Theory in action: Radiohead and polychords

Having had to take and largely suffer through 4 years of music theory in college, it's unavoidable that I think about music structure and harmony.  Sometimes understanding those details doesn't explain at all why things work or don't, but sometimes... it's interesting. 

With this series, I plan on exploring some of my favorite bands, songs and interesting tidbits going on under the surface that I believe help make the music what it is.  I'll try to keep it straight forward for people who aren't really into music theory that much. 


Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely," and polychords

I was thinking about this topic when I made a cover of this song.  I remember the first time I heard "How to Disappear:"  I was on a train going from Boston to NY.  I was into Radiohead, but I didn't love them or anything.  This song made me love them.

It opens up with this haunting chord played by strings, then guitar and some synths come in.  I'll put a link to the Radiohead version on youtube below, feel free to play it while you listen.  The specific chord I'm going to talk about plays through much of the song. 

The structure for the open is this repeated pattern- two chords back and forth (a D major and F sharp minor).  That's all fine, but the magic is the sustained string chord, those first sounds you hear when the track starts, which is a polychord.  It's actually two different chords played simultaneously: D major and f sharp major.  I love beautiful, sustained chords.

Polychords can give things really cool effects- etherial, sparkling, powerful, depending on the chord choice.  If you play an instrument where you can do this (like piano), try it out.  Play an F sharp chord in one hand and a D in another. The point is that they happen simultaneously.

Listen to another polychord- one from from American composer Aaron Copland.  You may think you don't know much Copland, but at least in the U.S. you probably do.  If you don't, google "Fanfare for the Common Man" "And Rodeo" (Beef, it's what's for dinner).  In the open to his piece "Appalachian Spring," he has a beautiful polychord (link below). 

The two chords he chose to make this polychord aren't haunting like in the Radiohead song, but the sustained polychords impart an otherwordliness in both examples.  It's a pretty modern sound.

Do Bands Think About This Stuff?

My favorite bands usually have pretty interesting music "under the hood."  Other popular bands have amazing performers, or words like poetry.  I wish I was into those things more (maybe I'd dig Bob Dylan more), but I find myself drawn to the interesting music part.

Sometimes bands with interesting music know the theory behind what they are doing, and sometimes they don't think about it much (Radiohead seems to).  So, if you make music, experiment with polychords sometime.  Just play some different chords and hear the complexity.  Maybe you'll hear something in there to inspire your next song.

If you don't write music, but you like to listen with some insight, maybe this will give you a different type of appreciation for "How to Disappear Completely."

Let me know if you like this kind of stuff, I could talk about these things forever.  Also, leave your own perspectives in the comments.

"How to Disappear Completely" on youtube: (youtube has an ad you can skip)


"Appalachian Spring" (polychord is at about 0:21)


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Jason April 11, 2017 @08:03 pm
Thanks for that! Love radiohead so it's great to get any little insight into the theory behind their music. You may be interested in checking out this:
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Sean Harold November 26, 2014 @05:49 pm
Hey just checking back in here as I was googling Radiohead music theory again and I stumbled back on your site, and saw my old comment. You ever give it some thought?
Dan December 18, 2013 @11:42 am
Hi Sean- great idea. Let me think a little about Paranoid Android. Hopefully when things calm down a little I can post something new. -D
Sean Harold December 15, 2013 @11:37 am
I love talking about Radiohead's music theory. They are one of the only bands that stump me as to how they "got there" within a particular song. Airbag is so wonderful, truly an amazing piece, and it's like a seesaw between A and Dm. I love that I - iv or V - I relationship. Could you take a stab as highlighting some of Paranoid Android? Especially the theory behind the transitional parts? I can't find a pattern in it where I can say "Ah Ha! That's what they did." Or maybe Pyramid Song - is it in Phrygian mode, or is it something not enteiely textbook? Anyways thanks - Sean
Dan May 18, 2012 @02:23 pm
It's related- they use what's basically a pedal tone, which also can be awesome. That's the droning guitar and bass line that goes the whole time. Then they have the song going on with chord changes above it. Sometimes there are brief moments where there are polychord-like sounds, but the drone itself isn't a polychord, like in "How to Disappear."
Christopher Battle May 18, 2012 @01:33 pm
How about "Going to California?" Is that similar?

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