A non-exhaustive list of 7 times BTS’s songwriting blew my mind with their harmonies
[Disclaimer: this post is written from my perspective, as a music lover and songwriter who grew up listening to music mostly from Brazil, Latin American countries, the United States and United Kingdom. While my late familiarity with non-Western music might make me biased to judge the songwriting patterns in the music of BTS, I believe it may contribute to debunk the dismissive rhetoric that BTS and/or K-pop emulates bubblegum Western pop trends]
Harmony, in music theory and songwriting, is the combination of chords and the emotions they bring up when played together.
So, when a musician talks about the “harmony” of a song, they’re not just saying that the song sounds good, nor necessarily it means they’re talking about a calm song (there is harmony in noisy songs too!).
It’s all about the chord progressions.
Even though I do not have a heavy background in music theory, I have always felt that harmony is the foundation of a good song.
Melodies can only do so much when the harmony is lacking, and lyrics, if we’re gonna be brutally honest, are not indispensable for music — they are one of the biggest reasons why listeners connect with artists, of course, but fundamentally, they are a plus. Harmony and melody without lyrics is still music, while lyrics without harmony and melody are not music.
I’m guilty of not being very experimental with chords progressions, so it’s inspiring to see acts like BTS using such unconventional harmonies.
Without going too deep into music theory (hopefully), I made this non-exhaustive list of 7 BTS songs with super interesting chord progressions.
Some of these chord progressions were chosen because of how they differ from popular songwriting, and some for how they fit into a larger message of the artistry of BTS.
Main chords: G#m — C#m — D— E
What’s interesting about it: A crossover of chord progressions from different harmonic fields
Note: harmonic fields, or tonalities, are groups of 7 chords, grouped according to a specific scale.
Many BTS songs have harmonies where there’ll be 2 groups of 2 chords from the same harmonic field. Or 3 chords from the same harmonic field + a “stranger”.
In these songs, there is a natural relationship between 2 or 3 chords, but not really between the 4 chords together.
In “Path”, the D chord is the odd one out, because it does not belong to the harmonic field of G#m.
Yet, it is the surprising effect of this chord placed amongst the others that makes the song so interesting. It’s a cool touch.
A hidden gem of BTS’s early days, “Path” (also known as “길” or “Road”) would illustrate very well the musical “path” (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) that the group would walk on in their upcoming years.
Let Me Know
Main chords: G — A — Bm
What’s interesting about it: The resistance to add a D chord in the end!
Because “G — A — Bm” is part of what is possibly the most used chord progression in modern pop music ever.
Chances are, even if you don’t recognize it, “D — A — Bm — G”, and all its variations, as well as variations of the famous “I–V–vi–IV” harmony pattern, are engraved in your subconscious if you’ve been paying attention to pop music anytime since you were born. Once you hear at least 2 chords of this progression, you might expect the other 2.
From the genesis of pop music as we know it today, in 1960s hits like The Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You” and The Beatles’s “Let It Be”, until the late 2010’s with hits like Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and Karol G & Nicki Minaj’s “Tusa”, this chord pattern is a no-brainer for a hit formula.
Doubt it? Watch this:
BTS could have added a D chord in “Let Me Know” and closed it as a stable pop song.
Instead, they left the Bm hanging, adding to the mysterious, unresolved atmosphere of the song.
The fact that Bm is a minor chord, often associated to darker and unstable moods, leaves an even bigger feeling of incompleteness.
Vocalists V and Jimin sing: “I just wanna know, know, know”. The harmony says: You won’t.
Main chords: Gb— Db— F — Bbm
What’s interesting about it: Rare chord progression, with an unexpected twist
It’s all sort of okay until the third chord comes. The first two chords are the same chords you will hear in pop hits like Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, or, in a few keys higher, Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”.
But then it lands in… F? Woah. That’s unexpected.
This is another example of what we said above about the chord pattern of “Path”.
“Butterfly”’s chord progression is quite a rare one to hear in popular music.
Interestingly, the closest you will find might be in rock songs — although even in rock you probably won’t find many songs with this chord progression.
- Scorpions — Crazy Ride (Bbm — F# — C# — Ab)
- Fall Out Boy — I’m Like a Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Bbm — C#m — F — F#)
Main chords: F#m — C#m (verse) — G#m — A — Bm — C# (pre chorus) — F# — Bm — D — Dm — C#
What’s interesting about it: The chords converse with the lyrical idea
Paraphrasing BTS in “Intro: 2 Cool 4 Skool”, “we’re now going to progress to some steps which are a bit more difficult”: the relationship between chord progression, lyrics and themes in the music of BTS.
