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"'Agony', from Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim"

Hey everyone! Welcome to Tonal Songwriting and Music Theory Vlogs. So yeah, looks like Hollywood just made the Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” into a movie! And to celebrate, we’re going to take a real-time look at my favorite song from it, entitled “Agony,” which is the song where the princes are like complaining about their princesses spazzing out on them. I mean, it’s not like they’re not spazzes too, but yeah, I mean it’s a pretty funny song.


Alright, first off, for the record, I’ll be referencing the original recording and not the new movie-soundtrack version. And, I made that choice based on the fact that the movie’s version of the tune is transposed from the original—down a semitone to Eb major. And so to do it that way, not only would I have to transpose the sheet music reference, but I’d also have to play Eb chords on my guitar. And I don’t like playing Eb chords on my guitar—they’re hard!


Hey, speaking of hard chords—this song has like 50+ chords in it! Which is a lot, and so consequentially, this will be the very first ever Tonaltrends vlog where we do—not one, but two real-time syncs: one using this board—where we take a real-time look at the song in the regular, comprehensive way, and another one, where we look at this board—just the chords and their bass notes, in all their augmented, diminished, inverted, sus-this/add-that, pedal-tone, modulated glory.


Anyways, here’s the song’s vitals: we’re in the key of E major starting off, but in the bridge, the song takes a parallel detour to E minor, as well as a brief modulation to F# major and then finally, F# minor. What’s more, is that these minor tonalities aren’t your ordinary natural or harmonic minors, these are ‘melodic’ minors, but more on why that’s cool later.  


Timewise, the song’s in a compound 6/8 meter, with the tempo holding around 63 bpms. Other than that, there’s a few rallentandos and a 9/8 measure thrown in, which helps keep the song interesting for 2 minutes and 27 seconds.


Alright, another way our composer is keeping it interesting here is by using all these irregular form lengths. Like, check this out: we start with a regular 2 bar intro and 8 bar verse, and that’s it for the regular stuff, cause next up there’s a 7.5 bar Chorus—the .5 is because of that 9/8 bar I mentioned earlier. And then—the next time we hear the verse—we add a measure to the 8 bar form from before, to make it 9 bars long. And then we get even more complex. Okay, one way to look at this next chorus is to view it as a “double chorus” of 7 measures plus 8 measures. But as you can see, I separated the 8 into a 4 plus 4. I did that because of some new developments in the harmony that lead us into the bridge, which I’ll get into later.


Next, just like this Chorus, the Bridge could also be thought of as a “double”, and that’s because each prince has a go at its main riff—this exotic, modal, melodic scale motif, which starts off this blue 4 measure section here, and this green colored 3 measure section here, and yeah, there’ll be more explanation on this coolness later too. Alright, in between those guys we return to the original key for 4 bars, and then we modulate to F# major for 4 bars—here colored in red, which is what sets us up for the second—this time just 3 bars—parallel modulation to F# melodic minor, under it’s previously mentioned melodic major modal riff, of coolness. And then finally we return to our E major “Ah-Ah-Ah” motif for 3 bars before our last chorus—which is also a double chorus, where the last 4 bar subsection here reworks the Chorus material to serve as an apt Outro for the song.


Incidentally, I’d like to point out that the movie version adds a measure at the end of the Bridge here, for extra Ah-ah-ah-ing; and also, there are two measures added at the end of the Chorus Outro here for extra… whatever they needed it for; I don’t actually know; I haven’t seen the movie yet.


Alright, next: on to the chord types, which we will label in terms of the song’s four different tonalities. Okay, again, E major is the key for the first half of the song, where we hear diatonic I’s, ii’s, V’s, IV’s, and iii’s—or the first five regular major key diatonic chords. Sounds boring, but it’s not like that’s all there is, I mean, there’s gobs of suses and adds and 7s and 11s and pretty much all the diatonic non chord tones you can throw into the pot—there’s just no funny business with the key signature itself.


That is, until here, right before the bridge, when Mr. Sondheim sprinkles in an augmented #5 in the four chord, and then a Lydian sounding #4, into the one chord. And it’s very very very very very worth using the word very here a bunch of times to point out that these two new #’s here—E# and A#—are the next two sharps in the Circle of Fifths beyond the key of E major, and not only that, but these two sharps are also the very next two sharps we need if we want to modulate up to F# major, which we will be doing in very short order! So yeah, what we have here, is a nice little sneak peek, or ‘sneak listen’, to what’s coming up real soon.


But check this out: the sneak peak totally fools you! Because, before we get there, we deek back the other way on the circle of fifths dial, taking away these new sharps, and more, from E major itself, to get to E Melodic Minor. So yeah: fooled you! You got shook. Okay, we’re now in E melodic minor: and like I mentioned before, the motif here is made up of the 5th mode of E melodic minor AKA “B melodic Major.” Here’s what it sounds like: Basically, a major scale that finishes minor.


