On its surface, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” seems like an odd choice to include in an analytic series devoted to the IV chord, not to mention to devote an entire entry towards. The song does have a couple IV chords (two, though the section in which they appear returns later in the song), but it is not really an integral part of the song’s harmony. However, much of the song implies this chord (and, specifically, a plagal progression) without actually articulating it, which presents a use for this chord on a level not discussed yet.
In this inevitable, eponymous conclusion to my “4 for IV” series (Parts I, II, and III can be found at the provided links), I examine Van Morrison’s subconscious use of the plagal progression in “Into the Mystic”.
Here’s the studio recording of the song, followed by the functional harmonic (key of Eb Major) and formal analyses of the music:
A: Eb* (I) | | | | Bb (V) | | Eb (I) | |
*liberal mix of Ebsus
B: Gm (iii) | Ab (IV) | Eb (I) | | Gm (iii) | Ab (IV) | Bb (V) | |
Intro (guitar vamp): 0:00
A: 1:48 (horn melody)
A: 2:56 (horn melody)
Tag: 3:18 (last 4 of A)
This song exists in a modified AABA form, which, as its name implies, presents one section of music, repeats it, moves to a contrasting section, and then returns once more to the original section. These four parts would then repeat in this way through the duration of the song. Like Verse/Chorus, AABA forms contain two distinguishable sections, but these two sections have different relationships than those in Verse/Chorus. For that form, the chorus (usually B) is often more important to the identity of the song and contains the main hook; for AABA, the A sections typically take this role, while the B section works as a bridge.
Looking at how the form is laid out, it makes sense that there are two A section verses and then a B section chorus(ie, two verse stanzas and then a chorus, which is repeated), but the B sections in “Into the Mystic” sound and function more like bridges than choruses. The AABA structure does not repeat perfectly after its first statement, as the conclusion of these four sections (1:48 in the recording) gives way to an instrumental interlude on the A section progression, which then moves immediately back into the bridge. The song then ends on two more A sections, the last of which is another instrumental interlude (well, coda here), making its AABA structure seem like a stretch.
However, this is actually a fairly common modification of AABA form in early pop music. The same thing happens in The Beatles’ “From Me to You” (my go-to example of AABA form in pop music), where a full AABA statement is followed by an instrumental tag and then skips to the bridge. The form is still there, it just exists in a condensed state. It’s certainly a modified AABA form, but it seems clear that it is a direct extension of that structure.
Hey wait, there are some IV chords in there!
Although this series does not focus on form, being aware of it is pertinent here because it informs us that the A sections – which do not contain IV chords – are more important to the song’s identity. While I will discuss the significance of that momentarily, let me first cover the function of the IV chords that actually do exist in the song, which both occur in the bridge.
Both are approached by a “iii” chord, but they resolve differently. As I discussed in the intro to the series, the IV chord is the most versatile non-tonic chord, and both of its main uses are on display here. The first one moves directly to a tonic chord, which gives it plagal function. This progression has been discussed into the ground throughout this series, so no need to go into detail on it here. The second one, however, goes to a V chord, which gives it predominant function. As its name implies, this type of IV chord sets up a dominant harmony, which then moves to tonic. The IV chord that has plagal function moves directly to tonic; when it has predominant function, it has an extra step to go through before getting there.
While it is nice to see two clear examples laid out consecutively like this, none of that is terribly unusual or noteworthy. So we’ve acknowledged it, but let’s move on.
There are two aspects of the A sections that imply the sound of plagal progressions despite the lack of IV chords – the use of suspension chords (sus chords) and the bass line. A sus chord substitutes its third for a pitch a perfect fourth away from its root, and it is often used to embellish a major triad rather than having independent function. When the Eb Major tonic traid of “Into the Mystic” alternates with a sus chord with the same root, the G (mi, in solfege) in the guitar voicing moves up a half step to Ab (fa). This ornamentation is used frequently throughout the A sections, though it usually appears at the end of a measure and in rapid alternation with the major triad. By the time the next measure hits, the harmony resolves back to the major triad with more lasting resolution. Because of this, motion is achieved in the music despite the largely static use of harmony by invoking a movement from tension (Ab) moving to resolution (G) to propel the music into the next measure.
