Monday, January 17, 2011

Stevie Wonder Part 1: Golden Lady

Listen as you read!

This post gets a little nerdy... I'll make sure to do a music theory basics lesson.  If you ever want anything I write to be clarified, please let me know.  For this post, you should understand what a ii-V-I turnaround is and what a secondary dominant is(V/III).  (Wikipedia!) Note that a ii_V is the same thing as a ii-V-I, just not resolved.

     Sbisaac requested an exploration of Golden Lady, I Wish and Tuesday Heartbreak.  They're all amazing songs, but I chose Golden Lady because I wanted to pick apart the fancy sounding harmony and train my ears a little.  It's a good song for so many reasons!  Let's have a conversation about why the harmony feels good, why the rhythm is feels good, why the lyrics feel good, and why the melody feels good.... And then why the elements feel so good together!

    I'd like to first explore the feeling of the harmony of this song.  It really tells a story on its own.  It's lubricated, mysterious, smooth and colorful.   There are plenty of comfortable sounding musical devices in the song (ii_Vs, plagal cadences, and line cliches), but they are attached to quite a few non-diatonic chords (bvii, #iv7, bIIMaj7).  In fact, for every ii_V in the song... each ii starts out as a non-diatonic chord before being recognizable as the ii of a ii_V.

Here it is: A Harmonic analysis of Golden Lady!

(Starts in Eb Maj)
  I Maj9     ii9       iii7   #iv7(ii7/III)   V7/III
Eb Maj9   Fm9   Gm7    Am7               D9    (Repeat)

     The verse is twist on a familiar ascending chord progression.  We've all heard plenty of chord progressions like "Lean on me" that go up the major scale in order, I ii iii IV.  This chord progression has a little surprise!  When we are getting to what we expect to be a comfortable sounding IV chord, we instead get this feeling like we're on a rising wave, this wonderesque moment of a #iv7 chord, which is acting also as the ii7/III going to the V7/III.  After all that, the ear expects G Major(III), which would change the perceived key to G Major. (foreshadowing the key of the chorus!) but you don't get G!  Instead, the chord progression simply wraps right back to the beginning, and we are quickly brought down to earth with the first chord hitting us again, while fresh in our memory.  (It has been quite an eventful 5 chords, and we do have to be reminded that we're in the key of Eb.  He gives us a short term memory loss moment.) 

(Starts in Bb Maj)

IVMaj7    IMaj7     bvii7(ii)   V7        IMaj7   i(ii)    V7    iv(ii)    V7
EbMaj7  BbMaj7  Abm7     Db7    GbMaj7  Gbm   B7    Am7     D9

    The Prechorus also sets you up the key of G Major which feels sort of fulfilling in an unfulfilling way when you arrive at the chorus.  It starts out with an Eb, which sounds like the key to the listener for a second, but then the listener is quickly informed that Bb is actually the key by the comfortable plagal (IV-I, amen) cadence.  This is a good example of Stevie's magic... things are not quite what they seem!  Then that bvii7 chord comes in, sounding evil, but then quickly resolving itsself, becoming a ii by virtue of going to the V and happily resolving to the I in the key of Gb.  Then Stevie does a classic jazz harmony trick.... he goes straight from the I to the i, which becomes another ii in the unfinished sounding ii_V(Gbm, B7) heading toward E.  Instead of delivering the E, it hops to another ii_V (with the ii disguised as a iv) in the key of G to set up the chorus!  It's so satisfying to finally hit that chorus in G after the verse teased us, and after going through so many unsettling non-diatonic chords and key changes in both the verse and pre-chorus.  That transition to the chorus also comes with a twist... after an Am7 and a D9, the ear expects a G Major chord, but what you hear next, the chorus, is in G minor.

(Starts in G Min)
   i       iMaj7        i7      i6     bIIMaj7            IMaj7                           vii(ii)  V13
Gm Gm(Maj7) Gm7 Gm6  AbMaj7  (x2) GMaj 7    Transition:  Fm     Bb13

   Now that he's given us that big semi-satisfying Gm chord, he's not going to waste it.  We hit a nice minor line cliche, which stings a little, and feels nostalgic.  Then we hit that beautiful moment when the bIImaj7 chord gives us that mysterious lift...Perhaps a hint that the world he'd like to go to (in the lyrics) is better than nostalgia.  After a repetition of that feeling, we are gently placed down on the earth again with the GMaj7 chord... the chord we have been waiting the WHOLE SONG to hear.  The transition back to the verse goes through an alarming bvii which becomes ii in a ii_V in the key of Eb, bringing us smoothly, back to the verse, and we accept this world in her eyes as unattainable at least for now.
   At about 3:33, there's an easy modulation... just before the chorus, the D7(V7) becomes a Eb7(V7) and the whole chorus is bumped up a half step to Ab.  Then there's another up a half step modulation:  When we go up to the bIIMaj7 (AMaj7) he simply does the old Jazz trick again and changes the AMaj7(bIIMaj7) to an Am(i) just before starting the chorus again in Am.  This repeats and modulates up again at least once more, creating a slow climbing feeling.

   Don't you think that the feeling of the harmony in the chorus works well with the lyrics?  "Golden Lady, Golden Lady, I'd like to go there"... Lyrics, melody, chords, all yearning for the heaven in the Golden Lady's eyes.


  1. Thanks for writing this analysis! I think Stevie Wonder has some serious jazz chops (by the way, you can find some videos of him playing jazz on Youtube; here's one: ). What do you think of the synthesizers on Innervisions?

  2. That is a funny video! I like how Stevie and Toots almost kiss on the lips. There is some cool harmonica soloing too. Synths on innervisions: Timeless and natural sounding. Timeless because of how natural sounding they are. I recognize at least one sound on Golden Lady as being an analog moog... the one that jams out in the end. That synth also plays the line on Living for the City. I especially love the sound of the song "Too High".
    Check out Juana Molina's album "Son". Although the synth sounds aren't quite as beautiful and warm, she does a similarly cool semi-out-of-tune glidey thing with them on that record. Also, the music is brilliant.

  3. Wow that was an amazing analysis! I learned a lot thank you! Golden Lady is such a beautiful tune.. the bassline in the beginning always gets me! Is it possible for you to do another analysis on another Stevie song? I love My Cherie Amour, You are the Sunshine of my Life, Until You Come Back to Me. 3 of my favorite Stevie songs.