If you ever have any doubts about the power of impactful songwriting, you should look into the story about how “Let It Go” became the catalyst that created the worldwide phenomenon that is the film Frozen. This was the song that made them totally revise the story (Elsa was going to be a villain until this song came about), and ended up becoming the stand-out of the film, the song that everybody remembers about the film.
Of course, we can create a long list of elements that went into creating this song so impactful, from the soaring chorus melody to the universally relatable lyrics — but in this article I’m going to focus on two themes I noticed as I analyzed the fundamental structure of the song: chord progression with twist endings, and a major chord pair, a whole-step apart. There will be a lot of technical explanations here, so if you need to brush up on your music theory, I have just the article for that.
First, the big picture — the song starts out in the key of F minor, then switches to the relative major of Ab once the chorus arrives. And note the emotional theme of this song is that of defiance: this character is breaking free of her restraints. Knowing that focus is important, because the harmonies used throughout the song support that.
To start out, the opening intro and verse has this chord progression:
Fm Db Eb Bbsus-Bbm
Fm Db Eb Bbsus-Bb
Fm Db Eb Bbsus-Bbm (x3)
Fm Eb Bb
The little touch that lifts that progression up from ordinary is that Bb major chord that comes up to build the anticipation at the end of each section. If you’re in the key of F minor that IV chord should be minor, and it is most of the time. In fact that suspended to minor move emphasize the sadness and hopelessness of the situation — it’s the musical equivalent of total resignation. That really doesn’t work to lead up to somewhere more uplifting, so they turn it into a major chord, which all the sudden sounds… more defiant. What’s changed is just one note but it makes a world of difference here.
The following pre-chorus just goes back and forth between two chords:
Eb Db Eb Db
This is a pretty standard move here, but it subtly supports the theme of defiance, starting out in Eb and going one whole step lower to another major chord, Db. This pairing of two major chords that are one whole step apart is the important harmonic move that delivers the defiant feeling, and it’s used throughout this song.
The chorus starts out pretty generic chord-wise, but the ending has another twist:
Ab Eb Fm Db (x3)
Cm B Db
The I-V-VIm-IV is used in countless songs but the ending achieves a pretty dramatic shift by adding just a couple of chords. That Cm is a iii in the key of Ab, which is very weak-sounding, but it resolves half-step down to B which creates that two-major-chords-whole-step-apart relationship to the Db. (The notation makes it hard to see that relationship, that B should theoretically be called a C flat — but that gets into the territory of music theory for the theory’s sake. If you play the chords on a guitar the relationship is unmistakable, it being two frets apart) So the conclusion of the chorus goes weak then strong, which makes the sense of uplift all the more dramatic and forceful (in a good way).
The second verse deviates slightly from the first, this time to reflect the momentum that the character is feeling about her new life.
Fm Db Eb Bbm
Fm Eb Bbsus-Bb
That brief Ab-Eb move makes it sound like this is a continuation/variation of the chorus, but the verse starts out hurriedly in that Fm, supporting the same verse melody used in the first verse. But this time the verse is half as long as the first and rushes to pre-chorus, and the shortening of the verse creates the heightened energy — not wasting time on verses any more!
The second chorus goes similarly to first, but notice the subtle variation in rhythm — half way through the chorus during the “Here I stay…” line the chord change employs a dotted rhythm instead of straight down beats, giving it an additional “hop” in the energy.
The bridge features two static chords, Db and Eb, but actually each chord is like a small key change, because the melody that sits atop those chords change modes. The first two lines of the bridge melody is in Db Mixolydian, whose notes are Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-Cb. Cb is the same note as B, so this mode helps reinforce that major-chords-whole-step-apart sound again that we’ve seen many times, because the bVII chord that shows up in Mixolydian mode creates that relationship against the I chord. When the song moves to Eb the same melody is repeated a whole step higher in Eb Mixolydian. So the whole bridge is about that sense of defiance created from the major-chords-whole-step-apart sound, building up to the ultimate climax and triumphant return of the chorus for the last time.
So the reason why this song packs such an emotional punch is because of these elements lining up together with a singular focus. Chord progressions have twist endings to create contrast between let-down and defiance, and the harmonic theme of utilizing a pair of major chords whole step apart intensifies the assertiveness.
As far as songwriting goes, I’d say this is more sophisticated and advanced than most rock songs, but once you understand what’s going on you can start to apply some of the same techniques to your own songwriting. Your song may not become the world-wide sensation that “Let It Go” became, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t move listeners just as deeply. As I demonstrated above, the way to elevate your own writing skills is to pick apart songs that are successful and then observe what makes them strong. So learn to play your favorite songs — then study how it’s put together. I’m sure many of us have sung along to this one, but what will take you farther is looking deeper beneath the surface to study the construction of the song. Knowledge is power, and that knowledge is there for our taking in every song.