Stairway To Heaven, the most unlikely hit of all time.
No other tune has been requested more on the radio in the U.S.A. Before we dive into the modal works of this tune let’s look at all the reasons for why this shouldn’t have been a hit!
The vocal starts at 0:50. Usually the cliche is that the chorus has to kick in at 0:55 latest or it won’t be played on the radio.
- The tune is almost 8 min long, that’s twice as long as the maximum 4 min.
- It was never released as single!
That’s three pretty strong reasons for not getting on the radio…
So how did this tune become so huge?
When Stairway was released Led Zeppelin was a very well established band with several world tours under their belt.
The tune was a collaboration between all band members utilizing all their strengths as a unit.
The recorder(s) in the intro was played by John Paul Jones, who also added the ascending bass line which ties the genius modal progression together.
The odd time signatures before the solo that seem to flow so naturally shows John Bonham’s genius of taking something complicated and making it sound natural purely through the way he plays it.
The lyrics were Robert Plants and the guitar chords and original concept was Jimi Page’s. The tune took well over a year to complete and Jimmy Page said in retrospect: “I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance.”
There was a stage of Stairways birth were it was played on piano, but this was later adapted for the guitar.
Why is Stairway To Heaven modal?
So let’s start to look at the modal works of this master piece.
Before we begin, remember, no one in Led Zeppelin had any idea about this stuff, it is only in hindsight that we can see these things. But by looking at it like this, we can learn from it. Let’s begin.
Usually people refer to Stairway as: it’s in A minor. Most likely they say this because the intro starts with Am, and the solo use Am, G & F, which are classic chords to solo over in A minor.
All Along The Watchtower for example use the same progression. But actually, it’s not just in A minor, it’s in A Aeolian, A Dorian and A Melodic Minor. The majority of the tune is in A Dorian and A Melodic Minor.
Using the DIY TAB in the Guitar Conspiracy we see how two keys are notated through out: C major (A minor/Aeolian) and G major (A Dorian).
The vocal melody however never hits the 6th interval, it completely stays away from it leaving the chords to move between these two keys giving the tune several modal interchanges and by doing this drives the track forward.
The second chord, an Am with an added 9th use the ascending bass lines G# and by doing this we are either in Harmonic minor or Melodic minor. The G# acting as a major 7th in relation to A.
The third chord, a C/G could either be in the key of G, so a IV/I or in the key of C as a I/V.
The fourth chord, a D/F# or a Bm7/F# carries on the ascending bass line and indicates that we no longer can be in Am or A harmonic minor, we have to be in the key of G here due to the F#.
The fifth chord, a Fmaj7 however tells us we can’t be in G major anymore, we have to be in C, Fmaj7 acting as the IVmaj7 chord.
These chords can therefore only be seen as modal, giving us:
Chord 1, A Dorian (or A Aeolian)
Chord 2, A Melodic Minor (A Dorian with a maj7)
Chord 3, A Dorian (or A Aeolian)
Chord 4, A Dorian
Chord 5, A Aeolian
Chord 6, A Aeolian (or A Dorian)
Chord 7, A Aeolian (or A Dorian)
The tension of this progression is paired with the very simple 8th note rhythm which makes it feel less adventurous. The vocal melody avoids hitting either the b6th to indicate Aeolian (F) or the natural 6th to indicate Dorian (F#).
The next part is the chorus (which doesn’t start until 2:15!) is in A Dorian throughout, giving it a more up-feel than Aeolian would have.
These two parts keep interchanging up until the breakdown at 5:35 where we get different odd time signatures almost every bar.
Stairway To Heaven odd time signatures
The reason the odd time signatures don’t feel strange is because of the loose and behind the beat feel Bonham provides. If you buy the sheet music for this tune you will see how it’s notated 9/8, 4/4 etc.
This is very difficult to follow so the conspiracy has written this part as a constant /8 time. Simply double the time throughout as you count and things should be much easier to understand.
The solo, as previously stated is in A Aeolian due to the Fmaj7.
The opening lick (one of the two licks in this solo that Jimi Page wrote before the recording) ends on an F. This is the first time the 6th is played in the melody. Giving us a familiar release after 6 minutes of modal interchange!
The solo carries on into the final vocal section which is sung an octave up, still not utilizing the 6th.
The last vocal section is then followed by a second solo that ends on the Fmaj7 chord and Plant sings the final very drawn out line now for the first time staying in Aeolian.
Stairway To Heaven can only be compared to Queens masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody which it ironically usually competes for the #1 spot of greatest rock tunes of all time.
So if your thinking of creating the next big thing, go modal and break all the rules that the music business have laid down as criteria’s to get on the radio, it certainly worked for Led Zeppelin!
Next blog will pick Ain’t No Sunshine apart and show how a factory worker can become world famous by singing “I know” 26 times.
Dan (your guitar guru)