Bit of fun this week. I sat in on a gig the other night and the singer called Mack the Knife. It’s an interesting one because it’s harmonically very simple – just the four main chords of the key, but usually played cranking up the choruses by semitones. So you really need to take the Roman numeral approach.*
Now you could be at the level of just knowing what the I, ii, V and vi of a key sound like. But if not, here’s a silly way of remembering how this tune goes. And it will help you to get to the point where you just know what the chords sound like in relation to each other. Bear in mind that where memorisation is concerned, silly is your friend.
Here’s how I first learned this tune. I sang:
And old I goes, to the ii,
Then the V goes, back to I.
Then the vi comes, but becomes ii,
Then the ii goes, ii-V-I.
Stupid isn’t it? But I’ve never forgotten it. As a kid I thought up a few more of these sort of harmonic mnemonics for other tunes. For instance: “I and tanned and just like A Train, the II from Ipanema goes 7ing, and then she iis and then Valts and Is.” Try to come up with something that scans like the actual lyrics. You’ll find these things usually rhyme naturally…
Of course, after a while the memory trick falls away and you just know it, but it’s a fun way in and a useful way of teaching, I’ve found. Like language learning – I suppose the classic is the way to remember “cat” in Spanish by picturing a cat eating a big cake.
*See also What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?
PS I don’t know of any songs where the harmony appears in the actual lyrics except Leonard Cohen’s Halleluia – “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”.
Cole Porter’s line “from major to minor” does invoke the sense of transition to minor but actually involves going from the I to the IV7 of the temporary key (the IV), thus including the minor third of that key. If anyone’s aware of any other songs that sort of tell you how to play them, I’d be interested to hear about it.