1 as we move on to:
TENSION PART 2: Within, Instant Crush & Lose Yourself To Dance
Bb minor! We made it! Woo!
Although actually, like the first 3 tracks, we’re actually in an Aeolian Mode, that of Db major, but it’s parading around as Bb minor. In fact, the only sense of true minor tonality we’ve had thus far has just passed with the F7 chord, the A-natural acting as the leading note of the melodic Bb minor scale. But that’s gone now. Forget it.
Now, back in the real world, the remainder of ‘Within’ treats us to the following chord progression:
Bbm Gb Ebm Ab
Yes, it’s very pretty. Memorise it.
It’s time for our first minor/major shift, as Db major stops hiding in the shadows of its relative Bb minor and they trade places, Db major becoming the star as we move on to ‘Instant Crush’.
Harmonically the bulk of ‘Within’ and ‘Instant Crush’ are identical, only now the emphasis is on the major, as opposed to minor tonality.
Take a good look at the verse chords: Gb, Ebm, Bbm, Ab.
However, for some reason, the vocals appear to start halfway through the progression: Bbm, Ab, Gb, Ebm.
Why on Earth?
Well, shift them down a semitone and what do you get? Am, G, F, Dm.
No way! That’s the opening of ‘Give Life Back To Music’! It’s the DESCENDING MOTIF!
But that’s not all. Look at the chorus chords: Bbm Gb Ebm Ab
They’re the same as ‘Within’! Try singing one song on top of the other. We’re five tracks in, and it’s already apparent that this ain’t gonna be no walk in the park. The chorus progression also contains many passing chords, which are explored a little bit later, so be patient.
The vocal melodies of ‘Within’ and ‘Instant Crush’ also seem to mirror the DESCENDING MOTIF, but you’ll have to trust me on that. They go downwards, scalically. That’s all you need to know.
Now, for ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, the exact same trick is pulled. The progression is near identical: Ebm, Gb, Bbm, Ab (note the first two chords are just swapped round), but again we actually begin the track on Bbm, that tonality being further cemented by the fact that the Gb major chord has a sneaky major 7th on top, making it sound more like a Bbm with a Gb bass.
So, in conclusion, we’re in identical territory to ‘Within’ and ‘Instant Crush’. The first part of the album was centred around A minor, there was a semitone lift, and the second part of the album is in Bb minor.
So what next?
Same again please. ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ fades out and we are greeted by…
SEMITONE LIFT #2!
TENSION PART 3: Touch, Get Lucky & Beyond
‘Touch’ seems to be the album’s centrepiece, and indeed we are a step up from Bb minor, now based around B minor (via modes blah blah).
Main progression? Bm D F#m E
I can’t be arsed with suspense any more, so I’ll tell you now, that’s also the chord progression for ‘Get Lucky’.
There’s a lovely bit that plays around with our favourite DESCENDING MOTIF in a fairly similar fashion to this:
Bm (F#) Bdim (F) F#m (F#) F#m7 (E) B (D#)
See how that progression ends on a B major chord? When the sequence restarts we go straight from B major back into B minor. Just like that. You can’t really get a more effecting jolt than that. We shall call this…the MAJOR/MINOR MOTIF. This is another of the album’s harmonic themes.
This jolly little cyclical progression – Bm E C#m F#m – morphs into: D (relative major, already seen) E C#m F#sus4 (slight shift, more focus on the note of B)
And we end with the descending thing again:
Bm (F#) Bdim7 (F) F#m (F#) F#m7 (E) B (D#)
Song centred in B minor, ending on B major. If I were posh, I’d refer to this as a Tierce de Picardie, but I’m not, so I won’t.
So…where to now? I know! Time for another MAJOR/MINOR MOTIF!
Just like the main progression in ‘Touch’ we go from a B major, back to a B minor.
This B minor, however, is the opening chord of ‘Get Lucky’, whose chord progression (Bm D F#m E) we just saw in ‘Touch’, as well as transposed in ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, and pretty much everywhere else…and it’ll be used again, don’t worry, in ‘Doin’ It Right’ mainly.
The bassline here plays around with passing notes, just like I told you about in ‘Instant Crush’. Do you remember? Also worth noting we’re in a slightly different mode here: the overall tonality maybe B minor, but the actual key is a tone down in A major.
So, that was B minor. It’s time for another MAJOR/MINOR MOTIF as ‘Beyond’ starts in B major. There’s a lot of jumping between B major and minor in part three of the album isn’t there? Make up your minds, you dumb robots.
‘Beyond’s opening progression: B C# D E
This is fair enough, using ascending steps to find a middle ground between B minor and B major. Perhaps another metaphor for how the whole album is rising?
Now really, what is that C# major chord doing there? A little out of the blue isn’t it? I mean, yeah, it’s not miles away from that sneaky Bdim7 chord in ‘Touch’, but unless you’re using it to signal a C# major chord coming up later, you shouldn’t have bothered, you dumb robots.
Anyway, the main progression of the song is based around G# minor (our old favourite, the relative minor of B major – one of the record’s themes. Hopefully there’ll be some payoff to all this).
It goes a little bit like this (with some more of those passing notes):
G#m E C#m E F#
Now…for argument’s sake transpose that up a tone:
Bbm Gb Ebm Gb Ab
Well well well, if it isn’t our old friend from ‘Within’. Gosh this is all so exciting. I hope they don’t pull another semitone lift out of the bag, or I might just cack my pants.
RESOLUTION: Motherboard & Fragments Of Time
Bugger me, ‘Motherboard’! It’s SEMITONE LIFT #3! You brilliant robots!
