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The Turnaround

Article from Making Music, July 1986

Now it's time to learn the easy four-chord turnaround: write great pop songs, make money etc.

And now the four chord trick? Jon Lewin continues his fretful investigations into that extra something to lift your songstering.

If you studied last month's ish properly, not only will you be stronger, wittier, more intelligent, and an incomparably better musician, but you'll have a firm grasp of that most basic of pop song building blocks, the Three Chord Trick. This month we're going one better — Making Music proudly presents The Four Chord Trick, better known as 'The Turnaround'.

According to current popular theory, Turnarounds are circular sounding things which wear button-fly jeans. Listen to this:

"Don't know much about history,
C                                         Em
Don't know much biology,"
C                             D

That's a turnaround — it uses the same basics as the three chord trick, but with an extra chord bunged in. Somehow that additional chord makes the progression seem more complete, encouraging it to repeat itself. Start playing and you'll find there's no logical place to stop: it just keeps turning around (clue).

Even though it turns up in 'Twisting The Night Away' as well, it's not just Sam Cooke who uses the device: you'll recognise that extra chord in songs as diverse as 'Every Breath You Take', 'The Young Ones', 'Going Underground' by The Jam, and even the dreadful 'Sailing' (by virtually everyone). That extra chord, which comes second in the song above, is called the relative minor. If you want to know why, we have to look back over last month's Three Chord trickery.


Of course, you'll remember how we paddled in the warm shallows of harmonic theory, with 'Bring On The Dancing Horses' and (ahem) 'Johnny B. Goode'; and naturally you recall discovering how to recognise the three chord trick.

Surely it all comes flooding back to you — how the Three Chord Trick is made up of (you guessed it) three chords whose root notes are the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale of whatever key the song is in?

The basic principle is this: for example (and here's one I prepared before the programme) take the key of G, whose major scale runs G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. The first, fourth, and fifth notes in that scale are G, C, and D. These are the root notes of the Three Chord Trick in G. If you want to increase your muso rating, you could try calling them tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant.


The relative minor is the extra chord that slipped into 'Wonderful World'. It always comes second in the four chord trick, lurking furtively just behind the first chord/tonic. The relative minor acts as a pivot, making the turnaround a linear progression that simply goes Chord I, Chord II, Chord III, Chord IV, and repeats. There is none of the internal repetition (or complication) that typifies the three chord trick. So where do you find the relative minor?

Try playing barre chords: the relative minor is three frets below the tonic/first chord. And it's a minor (although in certain parallel universes, it can be a seventh or even a major).

If you want to get theoretical, the relative minor takes the sixth note in the scale as its root note. The following table shows the most common turnarounds using the relative minor.

C: C Am F G
D: D Bm G A
E: E C#m A B
F: F Dm A# F
G: G Em C D
A: A F#m D E
B: B G#m E F#


Elvis Presley fan, are you? Well, you should be. 'Blue Moon' off the "Sun Sessions" album is our next example, though you could try The Marcels' version, or even the one by Showaddywaddy, "Blue Moon".

"Blue mooo ... oon,
You saw me standing alone,
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own."

That's the most basic of applications for the relative minor in the turnaround (which can also be heard at work in 'Every Breath You Take', if you want a more modern example). Once you've mastered that easy flowing feel, it's time to start breaking the rules.

Everyone remembers 'The Young Ones'. But do you recall that quirky little theme tune before the pictures started, originally rendered in throbbing stereo by the youthful Cliff Richard? The first few bars (under Hank's diddly little guitar riff) are straight G Em C D, but the verse runs G Em G Em, then G D G C G D G.

The idea here seems to be that the E minor creates tension which the C and D resolve. You can hear the same technique at work in Chuck Berry's 'Come On' (G Em G Em G Em C D), which the Rolling Stones released as their first single, and also in The Jam's debut, the classic 'In The City':

"In the city there's a 1000 things
G                                C
I want to say to you
                G       Gsus4
But whenever I approach you
G                             C
You make me look a fool
But I wanna say
Em (with a D/E riff)
I want to tell you
Em (ditto)
About the young idea
Better listen
now you've said your bit..."

You can hear the same processes at work in the Supremes' 'You Can't Hurry Love', as recently maimed by Phil Collins — the relative minor is used almost as a passing chord.


So much for the relative minor, which is the commonest additional chord in the turnaround. There is another chord that can be substituted in exactly the same way, to almost identical effect: the mediant takes as its root the third note in the relevant scale. Thus, if you're playing in C, the mediant chord is E minor; in G, it's B minor.

Visualising this as barre shapes on the neck of a guitar, this means up four frets, or alternatively, across one string from an E shape to an A shape, and down one fret. The mediant is usually played as a minor, or even a seventh. It turns up a lot in jazzier songs, doo-wop ditties.

"Lay lady lay,
G             Bm
Lay across my big brass bed"
F                      Am            G

The chords are played on the beat, even if the words sprawl haphazardly.

There is yet another chord that can take the place of the relative minor or even the mediant, and that is the supertonic. The supertonic takes the second note in the scale as its root: simple one this, as it can be found only two frets above that first (tonic) chord. Julian Cope employs the supertonic all the time (G Am C D), and Tom Petty used it as a major to great effect in 'American Girl', which goes E F# A B (move an E shape up the neck, letting the other strings ring).

This is getting out of hand. What we have so far is a four chord progression, in which the second chord can be either relative minor, mediant, or supertonic, played as (usually) a minor or a seventh. No problem.

Next thing we can do is change the third chord as well by substituting one of the above. Your burgeoning enthusiasm for dodgy 60s pop in general and Presley in particular will no doubt have caused you to realise that 'Return To Sender' goes C Am Dm G. And that 'Summer Holiday' uses G Em Am D.

There is a very basic principle at work here, which I've just made up. This principle says that providing you start with the tonic chord (the one that tells you what key it's in), and finish with the dominant (seven frets above the tonic), the two chords inbetween can be either relative minor, mediant, or supertonic, in any combination. Which means you can play G Am Em D, or G Bm Em D, or G Bm Am D, and so on...


That's it. Now do it yourself.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1986


Music Theory

Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> That Was Then...

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