Ah…. Stairway. There’s so much has been said about “Stairway to Heaven” that the song needs no introduction. Clocking in at 8+ minutes, it is THE song in Led Zeppelin’s catalog that people point to. How did they craft such a massively popular song that defines not just their sound but also the decade and even perhaps the whole genre of classic rock?
Songwriting and Arrangements
For such a well-known song, it feels strange to realize that the song has no chorus. The song has three distinct sections — the folky and intricate beginning, the steady middle section and the explosive final section. But the song doesn’t simply meander from section to section — it’s a carefully constructed journey that has four streams or layers of progression occurring simultaneously. They are:
- Intricate to bold (composition / gesture)
- Exotic to familiar (harmony / chords)
- Thin to thick (arrangement / instrumentation)
- Slow to fast (tempo / momentum)
The song starts out with a delicate acoustic passage, in the key of A minor. Except that it temporarily detours to a D major chord, before settling back down to F major.
Am Am9/Ab C D F (G) Am
(Real chords played on the guitar are more complex, but I am just noting the basic harmony)
The A minor scale has the notes, A B C D E F G, so the D chord, which has the notes D F# A, suggests an A Dorian mode / harmony (A B C D E F# G). Dorian is very common in rock songs that have a minor chord as its tonal center. Raising that sixth note in the scale makes it sound more uplifting. But here the song immediately goes back to F natural on the next chord, F major, which sounds like a sad conclusion after a hopeful hint. Having a mode change in the middle of progression is the reason why this passage sounds so exotic.
These two chords, D and F, form an important harmonic signature of the song. Jimmy Page recognizes the specific impact they have to the feel — D is the uplifter, F is the letdown. And they show up at key moments throughout the song to play their roles.
The intro starts out with the main progression of the song repeated twice, then going into a contrasting section that has chords like this:
C D F Am C G D
C D F Am C D F
So that D to F move is repeated, notice that the end of the first phrase ends on the uplifting D chord while the second one concludes on that D to F again. Jimmy Page is creating a pattern of present and uplift then a letdown.
After a gentle, and sparse intro, Robert Plant comes in with a melody that’s made up mostly of step-wise motions, going up and down the A minor scale. There are no big dramatic gaps in this melody, calling attention to itself, but it is constantly moving, usually in another “up then down” motion. If the main chords are the big waves, Plant’s melody forms small waves that weave in and out of bigger building blocks. Everything thus far is intricate and languid.
But after going through one verse, the acoustic guitar ups the activity level, leading to the entrance of electric guitar strumming. The timbre of acoustic guitar creates intimacy, while electric guitars are capable of creating grandeur. So Page is moving up a step in terms of how big the gesture is.
After dwelling on an interlude that emphasizes the D major chord, Page creates a different progression to support the same verse melody that Plant delivered earlier.
C G/B Am C G/B F
Notice this time the arc is different — it starts on C, descends to Am, go back up to C but goes back down, ending on that “letdown” chord of F. So it’s an down-up-down motion. And the passages are shorter now — two phrases of vocal melody are grouped together as one stanza, with the interlude (and the accompanying “makes me wonder” that shows up here and there) inserted in-between. Shorter section increases the sense of urgency — the song is moving quicker now compared to the more languid opening section.
Despite the repetitiveness of the melody, Page must have felt confident that the faster pace would keep the audience listening. He stretches out two stanzas and three interludes without much change but then at the onset of the third stanza he brings in the big gun in his arsenal — John Bonham. At this point Robert Plant changes up the vocal melody as well. So even though we’re still in Section B according to the chord progression, the drums and vocals change things up to keep them interesting.
And what chord is used to herald the next change, the biggest and most dramatic one yet? It’s the designated uplifter — the D major chord. Once again this lone not-in-the-key-of-A-minor chord is used as an accent and splash of distinct color.
After giving the D-based progression a good pounding, the band launches into a guitar solo on a relatively mundane Am-G-F chord progression. But after going through more intricate and ambiguous passages, this simplification comes across like punching through clutter with a big fist. The familiar nature of these chords serve to create a sense of bringing it home. That’s a very effective recipe for anchoring an adventurous and ambitious song with a good dose of accessibility. If the climax featured more exotic chords and twisted passages, it just doesn’t deliver the same kind of hook.
The solo builds tension to the final climax, which inserts a passing G chord to climb up from F back to Am, creating a down-then-up motion, the opposite of what we started with. And for the first time in this song Robert Plant lets his tenor rip and roar, and thanks the long periods of restraint preceding it, the climax creates a dramatic impact.
As the song moves on to the coda, the chords go back to the downward motion of Am-G-F, and that’s how it ends. And what chord dose the song end on? The letdown of the F chord leaves the song in a somber, unsettled and open-ended place. Only Robert Plant’s lone voice delivers the conclusion, having peeled off all those layers that got built through the song.
So even though on the surface the song may come across like it simply wanders from A to B to C, Jimmy Page and Co. carefully mapped out arrangements to that the whole thing comes across like a cohesive and rich journey. Think of it like an ensemble film — when you have more than one protagonists to follow as they evolve and change through the story, it creates a richer experience. It’s common to see songs with progressions of sparse to dense or low to high, but typical songs have only 1-2 such layers. This song evolves on four different layers, creating a rewarding listening experience even after you come back to it many times.
Performance and Production
When the composition and arrangements take the center stage, performance and production serve simply as the delivery mechanism. Because there is rich content to deliver, there isn’t a huge need for the performers and engineers to insert a lot of points of interest.
In fact, the most notable characteristic of this performance is the restraint. Led Zeppelin is very capable of flash and flare, but here they stick to the base parts with minimum frill and deviation. When John Bonham finally makes an appearance, he doesn’t draw attention with busy fills — this time he lets his drums follow the guitar and stick to the basics. Even during the climax, the intensity comes from the contrast, not because the band playing super dramatically.
Similarly, the production doesn’t insert anything noticeable to the mix. The reverb is of medium length, striking the right balance of being neither too small or large. The mix is balanced and predictable, placing the guitars closest to the audience and having the vocal and drums cut through from farther back.
So how do you create an 8+ minute epic that is loved by so many? Of the four elements of musicmaking (composition, arrangements, performance, production), the first two take the center stage in this song. And when those foundations are so luxuriously constructed, the latter two simply have to deliver what’s been built. As I was analyzing this song I was reminded of why Star Wars is an ensemble story. Think of the journeys that Luke, Leia, Han and even Darth Vader go through. From Episode IV to VI, each of the character go through a number of discoveries about who they are. Stairway to Heaven is a well-constructed ensemble piece, but this time it’s not necessarily that four musicians are taking a journey, it’s four masters working closely together and sticking to their carefully laid out script to tell a story that has four different layers.
No wonder it’s regarded so highly. I habitually analyze virtually all the songs I like, but I’ve never noticed a song with such multi-faceted architecture. The layered approach works brilliantly here, so much so that even though the individual players showcase only their restraints in this song (excepting Jimmy Page’s iconic solo) as a group they hit the pinnacle of their creative prowess. It is truly inspiring stuff, wholly deserving of the status as the seminal act’s signature tune.