We had a glimpse of it with the analysis of “Let Me Know”, but it’s even more interesting with “Lie”.
This very complicated chord progression combines what we explained previously about “Path”, “Let Me Know” and “Butterfly”. But there is one special addition: the chord progression here supports the lyrics — or, actually, it doesn’t support it; because that’s exactly the intention of the lyric. It’s a “Lie”.
While the verse and pre-chorus of “Lie” are mostly relying in minor, gloomy chords, the chorus is opened by a major chord as Jimin sings: “Caught in a lie”.
The lyrics speak about lost innocence and temptation, and the chorus’ harmony suggests a stable, almost happy mood. However, Jimin’s vocals over it are showing us that that mood is a lie.
I won’t take the credit for this observation, though— I learned it, and you can too, by watching this video:
2:19 — “The major is a lie”
2:30 — “It’s all in minor and the only time it goes to major is when he says ‘Caught in a lie’. He’s lying about the key signature”
Don’t Leave Me
Main chords: G#m — B— C#m (verse) / E — F# — G#m — E — F# — D#(pre-chorus) / E — F# — G#m (chorus)
What’s interesting about it: Literally everything…
I don’t even know what to say… There are so many chords in “Don’t Leave Me”. Possibly one of the most complex chord progressions BTS has ever used.
A-chords are literally the only type that do not appear in this japanese BTS release.
Main chords: Bb — C — Cm — Ebm — Bb
What’s interesting about it: The lyrics and the overall concept of the song are combined with the chord progression to represent the idea that “everything goes”
When “mono” was released, I wrote in a review for KultScene:
“The constant repetition of the line “everything goes,” through a four* chord progression tailored in the technique of tension-release, summarizes the whole mood of the song: whether if you’re in the highest or lowest point of the curve, whatever you’re feeling shall pass one day. It’s all temporary.”
*For this analysis, I disconsidered the last chord since it is a repetition of the first chord.
Indeed, the way the lyrics “지나가” / “Everything goes” repeat through all the chords of the chorus are a musical representation of how emotions and moments are temporary.
Sadness (represented by the minor chord) — It will pass.
Extreme joy (represented by the highest chord, which, interestingly, is also a minor one)— It will pass too.
It’s as if the song is telling you: don’t worry too much, everything goes.
The fact that it starts and ends with the same chord also supports the idea that life is a cycle.
The good and the bad moments, they come and go. There might be peaks in the middle, but everything will pass and you’ll be fine.
“Everythingoes” also comes to show that while lyricism and composition can be approached separately, songwriting is even more powerful when they are approached together.
Life Goes On
Main chords: Ab — Db — Dbm
What’s interesting about it: this cute chord progression is quite counterintuitive for pop standards.
For comparison, check Alicia Keys’s rendition of this BTS song and let’s analyse why she might have interpreted it like this:
Basically, Alicia added Fm in between original Ab and Db, and replaced the unstable Dbm for the stable Eb, ending up with a more stable chord progression: Ab — Fm — Db — Eb.
And it sounded beautiful.
It is the same chord progression of Dolly Parton / Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”; the “I-vi-IV-V” type of chord progression that’s super intuitive because it is commonly heard in pop music, and has produced beautiful and catchy hits for decades. As an experienced and talented songwriter and pianist, Alicia Keys knows that.
However, it is also super interesting to see how BTS deviates from that.
The way “Life Goes On”’s chorus finishes with an unstable chord as they sing “Yeah, life goes on” makes the song sound uniquely genuine and relatable.
Had they closed it with a stable chord, it would sound more definite: life goes on. We are sure of that. Be sure of that too.
But instead, it sounds as if BTS is also trying to convince themselves that life goes on.
It might not be certain, but it is human.
This touching detail in the harmony of “Life Goes On” shows how purpose & songwriting technique can be so intricately related.
Sometimes it is a conscious process, for the songwriter or for the listener, and sometimes it’s not.
But it’s for little things like these that music finds a place in our hearts and minds, in ways that we may not identify, but definitely cannot forget either.
Love BTS songwriting? Here are more pieces and pages you might like:
- My article 5 ways BTS defies songwriting rules — and one lesson aspiring songwriters can learn from them
- Songwriting with BTS — How song structures creates diversity, an article by Alapadma via Borasaek Vision
- Language structure and the rapline’s poetic styles, a panel by Guillermina V at Rhizome Connect
- Musician Armys page on Twitter