The same Ab-G (fa-mi) motion is the defining movement of a plagal progression, as well. This is not an actual example of the- progression because the harmony is essentially staying static, but the implication is there. The sus chord elaboration is a fairly common embellishment in folk music, largely because the layout of several basic block chords using multiple open strings is conducive to this finger movement. This is particularly true with the D major chord on guitar, which is what I believe is used here (with a capo on the first fret). Aside from this logistical reason, though, I think the sound of the sus chord is readily acceptable as a harmonic embellishment because it is so strongly tied to the plagal progression. Like plagal progressions, sus chords appear far more frequently in rock/pop/folk genres than they do in classical music, and I don’t see that as a coincidence.
What helps to distinguish this use of the sus chord in relation to the discussion of plagal progressions is how the bass line that is played beneath it. Here is the bass line that repeats most measures that feature a tonic chord in the A sections, although it’s notable that it is not played the same way each time, with the end of the measure being a particular variable:
In terms of solfege, this pattern would be “do-sol-la-sol-la”. Do and sol are the root and fifth, respectively, of the tonic triad, but la does not belong in the chord. It could be a pentatonic embellishment (discussed in the intro), but knowing what we know about the song’s use of sus chords, it helps to complete the picture of the implied plagal progression.
When paired with the Ab (fa) from the sus chord in the guitar, the C (la) in the bass completes the spelling of the song’s IV chord (Eb is already in the tonic chord). It’s also significant that the embellishments that appear in both the bass and guitar are found in the latter half of the measure, so they are being heard at the same time.
It would seem logical to analyze the multiple embellishments as a full-fledged IV chord – after all, all the pitches are there and sounding together. There are a few reasons why I don’t see these spots in the music as IV chords. First, the consistent presence of the Bb (sol) in both guitar and bass continues to root the chord in its tonic function, which is particularly true in how it receives syncopated emphasis in the bass line. Second, the rhythmic placement of the potential chord tones from the IV chord never lines up precisely, even though the figures in the guitar and bass both occur in the latter half of a given measure. The C’s in the bass are eighth notes that fall on the downbeat of 3 and (occasionally) the upbeat of 4, while the guitar strums with the suspended Ab are generally sixteenth notes starting on the upbeat of 3 and extending til just after the downbeat of 1 in the next measure. The fact that the bass never articulates the IV chord’s root of Ab is also significant. If it did, it might solidify that sound more, but as it stands the C’s sound more like embellishments. One final aspect that complicates matters is Van Morrison’s vocal melody. Generally when these figures in the guitar and bass appear, Morrison’s melody is emphasizing the note G (mi), which works much better in a I chord than a IV.
Regardless of the analysis, the implication of a plagal progression is certainly at play here, and Van Morrison’s intricate layering adds subtle yet refined complication to this otherwise very simple sound. I feel that its implied presence rather than physical existence is further proof of the IV chord’s vitality in rock/pop music: its influence is so great that it can be heard even when it can’t be seen.
Way back in the intro for this series, I contemplated why rock musicians can’t resist a IV chord. There is little doubt that the chord has monumental significance in the construction of rock/pop music, which is largely due to its comforting sound, particularly when paired with the tonic chord (the plagal progression). Hopefully this series has demonstrated that the chord is vital because of its potential for malleability, as its pleasant nature invites experimentation.
Songwriters have used the IV chord and plagal motion to explore both chords outside diatonic harmonies as well key areas beyond a given song’s starting point. This is notable because such exploration is unconventional for most rock/pop songwriters, and by using this chord, their harmonic detours seamlessly transition in and out of an established diatonic realm.
Its use is so common that entire albums can inadvertently come off as abstract ruminations on the chord and its myriad functions. I found this to be true with Sleepy Kitty’s Projection Room, which featured both secondary plagal and modulatory functions of the chord as well as several others. The IV chord is even so prevalent in rock/pop music that it can serve as a sentient apparition even when it is not actually present, as I found to be the case in Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic”.
For aspiring songwriters, hopefully this series has provided you ample fodder for ideas on how to creatively use this chord, and hopefully it encourages you to seek out other inventive ways to implement it into your music. And for anyone who just enjoys listening to music, hopefully what I have presented here facilitates your increased appreciation of this music you love, and you can now listen to one of your favorite songs with a new set of ears as you realize, “hey, another IV chord!”