When Leonard Cohen died last month at 82, he left us more than 100 songs. Most I don’t know. But there’s one that you and I both know, one that’s almost universally known and adored: “Hallelujah.”
Let’s look at why that is.
Start by listening to the first verse and chorus (58 sec):
Let’s take it apart. We’re in C major, so the tonic chord, the emotional home, is a C triad (I). Here’s the first phrase with Romans:
That’s a comfortable, homey phrase of music. The melody winds around G, the reassuringly stable dominant pitch. The harmony is also fully domesticated, touching home (I) three times and the dominant (V) twice. We’re 15 seconds in, and all is well.
The chords at the end of a phrase make up a kind of emotional punctuation called the cadence. This phrase ended on V, which is common. It’s called a half cadence, the musical equivalent of a comma. There’s an unresolved, up-in-the-air feeling because you’re pointing home without actually going home (7 sec):
Feel the dangle? That’s a half cadence.
Now before we get to the magic, let’s geek out on some music theory Easter eggs Cohen has hidden in the next phrase:
“The 4th” is over a IV chord; “the 5th” is over a V; “minor fall” is a minor triad and “major lift” is a major triad. That’s adorable.
For the real magic, we need to zoom out and look at eight measures:
The melody forms a beautiful, yearning arc, starting from middle E (“it goes”), reaching up to high E (“composing”), then falling through more than an octave to middle C on the last Hallelujah. Here it is simplified:
Gorgeous. But as usual, it’s the harmony that conveys the main emotional story.
(Stick with me now. This is cool and comprehensible, and a great window into how music works.)
Remember how the first 4-bar phrase kept coming home to the tonic? I -vi-I -vi-IV-V-I? That made it homey and comfortable. Now look at the chords for these next two phrases — 8 long, slow bars:
I IV V vi IV V V/vi vi | IV vi IV I6/4 V I
We leave home (I) on “It goes like this,” then wander in exile for what is (musically speaking) a very long time. Along the way, we keep encountering LIES. The third chord is a V (on “the 5th”), which promises home…but instead of I , we get pulled sideways to vi, the minor. That’s disconcerting, but okay.
Two chords later there’s another V, another promise of home. But the chord after it — the one that looks like a fraction — isn’t even in the key! A minor chord in our home key has been changed into a major chord, becoming a dominant arrow for another key entirely. It’s called a secondary dominant. In this case it’s the dominant of A minor (vi), which leads strongly to vi. Going from V to vi is called a deceptive cadence , for good reason: it’s a damn lie.
The first vi was disconcerting. The second, stronger one is more so. Twice we were promised our C major home, and twice we ended up on A minor instead. The second one was even tonicized, which is what you call it when a dominant of its very own was created to emphasize it.
As we head into the chorus (“Hallelujah…”), we get a IV. Ooh, I know this one! It could be the first part of a plagal cadence (IV-I), also known as the “amen” because it closes every church hymn. That’ll take us home through another door, like so — and I’ll make it nice and churchy (11 sec):
Amen, see? That would have grounded the phrase and ended our exile. But…it doesn’t do that. We don’t go home. Instead, the IV goes unexpectedly to vi, and we’re pulled sideways to the A minor dark side for a THIRD time (11 sec):
The first one takes us home and tucks us into our bed; the second pivots to our dark minor lake cabin in winter, and the firewood is wet, and the horn just blew three times.
At this point it’s been a full 30 seconds since we’ve been home, an eternity on this scale. Worse, we’ve been teased with home three times. Cohen has us feeling subconsciously homesick. Then finally, finally, we get a V that isn’t a lie. It promises home and delivers, moving to a I on the last syllable of the last Hallelujah. It’s an authentic cadence, V-I, the musical equivalent of a period, full stop.
Here’s my favorite cover of the song. Feel the security of that first phrase, then leave home, wander in the desert as home is thrice denied, then feel the return on the last Hallelujah of the chorus. Beautiful.
Top image by Bill Strain | CC 2.0