Learn to Play: Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”

“I may not always love you.” How about that for the opening line of one of the most beautiful love songs ever written?

Although it was Tony Asher who wrote the wonderful lyric, Wilson complimented the words by swirling around a couple of different keys, taking us on a harmonious journey only to bring us back home at the end of the hook (key of E) with the lyric, “God only knows what I’d be without you.”

Even an untrained ear can grasp this song’s emotion and color. And yet, for a trained ear, there is a world of beauty to dive into. This combination is rare, and I’m obsessed with it.

The Beach Boys - "God Only Knows" (1996 Digital Remaster)

“God Only Knows” starts out in the key of E major (IV — I — ii — I). Fairly standard. But we're soon thrown into the world of A major when the verse starts on a D/A chord. It's a surprise — we feel like we are on a IV chord in the key of A.

That infamous Bm6 hits us next, letting us know that we don’t exactly know where we’re going. The following F# minor reinforces the key of A major, as it is the relative minor to A.

Then — my favorite — the F#m6. And where does that point to? E major, because of that natural 6th D# in the chord. That note not only gives the chord a tension that needs to resolve somewhere, but that very tension is the leading tone of the key of E.

The very next chord supports that theory, because the next chord is E. However, although we are back at E major, we don’t feel yet feel exactly at home. The E chord is played with a B in the bass, which makes it stable but not resolved.

We are sure of this when we hear the following diminished C chord. At this moment, we are thrown into a swirl of unstable, yet hauntingly delightful beauty in the form of: E/B — Cdim — E/B — Bbmin7b5.

I wonder what the function of that Bbmin7b5 is. It brings us to home key, but still defers the full resolution. The chord points to A, which is the IV chord of E. So then Wilson delivers the hook: A — E/G# — F#min — E. And we’re back home.

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Brian Wilson's complex chords aren't just for show. Each one is a thoughtful and deliberate way of conveying emotion.

If it takes a few complex chords to achieve what we are going after, then we composers better know how to use them and what to call them. We’d better know their proper functions, how to bend the “rules” with them, how to structure and quickly access them.

These are the pieces of our emotional speech. These are the phrases of our impassioned dialect. As activists and revolutionaries move us by roaring a powerful combination of words, composers move us by striking a compelling chord with function and purpose.

Both are thoughtfully constructed, and both are articulated with conviction. It’s all expression. It’s all a part of our speech.

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