Notes On… A Rose for Emily Pt. 1
I’ve loved this song for a long time, and I keep discovering new things to love about it. It’s very spare in terms of form and arrangement, and even deceptively simple harmonically, but it still sounds beautifully complex without sacrificing melodicism. The song contains several ambiguities, the overall key center chief among them. There is a feeling of seamlessly drifting between several key centers, not favoring any for more than a few measures at a time. I’ve analyzed the verse below in both D major and A major side by side. I’m inclined to say it begins in D (albeit unusually, not on the tonic chord) before taking a detour into A, which is a closely-related key.
Chords: |G |D |G#°7 |A | D major: |IV |I |vii°7/V |V | A major: |bVII |IV |vii°7 |I | Bass: |G |D |F |E |
Chords: |G#°7 |A |Bm |Bm E | D major: |vii°7/V |V |vi | V/V | A major: |vii°7 |I |ii | V | Bass: |D |C# |B |E |
Now, to really understand what makes this verse tick, you have to understand diminished 7th chords, which are symbolized by a root note followed by either “dim7″ or “°7.” A diminished 7th chord has the chord formula 1 b3 b5 bb7 — in other words, it’s made from the root, flatted third, flatted fifth, and doubly-flatted seventh of a scale, so a C°7 chord would be spelled C Eb Gb Bbb. (Note that B double flat is enharmonically equivalent with A natural, but technically only the former is the correct choice for spelling this chord. I’ll be back to enharmonic equivalence in a moment.) The fascinating thing about this chord structure is that all of the intervals in the chord are minor thirds, so all of the notes in the chord are the same distance from one another — three half-steps apart. One of the implications of this fact is that there are only three distinct diminished 7th chords. Typically there are 12 different chords for any chord type, one for every possible root note. But if you build a diminished 7th chord on all 12 root notes, you’ll find that once you’ve used 3 different root notes, each a half-step apart, the chords start becoming enharmonically equivalent to the 3 you already have. For example, C°7, C#°7, and D°7 are unique chords — they share no common notes with each other.
C°7: C Eb Gb Bbb C#°7: C# E G Bb D°7: D F Ab Cb
But if we then try another root note, like E:
E°7: E G Bb Db
We find that it’s enharmonically equivalent to C#°7, which we already have. And so on for the rest of the 12 possible roots. Some other odd characteristics of this chord type are that every °7 chord is exactly equivalent to 3 other °7 chords, and that any note in a °7 chord can be considered the root note. °7 chords naturally occur on the 7th degree of a harmonic minor scale, and tend to function like the dominant chord, resolving to the tonic. Since the °7 chord in the verse of A Rose for Emily resolves to A, I’ve analyzed it as a G#°7, but it’s equivalent to B°7, D°7, and F°7. If we look at the entire section as being in D major, the °7 chords are an example of a secondary leading-tone chord; these are similar to secondary dominants in that they are borrowed chords that resolve to something other than the tonic.
Note the use of altered bass notes in measures 3-7; this technique makes the repeated chords sound different from one another and adds a melodic, contrapuntal element to the simple piano accompaniment. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the stepwise bassline we saw in Life On Mars.
The second half of the verse is an exact repeat of the first half for the first 7 bars, but the second verse includes a full measure of the E chord followed by two measures of A. This resolution lends a momentary feeling of A major having arrived as the key center — of course, just moments later, the bridge kicks in with another abrupt change.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I analyze the bridge and outro!