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Majorly Numb

Why do the top couple YouTube covers of “Numb” by Linkin Park sound strange?

I’ve been learning Linkin Park’s “Numb” by ear, to cover it on piano. One thing I like to do once I’m done coming up with my version is to check it against other piano covers, typically just the first few from YouTube. This helps me figure out if I missed any tricks or cool representations of sounds from the song that are lacking in my version. However, this procedure recently went awry….

The key of the song is A major (or possibly its relative minor, F# minor, but let’s stick with A major here). We can find that by picking out the melody, and noticing that all (or at least the vast majority) of its notes are drawn from the A major scale.

The main four chords of the song, at least as far as I could tell, were F# minor, D, A, and E. In popular music, we can typically deduce which notes our chords have as their roots by listening to the bass line. It’s playing F#, D, A, E. However, whether that F# chord turns out to be minor is surprisingly a little contentious.

For reference, the chords I’ll be talking about here show up 52 seconds into the music video:

If we assume F# minor instead of F# major, the four chords are all diatonic, meaning that each of their notes is found in the A major scale, without any deviant notes from outside that scale. I don’t know of a better visualization of this than Ableton Live 11’s “scale” mode. Notes in the A major scale are highlighted in red here, and I’ve placed the notes from the F#m, D, A, and E chords on top.

To get a bit of independence from any specific scale, we can number chords relative to the root of the scale. This is usually done using roman numerals, with minor chords in lowercase. Given that most pop songs tend to use diatonic chords, and that the most popular diatonic chords are the I, IV, V, and vi, and that F#m, D, A, E corresponds to vi, IV, I, V in the key of A, I was pretty sure we were dealing with F# minor. Here’s how I would play that section of the track:

But then, I tried to see how other people cover the song. This cover plays an F# major chord, which sounds a little strange to me.

It’s not terribly uncommon for weird choices to happen, so I decided to check out another cover. The other top result is in a different key, but it’s playing D major where I would have played D minor. Weird!

Now for the strange part: I can’t really say that these covers aren’t faithful to the original! In the original, the guitarist is playing power chords through that section. Power chords consist only of the root and the fifth note of the scale, so the third (the note that makes a chord sound major or minor) is technically ambiguous.

However, even based only on the little bit of music theory knowledge that the (diatonic) minor 6 is much more likely to show up than the (non-diatonic) major 6 chord, we can assume the minor 6 is the intended chord here. F#m also sounds much less strange to me—I wouldn’t have written this if the major chord didn’t stick out on a first listen. Other covers and other sources, like chordify, seem to me to get it right.