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Open to Change in a Well-Worn Tale: Minor to Major Modulation in Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open"

Minor verses give way to plaintive major choruses.

tom petty.jpg

Every year, the music world loses a number of talented folks. We might never lose two of our greatest icons in one year the way we lost Bowie & Prince four months apart in 2016, but losing Tom Petty hurt pretty badly. He may not have been the coolest according to the tastemakers, but especially for my generation of kids who came of age in 1990s Florida, losing Petty was a sucker punch in the childhood. He also transcended fans of all genres, although his music stuck pretty close stylistically to a straightforward roots rock ideal. Folks from all over the map loved him, from hip-hop fans to metalheads. No matter what you were into, you loved Tom Petty, especially in Florida. It's hard imagining a musical landscape going forward without him, but he left treasure troves of wonderful songwriting behind him.

Thank you, Tom. We might not have deserved you, but we're lucky to have had you in our lives either way.


Intro: Tom Petty was not just a folk artist from swampy Gainesville, Florida, but a rock visionary who found continued success with new mediums. "Into the Great Wide Open" comes from his 1991 album of the same title and is just one example of Petty, a musician whose songs were rooted in long-standing folk & rock traditions, breaking into the then-new format of music videos. This video for this song was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award; Petty won three of those awards for other videos, as well as the MTV Video Vanguard Award in 1994 for his overall contribution to the art form. The song was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The album made it into the Top 10 on the Austrian, Canadian, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and British charts and was one of the top 100 US albums of the year. Petty would go on to win 3 Grammys, sold over 80 million albums, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 along with the Heartbreakers.

Analysis: The song begins (the first verse starting at :19 in the above video recording) in what is ostensibly E minor, although it really only stays on an E minor chord with a descending chromatic line beneath (E min, E min +maj 7, E min 7, E min 6). The first two lines of the chorus follow this pattern, with the third line making use of an A minor chord with a similar descending line (A min, A min/G, A min/F#). Although this does not necessarily ensure this musical section is in a minor key/Aeolian mode, the song spends a significant amount of time between i-v, which strongly indicates minor. The fourth line of the chorus steers into major territory (G - F - C), which if we're thinking in E minor, would make for a III-bII-VI chord progression.

There is almost a short pre-chorus section or harmonic motif (first heard at :37) with the chords G - C - G - D, which seems to be a transition into the major key section in the chorus. Starting for the first time at 1:17, the chorus makes use of a G - C - Dsus4 / G - Em - D - Am chord progression in both lines of said chorus. This could be analyzed in G major (the related major to E minor) as a I - IV - V / I - vi - V - ii progression, which is somewhat standard in a major key.  Because of the prolonged presence of i-v, the transition into major, and then the chord progression led by I - IV - V - I in the chorus section, there is a clear case that the song changes from minor in the verses (and bridge) to major in the chorus. This could reflect the change in lyrical material from a story of fame gone wrong told hundreds of times in the verses to a sense of hopefulness in the verses. Petty's drawing out of the words "great wide open" and "skies of blue" seem to indicate some hopefulness. The chorus ends with the line "a rebel without a clue", a line that ends on an E min - A min cadence (i-v), transitioning back into the key of E minor.  

Considerations for Teaching: Many of Petty's songs are staples of school guitar courses, and this song is just as appropriate for school as well as a great example of theory-driven song structure.

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