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Learn Diatonic Harmony from a Classic Breakbeat

The Emotions over a blurry Ableton Live background

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This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

“Blind Alley” by The Emotions is a funk/soul tune best known as a crucial source of breakbeats for golden age rap songs.

Beyond its sampling value, “Blind Alley” is also a fabulously useful tool for teaching how you make chords in the key of F major. Here’s my transcription of the opening groove:

So, what is going on here?

The Emotions are using something called the F major harmonized scale, a systematic combination of all the notes from the F major scale to make a set of chords that sound good together. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

The diagram below shows the F major scale — the purple and green notes are the ones in the scale, and the grey notes are not in the scale. Read more about the logic behind this color scheme here, and feel free to brush up on the fundamentals of scales and modes with Soundfly’s popular free online course series, Music Theory for Bedroom Producers here!

You can produce chords from any seven-note scale using a simple formula. Pick a scale note, and go clockwise around the circle, skipping every other scale degree. In my diagram, you can just follow the arrows. If you start on F, you get the notes F, A, C, E, and so on. This is called the I chord, because it starts on the first note in the scale.

If you start on G, the second note of the scale, you get the II- chord: G, B♭, D, F, and so on. The III- chord is A, C, E, G, etc, and the IV chord is B♭, D, F, A, etc. These chords are called the diatonic chords in F major. If you line up the diatonic chords in sequence (I, II-, III-, IV, V, VI-, VII-), you get the harmonized scale.

While you hear pieces of the harmonized scale everywhere, it’s rare to hear the whole thing in real-life music. But “Blind Alley” begins with exactly that, a walk up the entire F major harmonized scale, one chord per bar. It’s a real gift to music theory pedagogy. Measure one is the I chord, measure two is the II- chord, measure three is the III- chord, and so on.

Theory examples don’t get any tidier than that. Also, the whole progression is undergirded by one of the tightest beats in funk history, so isolating and looping each bar in your DAW of choice should be effortless.

Ableton Live screenshot

You can loop the whole eight bars to work on the F major scale, or loop individual bars to work on each of the diatonic modes. The only wrinkle is the V chord, which The Emotions’ keyboard player spiced up with some F blues scale. That’s okay — V-I cadences are a dime a dozen, you can practice them elsewhere.

If you want to teach songwriting, put each of the eight bars into Ableton session view and trigger them in different orders, or use Follow Actions to play them randomly. Every combination will sound at least okay.

Songwriting tip: if you avoid the I chord, you get a nice moody feeling.

Ableton Live screenshot

I made a sequence of shuffled “Blind Alley” bars and jammed on top of it in F major. Listen to it here:

Few pieces of music let you work on diatonic harmony and groove at the same time. Thanks, Emotions!

Don’t stop here!

Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, and more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses. Subscribe for access to all, including The Creative Power of Advanced HarmonyOrchestration for Stringsand our exciting new course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.