Black Hole Sun and Borrowed Chords

I think back to my Rock Band days: Sitting in my friend’s living room during the middle school awkwardness, playing this track on a plastic guitar, then eventually on plastic bass and drums. I was fixated, mesmerized. Even the times I had heard this song before – on the radio or in the movies or what have you – I always found my ears erect, perked and delighted. The sound is so otherworldly, but not demented or twisted. Just…Strange. Captivating. And beautiful. Like an extraterrestrial, I can’t help but gawk at the alien life.

To me, there are two factors planting this song somewhere on Mars, and the first is the chord selection. More than half of the chords are non-diatonic, and even the tonal chords are approached in such bizarre ways that, well, they may as well be non-diatonic too.

The second is the guitar sound, but I’ll touch on that later.

Also, let me preface this by saying that the recording I have seems to be detuned and it made for transcribing this stuff oddly frustrating. I listened to multiple different recordings on youtube – which I know are sometimes messed with to avoid copyright issues – listened to the music video, listened to the mp3 in my library, and they all seem just slightly flat. Might be a studio trick Soundgarden employed? Or it could be messed up files? Or maybe it’s just the grunge sound 🙂

I’ll skip over the intro because it’s basically the verse, but cut a bit short. Seven measures instead of eight, and it hangs on that V chord to bring us nicely into the I. Here’s how the verse looks:

       |G       |Bb      |F       |Em     |
   G:  I        bIII     bVII     vi

       |Eb      |D       |G   F   |Ab     |
   G:  bVI      V        I   bVII bII  

(I suppose you could look at that Ab as a Neapolitan chord if you’re so inclined. But I see it as being borrowed from the phrygian minor as opposed to regular, plain old aeolian minor)

Look at all those borrowed chords! How sickeningly sweet! A whole bunch of major chords never sounded so out of this world, did they? I mean, this song might as well be in E minor, but it’s not. And the fact that it’s in E Major is just oh-so-juicy, isn’t it? For a laugh, try playing in that parallel minor instead. You’ll be sorely disappointed 😉

The vocal melody landing on the E for those first three measures makes for some real juicy harmonies if you want to get technical. The G is a G6, the Bb – which is also supported by a G in the guitar part – is a Bb6#4 (!) and the F is an Fmaj7. Holy hell! Jazz? In my 90s alternative rock song?

Also, dig how the V does in fact go back to the I, but if only for a moment. It’s a nice touch. Just when we get some footing we’re whisked away again.

For more of these sorts of chords, see…Well, a lot of

Everything In Its Right Place
Pyramid Song
(I’m sure I’m missing a lot more)

Lady Grinning Soul
All the Madmen


And of course there are Beatles songs that will use bIIIs and bVIs (I Am the Walrus, Honey Pie, Mean Mr. Mustard), but you’d be hard pressed to find a pop song with THIS many borrowed chords! I mean, they’re all there! It’s crazy to think that this song was number one on the radio for seven weeks. I’m inclined to believe that it’s the simplicity of the melody which gets the song stuck in your head. It’s got such a nice rhythm propelling you into each chord you can’t help but follow wherever it leads. Reminiscent of Life on Mars, I think. A fascinating progression disguised by an elegantly simplistic melody. A trick of a true songwriter.

And LISTEN to this chorus! Have you ever heard a chorus so far out there? So non-diatonic, yet singable? Here’s how it comes out:

       |Eb       |D      |G   F    |Bb     |
   G:  bVI        V       I   bVII bIII

       |Eb      |D       |C       |D       |
   G:  bVI      V        IV       V  

To be honest, I’m not 100% convinced that this chorus is still in G. It’s set up nicely by the Ab chord, aka the IV/bVI (jesus) in this context, but tell me: Where do you feel this chorus rests? That Bb > Eb sure is cadential, isn’t it? But then the D commands that G, as set up by our earlier verses. And then it’s gone real quick.

Where is the tonal center of this chorus?

But more importantly:

How often can you ask this question of a pop song?

I’ll skip over the bridge, it’s a nice little riff, although I was personally never too fond of it. Nor the solo, either. Always killed the momentum of the piece for me.

Lastly we have the sort of mantra/variation on the chorus that’s worth discussing:

Oh wooon’t you coooooome (Black hole sun, black hole sun)

       |G      |F       |A       
   G:  I       bVII     II         

I must admit I’m a sucker for three-bar diddies and this one’s pretty nice! I like how they seem to loop organically, never starting or stopping, always going in circles. We also get a new chord not heard anywhere else in the song, that major II aka the V/V.

And that’s it! I’ve heard this song too much these past couple days, so it’s time for something else. Other miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I mentioned the guitar sound earlier, and I’ve always been in love with it. If I could live inside of a Leslie speaker, I would. Kim Thayil mentioned how the Leslie gives the song a “Beatlesesque” vibe and while I can see that, I don’t hear it myself. More of a Dark Side of the Moon kinda sound, I think.

  • Really dig how Cornell’s vocals get doubled up for the chorus. Not the obnoxious harmony in the back (sorry, not a fan), but the second take he has layered on the lead. It’s nicely done, and, to my ears, very Lennonesque. I’m sure Kurt Cobain approved, too 🙂

  • The guitar is in drop D, making that opening part sound pretty heavy and, of course, getting that nice low D power chord in the chorus. GRUNGE, MAN!

  • Some chords are power chords and as such the third is not necessarily defined. But I find that a lot of times the power chord implies the tonality and your ears fill in the blanks. This is a whole subject worth its own discussion at some point in the future…

  • That bVII in the seventh bar of the verses might not actually be a bVII. The notes in the guitar are F-B-D, the bass is an F and the melody is an A right on that third beat. I suppose it could just be a sort of passing chord on the G, but my ear hears harmonic movement happening. Mileage may vary…

  • Aside from the single minor vi in the verse, this song is entirely major chords. It’s called Black Hole Sun, and 90% of the chords are “happy” 😛

  • I didn’t even talk about the lyrics. Apparently Chris Cornell wrote them really fast and they’re not much about anything. Just imagery. I’m not the type to read much into those sorts of things, so they are what they are. They serve to create a vibe for the song and I think that’s really it, and they do it well.

  • I still don’t know what a black hole sun is.

  • When recording Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain famously said that the lyrics don’t matter, the melody is most important. To me, this song stands as a testament to that mentality.

If you guys know of any other songs that religiously use borrowed chords, please let me know! Also, ff you have any suggestions for songs you’d like me to analyze, please feel free to leave a comment or message me here or on reddit or wherever 🙂


7 thoughts on “Black Hole Sun and Borrowed Chords”

  1. I came here from Reddit and really enjoyed this post and the Come on Eileen one. Is there any chance you could group your music posts under a Category in WordPress? I would love to subscribe to those on RSS but the other topics you cover are not really my thing.

    Keep up the good work.


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