All you need to know to appreciate this post: 1. A major triad is a three note major chord. It's the most commonly used harmony in western music. I like to number the notes in a major scale 1-7... using that system, you can think of notes 1, 3, and 5 (Do, Mi, Sol with moveable Do) played at once as a major triad. 2. An ascending perfect 4th interval can be thought of as the distance between notes 1 and 4, (Do and Fa) or notes 2 and 5 (Re and Sol).
Yes fans are a dedicated people. (They are my people, so I will refer to them as "We".) Many of us didn't love this song at first listen but here we are after 1000 listens, and we can't imagine the world without it. I want to talk about why we're so into it.
This song in its 15 minutes of glory can be hard to make sense of, but it can be thought of simply like many other pop songs, and broken down into 4 different sections. The main difference is, Yes does it bigger.
A: mostly a drone guitar riff in E minor. at 1:33
B: all the major triads in ascending pattern of 4ths at 5:13
C: Ambient bridge of many organ scales at 6:35
The B' after C at 10:35 is our favorite part... It's the mostly the same harmonically as B, but in a different rhythm. Less predictable at first listen, more satisfying as you start to feel it.
I want to especially look at the harmony of the B and B' sections. That's what makes Yes fans weep. (Really, weep).
There has been a lot of fascinating research on music and the brain. My favorite study of the moment concludes that we receive dopamine from being able to predict music. For most people: Music that's too predictable is boring. Music that's completely unpredictable is unsatisfying. The predictability of Awaken is a perfect storm for Yes fans. The constant feeling at first listen to the B section is: "What a confusing harmonic structure, but a small part of me knew that particular chord that was coming". WHY?
Reason #1: It's a perfect pattern. The first chord goes up a 4th to the next chord, then up a 4th to the next chord, then up a 4th to the next chord. Here's the chord progression:
E A D G C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B
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Reason #2: Going up the interval of a 4th from one major triad to another also happens to be the "AUTHENTIC CADENCE"! If you freeze any two of the adjacent chords in this chord progression, and play them in order, what you get is the most familiar cadence in the tradition of western music. For example, if you play the major triads E, then A, you feel like you have gone from unstable to stable, and you are now in the key of A. That authentic cadence happens over and over again- 12 times in the chord progression. The feeling of the music getting more and more powerful comes from constantly moving to what feels like a more resolved place in the harmony after being in a place you thought was the final resolution. That is the musical illusion of this song. From there they use other musical devices to increase the drama as that chord progression is repeated. By repeating the chord progression, they are resolving the B back to the E again, which is another authentic cadence. The constant temporary resolve doesn't end at the B chord, it just keeps looping.
It was an inspiring moment when I spoke to Jon Anderson about this song. He said: "I heard Steve Howe playing the A section riff down the hall and I really liked it, so I wanted him to develop it. I asked him to do it in a few different keys, and that section came together easily. Then I said Ok. Now I want you to play as many chords as you can." Steve Howe, being an excellent musician and guitar player threw down all of the major triads one by one in an ascending pattern of perfect 4ths and the epic B section was conceived. "We wanted to bring that section back and Chris said 'Wait! Do it in Halftime!'" Exciting music often comes from simple ideas.