December 13, 2017

Otis Redding's Music Theory

Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1967, pop star Otis Redding along with his band perished in a plane crash on a lake in Wisconsin. Otis was at the height of his career. His song “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay,” written with Steve Cropper, was released shortly after his death and became the first posthumous number one record. I have played this song countless times as a solo pianist and as a member of various bands. To me it’s a perfect example of hip chord changes, optimized structure, and interesting story line.
Fifty years ago in December I had decided on a career in music. As a high school senior I was doing my best to prepare myself for music college taking lessons on saxophone, piano, and music theory. One of the first things we learned was chord types — mostly major or minor. A three-note chord built on each tone of the major scale looks like this:
When using chord symbols, the minor triads are indicated with a lower case m, as in Bm (for B minor). This arrangement is the same for every key, and has provided a basic compositional language for hundreds of years.
For the verse of “Dock of the Bay” Otis and Steve chose the I, the iii, the IV and the ii chord, in that order. If you look at this transcription of the first eight measures of the song you will notice that their three and two chord are not minor at all. This very slight change makes all the difference in the sound of the song. I have tried playing the song returning those two chords to their normal state and it is amusingly terrible. It works in an odd way because of the nature of the melody, which will be discussed momentarily. But Otis and Steve’s progression is where it’s at.
In the chorus of the song, the chord choice is the I chord, followed by the vi chord. If we refer to our triad chart we notice that the vi chord is normally minor. But once again, our two songwriters change this chord to major, offering a distinctive progression that schooled musicians would rarely be inclined to employ.
When I did get to music school, I was placed in Music Theory 101, and quickly learned about four part contrapuntal composition. Among the myriad rules is a dictum to “avoid parallel fifths and octaves.” The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines this in musical legalese as: “…[T]he duplication of the melodic progression of one part by another at the distance of a fifth or an octave. Such voice leading is considered faulty and strictly prohibited in classical tonal counterpoint.”
Fortunately for us, Otis Redding was not confined by such archaic directives. If we look at his notated melody and the accompanying chords, we will find that this whole four-bar repeated phrase contains exactly the parallel octaves that classical composers were forbidden to employ. Even when it hits the chorus, Otis still lands on the root of the chord with his melody. I never noticed it until I sat at the piano and, instead of singing the melody, actually played it and compared the treble and bass. “A classicized version of the first four bars of “Dock of the Bay” would look like this:
If I had handed in this melodic invention in my Theory 101 class, red ink would have flowed. The professor would have been puzzled by both the chord progression and the insistence on parallel octaves. It’s a definite breach of classical etiquette. Including an F major chord in the key of G as Otis did later in the bridge would have earned a “see me in my office” from the professor.
What’s the conclusion? For me, I am continually fascinated and envious of the musical inventions of self-taught songwriters. Lennon and McCartney, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell all fall under this category, and I like to describe it as “if it sounds good, use it.” Referring to music theory, trombonist Dan Barrett stated in his interview, “Any knowledge is good.” But there is a downside if adhering to music theory norms inhibits the use of ears and musical intuition.
If you haven’t found it by now, here’s a YouTube link to “Dock of the Bay” for your listening edification.


  1. My freshman year in music school, all students needed to take a general history of western music class taught by the head of the department. When discussing this parallel 5th/8ve rule, he said that every year students point out that you can find examples of both in Beethoven's work, and he laughed -- "but none of you in this room are the next Beethoven."

    I decided right then that I needed to transfer to a different school where the faculty didn't feel so certain making an assertion like that.

  2. Excellent anecdote. It obviously did not occur to him that Brett Beethoven had a certain ring to it.