So, we’ve travelled up yet again from G# minor to something that, if I’m not mistaken, is based heavily around A minor. A minor, for the easily distracted among you, was the key the album began in. Could this be indicating that our journey is over, and we’ve come full circle?
The actual key is a tone down in G major, but they’re using one of those pesky modes again (Dorian), in exactly the same way as ‘Get Lucky’. I hope they’re not using that G major to pivot to another key. I’ve only just cleaned my cacky pants.
So, the chord progression? C Am Em D
Were you to transpose that up, you’d arrive at: Gb, Ebm, Bbm, Ab
Surely you recognise that progression by now? Surely?
Now let’s all relax as we move into ‘Fragments Of Time’.
Oh no! They used G major as a pivot chord after all! My pants! (* like this)
And not only that, but there was a payoff to all that relative major/minor nonsense earlier, as we’re now in…C major, the relative of A minor, where Random Access Memories started all that time ago! We’ve definitely come full circle now – from A minor, up, up and up, back to A minor, and finishing triumphantly by modulating to happy –go-lucky C major, so everyone is uplifted at the end of the ride.
Not only that, but there is a lot of emphasis on D minor in the chord progressions of ‘Fragments Of Time’, indicating that we’re in Dorian mode again, like ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Motherboard’ and many more besides. There’s a very clear resolution on C though, so don’t be upset that it might spoil it all.
The chord progression also features another occurrence of a major 7th chord, as in ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, which stops everything being too clean and delicious.
I’m sure by this point you are questioning the legitimacy of my claims. It all fits together nicely, but this whole ‘end of the cycle’ business is a bit far-fetched. Well, let’s take a look at the main chord progression shall we:
Dm /G Cmaj7 Am
Now let’s take a look at the chords from the opening track, ‘Give Life Back To Music’:
Dm G C Am
Ding! You may all bow down to me. I had a hypothesis, and I think you’ll find that’s what we, in the trade, call evidence! The return of those chords seems to indicate very strongly to me that we’ve arrived at an important point, wouldn’t you agree?
So, that’s the end of the build-up of the album (as I see it). We’ve gone from A minor, up to Bb minor, up again to B minor, lifted to B major, and, via a mini-lift from G# minor to A minor, have gone up again to finish at C major.
Surely I can’t be dreaming this? This must have been done on purpose. It’s far too precise.
RELEASE: Doin’ It Right & Contact
So, how to release this tension? Well, by going back down the way we came, I suppose. It’s time for ‘Doin’ It Right’, and boy oh boy are Daft Punk doing it right.
So, we were just in C major? Time enough I think for SEMITONE FALL #1, as we travel back down to B major/G#minor, by way of F# major Dorian (you again?)
Now, do you recall at the start of ‘Beyond’ I made a hoo-hah about that rogue C# chord, and how it better not be there unless it was making an appearance later?
Well take a look at the chord progression: G#m B D#m C# B
There it is! Welcome to the party, C# major. Not only that, but the progression is full of passing chords, like all those other songs before. And not only that, but if you transpose it, it’s the same progression at ‘Touch’ and ‘Get Lucky’, and all the other tracks I’ve been banging on about.
It’s time for the end of the album, so you’d think things would be winding down and simplifying now. But no. Take a step back. Do you notice anything?
Our prominent tonality is G# minor. Two tracks ago, ‘Motherboard’ was based around A minor. Not only does this mark SEMITONE FALL #2, but this also means that far from using a single chord to pivot into a different key, they’ve used a WHOLE BLOODY SONG.
‘Fragments Of Time’, placed in the middle of ‘Motherboard’ and ‘Doin’ It Right’, has allowed this downward semitone step to take place. They’ve gone down by going up via a different song!
Really, everything up until now has been quite simple in terms of moving up and down, but this particular modulation is utterly masterful. That’s why Daft Punk are geniuses. No way in hell can they manage anything smarter than that.
And so to the closing track, ‘Contact’.
Uh oh. They’ve managed something smarter than that.
The opening progression, or a variation thereof: G Em Asus4 A
The main progression: Bm G D A
Here comes the double-whammy. Like a magician with a big-flourish reveal, Daft Punk pull-off not one, but TWO modulations at the same time.
Look at the emphasis on A major at the end of the phrases. The album started in A minor, so they’ve done another MAJOR/MINOR MOTIF. But look…B minor. The track is centred around, and ends on B minor. Wasn’t the previous track based around B major? In fact, wasn’t the last chord a B major?
They’ve done it! A final fall with a MAJOR/MINOR MOTIF! Two in the same song! The crowd goes wild!
And listen to the bassline in the intro. There’s another instance of the DESCENDING MOTIF. You know, like the vocal melodies on ‘Instant Crush’ and ‘Within’, or hell, even the bassline on ‘Around The World’, or those bits on the Tron soundtrack which seemingly copied that very bassline. And doesn’t it sound like a continuation of ‘Giorgio By Moroder’? It’s all come together. Daft Punk have come along, kicked us all in the bollocks and stolen our wives without us even realising.
I have a feeling there’s a heck of a lot more to talk about with this album, and I likely will in future blog posts. I doubt I’ve even scraped the surface, and I’ve probably missed loads. Also I’m probably wrong.
In the end, our French friends cite prog epics such as Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ as inspiration, and, well boys, you got your masterpiece. Touché.
Either that, or they could only come up with 3 ideas and had to make them stretch across an entire album somehow, and this whole thing is all one big coincidence.