Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd’s best album came out 40 years ago, one of the most successful ‘concept’ albums in rock history. In addition to the other aspects which tie the songs here together is a musical relation also found in many other classic rock pieces.

We hear it in this album right away, in “Breathe In the Air”: two chords, one minor and one major, which form a repeating cycle, over which we hear both guitar licks and the main vocals. This two-chord harmonic loop returns for the famous improvised vocal which closes Side 1, although this time in a higher key. Then it comes back *again* for the third song on side 2, in yet again a different key.

It’s a great sequence for open-ended improvisatory jams, and Pink Floyd makes the most of it. Having this musical shape distributed across these songs helps tie the whole album together musically, strengthening the ‘concept’ and giving the impression that these songs belong, together in this order, as one large work in multiple sections.

The same chord sequence is used in another monument of rock, by the way, in “Stairway to Heaven”, as part of the brief musical interlude between verses. It’s a very effective harmonic progression.

For the purposes of “Dark Side of the Moon”, here’s the thing: these two chords never give you the actual key of a song. Ordinarily, they would not appear together. For “Breathe In the Air”, the chords are E minor and A major. If you’re in the KEY of E minor, you don’t have an A major chord, it would be A minor (the subdominant or iv chord, for those keeping score). If you’re in A major, then you have E Major, an even more important chord (the dominant, or V chord).

So this loop leaves you hanging. Conceivably you could interpret these as the ii chord and V chord of a key–but sooner or later you have to reach the I chord (the tonic). Lots of songs do just that, ii-V-I, very common.

Pink Floyd never does. This song finally rotates out of the loop through a sequence of chords that would ALL be in other keys, and **sort of** claims a very ambiguous E minor by the end, just by returning to this two-chord loop.

There is ONE place where Pink Floyd does touch down, so to speak, harmonically, exactly 3:06 into “The Great Gig In the Sky” on the end of side 1. We’ve been vamping the two chords, G min and C, for a long time, and finally it DOES go through as ii-V-I, which in this key is G min, C, to F, right at 17:41 into Side 1. And then it takes right off into outer space again…

It’s an amazing moment. Harmonically Pink Floyd has held the listener suspended all this time–the payoff at this single moment owes its impact to all that floating back and forth which went on for such long periods before.


7 Comments on “Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon”

  1. Scott Robinson says:

    The album (like Pepper before it) is a masterpiece on many, many levels, from engineering to composition to cover art – but it broke new ground (or nearly so; only John Coltrane truly anticipated and exceeded in the domain I’m about to mention) as an innovation in emotional complexities.

    I have long believed there are deep and ancient mappings between the brain and certain tones and tone combinations, and that the default emotions we experience when we hear certain chord progressions are more the result of our basic neurology than social training. I believe that Floyd’s compositional efforts in Dark Side shine light on this, as mentioned in the blog post: we are not only left hanging, but locked into that emotional state, with resolutions that do not satisfy emotionally but leave us in places we are not used to being — and that this is the entire point.

  2. This is an ongoing argument that roams across ground from psychology and neurology to philosophy, aesthetics, and anthropology. There is a “Nature” argument in that the integer overtones of an acoustically-generated pitch (but not electronically, necessarily) form the harmonies of the Western harmonic system, including major and minor triads, the Dom7th and more. So there’s physics. But we also have different tuning systems in different cultures, so even with physics, the Western harmonic materials are not universal. What is the basic neurology of a singer in a Hirajoshi scale doing?? (Hint: there is a huge hit out using this scale plus two completely different ones, right now).
    I think there may be a ‘hidden variable’ behind all these variations, which is that our neurological systems naturally respond to 1) in-phase and out-of-phase waveforms, and 2) patterns of tones and violations of those patterns. This makes the natural reactions to chord progressions an emergent feature of these underlying, more basic rules.
    Difficult to prove, of course.

  3. qwerty says:

    Thanks for the post and I really enjoy the site.

    Regarding the A and Em chords being played together…I know some people may take offense to my language, but anyone who does will also know exactly what I mean.

    Rather than playing in the key of Em…if he was playing in “E dorian” …or harmonizing an E dorian mode..and playing between I chord (E minor) and the V chord (A major) then it makes sense.

    This kind of thinking doesn’t cleanly fit into sheet music..where you would have to think of it as being in the key of Em, but with a natural 6th..rather than just thinking that it’s “in” (sorry to offend anyone) E dorian…which i think is probably closer to what he’s thinking.

    • If you mean the i chord in E minor as tonic and the IV chord (not the V, which would be B Major) in E minor (A major), then I agree it makes sense. E dorian would also give us an f# minor chord, and they just finished an entire song in f# minor (although that chord doesn’t appear in the nominally e minor section). The chord pattern C major-B minor – F major that comes out of the vamp also works to undo a strong sense of tonality, whether E minor or E dorian.

      I just heard a song (can’t recall the name) where the chords in context were vi and V/V. If one were in G major here (they’re not), then that would give a vi of E minor and a V/V of A Major. For this particular song, they vamped on those two chords in the way we’ve heard so much, but then of course the song went on to resolve to G Major. Yet another way to get that relationship going.

      Great observations, I appreciate your posting, please weigh in again!

      • qwerty says:

        yes, exactly, sorry..that’s what I meant (the IV chord / i chord).

        I’m trying to get my arms around the opening to “great gig in the sky”, which I believe is “in” G dorian. But it starts with a Bm chord. So I think I’ve determined that is because the previous song, “time” ends in Bm…so there is some walking along from Bm to Gm…opening sequence = Bm, Fmaj7, Bb, Fmaj7/A….then to Gm7, C9.

  4. Ending the previous F# minor song on its subdominant chord (iv, B minor) is a really nice touch of ambiguity. I just mentioned to someone elsewhere how effective it is that Yasutaka Nakata ends Perfume’s ‘Negai’ on the subdominant—it means halting with the ‘question’ still open, a signal that resolution is not apparent, musically or lyrically.
    The leap of a tritone then from B minor to an F major chord with a leftover B pitch hanging in the chord (F Major flat 5th?–not in the usual jazzy chord sense, no), then resolving upward being the only link, is a long-reach tonal shock to turn the corner into the next piece.
    At this point I’m not so sure about the Dorian, if only because we don’t actually ever get a Dominant-Tonic to confirm. If we have G Dorian here, then the G minor – C major – F major that finally turns up near the end isn’t ii-V-I in F, it’s i – IV – VII in G Dorian? The chord sequence, yes, but I definitely do not experience the G as ‘home’ note at that point.
    Part of what makes that little two-chord sequence work for me in all contexts, not just this one, is its forward propulsion–it doesn’t feel like ‘home – away, home – away’ as the chords cycle, it feels like ‘closer to home – further from home’, the repeated pulling of harmonic tension which never reaches full release.
    Of course, I interpret all of this as Pink Floyd’s songwriters feeling their way to what sounds best next, not what satisfies the music theorists.

  5. dhruva says:

    there is a very well known set of chords used extensively by the beatles and rock music, that is I – bIII – IV – V – bVII (no particular order), that’s what pink floyd vamp was all about, that’s chromatic/modal/tonal this style of music is more easy to understand if seen as one key and it’s alternating possibilities like modal interchange from minor to major etc. Better than seeing modulations everywhere.

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