Except here’s the crazy thing that totally messed me up when I first started studying this song: even though we’ve got a clear B to B scale going on here, that’s not the key. Why? Because it’s clearly harmonized in E melodic minor—these chords types here, see: there’re melodic minor diatonics, and, when we’re calling stuff stuff, the harmony always wins out over the melody. So yeah, again, the melody here is a mode of the melodic minor, the 5th mode to be exact, which just so happens to have this flip floppy name of, “melodic Major” or you could also call it “Mixo b6” if you’re a Jazz person, pretty cool huh? And if you have more questions about that just ask me in the comments.


Okay moving on, we find ourselves back in our previous four-sharp key signature, with repeated V to ii chords sporting thick 2 and 4 sustained notes, all over a B bass pedal. And yeah, because of this pedal—not to mention the B to B scale leading up to it—you could also described this as a modulation to straight up ‘B’ where the chords are actually I to V.


But yeah, it’s super ambiguous as to whether it’s one or the other, mainly because of the absence of any A#s or A naturals here which would tell us for sure what our key signature is—oh, and not to mention that there are absolutely no 3rds in these chords, just sus 2s and 4s, which means we can’t be sure if they’re major or minor types—so yeah, we just can’t be certain either way.


Okay, but despite whatever it is going on here, it leads us in to our next modulation up to F# Major, and a vi to ii loop; this is followed by some big time ickifying of the loop, by flating the six and making it augmented and then by diminishifying the two; this builds tension, pushing us into the tonality of F# melodic Minor, where we now hear that same modal “melodic Major” scale motif again, over similar melodic Minor diatonics.


Though, what you can see, is that they’ve been rearranged quite a bit haven’t they? And, part of that could be because this time, the rhythm is slightly different, and the pedal note matches the melodic minor modal scale root, C# , which it didn’t before, and also, because it only lasts 3 measures instead of 4, which means the line gets cut short.


Okay, and this ‘chopping off’ of the previous motif, means that we can’t take that final step up, and so we find ourselves remaining one step back down in our original key of E. It’s like this: See how the scale doesn’t reach its root, but it does reach the first note of the Ah-Ah-Ah melody? Slick right? Oh! And also, look what we have here! We’ve got our diatonic ‘vi’ chord, which is a chord type we hadn’t heard in the verse or chorus—and which you may have missed because of how common a chord type it is. I mean; it’s like the fourth most common diatonic major chord type. So yeah, it’s late appearance here is…of note.


Also of note, is the last chord type: the bVI+, which we actually heard before when it was up a key, in F#. But now it’s even ickier than that, because it has a 7^ and a b9^ added to it, which creates a nasty dissonance that, when it resolves, it just slingshots us back into the Chorus. I mean, it’s tasty. So tasty that again, the movie version decided to add a whole other measure of it.


Okay that’s it for chord—types, but I want to highlight just a few more tidbits about the melody before we preview the chords themselves on the next board:

Okay, first thing I want to point out is that, in the verses, the singers don’t sing the root or the tonic, or the ‘doh’ in the do-re-mi’s—at all, I mean it’s just not there. But then in the Chorus it’s the very first note, you know “Agony” or “Tonic Root of the key of E major!” So yeah, I’m just saying that it really enhances itself there, at that point, because of the fact that you’d been waiting to hear it, for that entire beginning part.


Next I want to point out one of the flute bits. Remember how I said there was no funny business with the key signature until the bridge, well I lied. In the middle of verse two, the flute has this riff with a ^b7 over the one chord, just a tiny spicy little blue-note, that deserves to be pointed out. Sounds like this: so yeah, I just love that little guy.


And last, remember how I was raving about how awesome the Melodic Major Motif in the bridge is? Well there’s even a little more to it than that, because, the first time we hear the scale motif, the ‘leading tone’, or 7th scale degree of the B Major is also used, in addition to the melodic ^b7, so really, what you got is this hybrid melody, sharing the flavors of both melodic and harmonic minor, as well as major—because of the major ^3—and even shades of Lydian, since this leading tone, ^7, in B, is also the Lydian #4 in the key of E! But yeah again, that only happens the first time, because the second time the motif gets cut short before it could happen.


Alright, enough of that craziness, let’s switch to the Chords themselves board! Okay hi! Welcome to the chords themselves board. So, yeah: pretty intimidating right? I mean, what’s the reason for all these chords? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and besides the simple reason that Sondheim is just super talented and so he can have as many chords as he wants, the other most interesting reason to me is centered in a concept I like to refer to as “Magnetic Chords,” or “Magnetic Unisons/Chromatics.”


Okay, so what causes this magnetism I’m talking about? Well, basically, musical harmony lives and breathes on dissonances resolving to consonances, or in more scientific terms, sound-waves that go like this—like electric eels having a tickle fight or whatever—resolving to sound-waves that go more like this—like dolphins leaping next to each other and everything’s great.


But yeah, one way to take advantage of this dynamic, is if we take two chords, and we throw a note into the first chord that’s closer in its soundwave frequency to the next chord—usually it’ll be just a half-step away, or even a unison with the next chord. And this simple technique makes the chords pull on each other with a stronger force than they shared before.


Like take a look at our first flatted non triad tone here: this b9 in the G#m chord, this note just happens to be the same note as the triadic 3rd in our next chord, F#m! And so, whether you view this as the first chord borrowing a note from the next chord, or, as a note from the second chord getting there early, what you’ve got is two chords that are now pulling on each other more, because of that added note.


Okay next, how about our first Augmented Chord? This A+maj7 has a #5 which is just one chromatic step away from the 5 of the next chord, B13. And not only that, but the M7 in this A+ chord is also just one chromatic step away from the dominant 7 of the B13. So, this time, because you’ve modified a note and also added a note, both a semitone closer in their frequency to the next chord , it’s also like magnets, but now more like magnets that are pulling on each other right before they snap together. Compare this to just your simple IV V I, which has hardly any unisons or chromatics.


So yeah, boom, magnetic unison/chromatic chord styling. Sondheim’s doing this all the time: sticky, tweaked chord after pully sticky chord! I mean, but, okay: so with all these extra atoms in the reactor, with all this extra ear-splitting dissonance, what’s to keep us from storming the pit orchestra with baseball bats to save our ears?


Well, if you guessed volume, I’d like to agree with you: see, most of the dissonant tones, because they’re so low in the mix, sneak by your upper consciousness, I mean they’re just not loud enough to cause you too much pain—plus it doesn’t hurt that these dissonances are mostly played on the stringed instruments, which have a softer and sweeter timbre than most… So yeah, let that be a lesson: you can get away with using lots of these dissonant, pulling, morphing types of added-note chords, if you use your volume and timbre wisely. Or at least you can get away with people not noticing how dissonant your music is, that’s all I’m saying. I mean, if you’re writing the Rite of Spring, or Mahler’s 15th symphony from hell, or whatever, by all means, have all the dissonant electric eel tickle-fights you want!


Alright, anyways, let’s hear some more of these beauties at a medium volume, so you can really hear’m, before we listen for them in the song. Okay in the verse we got: Emaj9, E6, Esus4maj7, and F#m7/E.


Next, the Chorus chords are played over the A pedal. So it’s like: B7add11/A, A, E/A, A6, Emaj9, E6, Eadd9, And then we got these dousies: Aadd9, G#mb9, F#m11(222222), Bsus7(X242XX), and then some more milky B and E stuff: Bsus4add2 (7746XX), Esus4, Badd11 (76445X), kinda like B/E.


Oh, and by the way, I got a disclaimer: there are a few more variations of these chords in the following verse and choruses, but for this video, I’m only listing the chords found in the first verse and first chorus. Because, I mean, there’s only so much space up here, and yeah…


Alright next, here’s your accidentals-laden “Sneak Peak” chords leading into the bridge from before: lemme just play the ones with the peeks: A+maj7, Eadd#11(lydian),  and now we get to the yummy E melodic Minor Diatonics: Em, Aadd9, Emaj7(no3rd), C#ø7, B/E, C#m11, C#o, F#m7, C#o7.


And then we’re to the next section with all the B to F# business: Bsus4add2, F#sus4add2, Badd9, which leads us to the key of F# major and the D#m7, G#m7, turning into D+maj7, G#ø7 (XX0102), which pushes us into F# melodic minor!


And since the pedal note isn’t an open string this time I’m just going to sing it, and yeah, that’ll make it sound something like: C#sus6, Badd9, C#+, D#ø7, A+maj7, F#m, and then we get to our C#m9 (X4X440) chord, and then the tension explodes with the C+maj7b9 (X36600), seriously guitar players this chord exists. And boom! We’ve resolved to our last chorus!


Okay, last, while I’ve got this chart up, I want to point out one thing about the bass notes. So, as you’ve probably noticed, they’re mostly just pedal-tones, or drones, the bass notes don’t switch around a lot—but there is one place where the motion, IMHO, constitutes a bass line: and that’s in the middle of chorus where there’s a walkdown that goes, 6-3-2-5-1. So, that’s pretty cool. But yeah, let’s listen for it when we do the syncs, which we will do right…


Now! Okay yeah, first the overview sync, then back to the chords. Ready? Again, I got the original version of the here, not the Movie soundtrack version, okay let’s go, 3,2,1, sync.


[Does the Sync]


Alright that was fun, but yeah, Okay, one more time—with feeling, and with the chord board!


[Does the Sync]


Alright that’s it for now; I hope you enjoyed this Tonal Trends “Spotter Syncs” songwriting and music theory vlog lesson about the song “Agony” from the Broadway Musical, and now hollywood movie “Into the Woods.”

Until next time, make sure to like us, and follow us on all the websites if you like, and maybe even stick around and watch another music theory and songwriting vlog! Thanks again! Bye!