Creep – Radiohead

tldr: Creep is in G major and consists of four chords, G – B – C – Cm. The G and C chords are the I and IV of G major, but B and Cm are foreign to the key. Their use here— borrowed from G major’s relative and parallel minor keys— adds a D# note between the D note of the B chord and E note of the C chord. This creates a voice-leading pattern of D – D# – E – D# that repeats throughout the song. Although there isn’t a lot of lead guitar work besides the cool octave solo, this is a great song to practice changing scales over the chord changes, and I go into some options below.

Creep Full Analysis

I was playing around with Creep and figured I’d post a quick breakdown on the song, which has some interesting twists based on borrowed chords.

The key is G major and the chords are simply G, B, C, and Cm. The G and C are the diatonic I and IV, but the unexpected chords that give the song its unique feel are B and Cm, as neither comes from the G major scale. The diatonic versions of those chords would have been Bm and C major. The difference is that B and Cm have an D#/Eb as their third note (which is not in the key of G) instead of D and E, respectively.

The consequence of this difference is a voice-leading pattern that repeats throughout the song (in bold):

G:   G   B   D
B:       B   D#  F#
C:        C   E   G
Cm:       C  D#   G

So, D – D# – E – D# – D – D# – E – D# and on and on throughout the song.

The B and Cm chords fit more broadly within the G major key as borrowed chords. The most common places to borrow from are the relative minor key (here E minor) or the parallel minor (here G minor), and both are used here: the B chord is taken from E minor, and the Cm is taken from G minor.

Now, a relative minor key by default has all the same notes as its relative major, so you might think that it wouldn’t make a difference to borrow from it. The trick is that you don’t have to use the natural minor; you can also use the harmonic minor (which has a raised 7 note relative to the natural minor) or melodic minor (raised 6 and 7). The V chord of E harmonic minor is B instead of Bm because of that raised 7th note, which is the D# note.

Also note that a V chord has special significance in harmony, as it has a natural tendency to pull the ear toward its I chord. Instead of a borrowed chord, the B chord could be classified as a “secondary dominant” V/vi chord, meaning that it is a dominant from another key, E minor, that creates an expectation that it will resolve to the i chord of that key, Em, which is the vi chord of the key we are in, G major. You can hear this in action by actually playing an Em chord after the B; it sounds pretty good. And even though that isn’t what happens in this song, which moves to a C chord, that could simply be characterized as a “deceptive resolution” of the secondary dominant to a chord that is not its I chord.

It’s subjective, and your opinion may reasonably differ, but my take is that the B chord doesn’t primarily serve that role here. Because of the context of its role in the voice-leading pattern discussed above, I view it instead as a borrowed chord.

Octave solo

The solo in the song, which is done using octaves, primarily follows the chord tones of the progression. If you don’t know how to play an octave, the first one, G, is played by holding down the G note at the 10th fret of the A strong and the G note at the 12th fret of G string while gently muting the string in between with the bottom of your index finger (the one holding down the lower G note). The octaves, and the chords over which you play them, are:

Chord    Octave(s)    Frets
G        G            10
B        D#, F#       6, 9
C        E, G         7, 10
Cm       D#, C        6, 15
G        B, G         14, 10
B        F#, A        9, 12
C        G, E         10, 7
Cm       D#, C        6, 3

Notice the notes that are used: all are within G major except for that borrowed D# note played over the B and Cm chords.

Lead experimentation

Although there isn’t much lead improvisation in the song itself, you can actually do a lot with these chords. Although there are many options, I’ll highlight just a few:

G:  G major *or*
    G phrygian dominant *or*
    G mixolydian
B:  B major
C:  C major *or*
    G major
Cm: C harmonic minor

Although I list 6 scales, there are actually only 3 scales at play other than G major: G phrygian dominant is identical to C harmonic minor, and G mixolydian is identical to C major. Why name them differently? Generally it has to do with the tonic of the key, but here I’m focusing on their relationship with the chord over which they will be played.

Playing G major, B major, and C major scales over the G, B, and C chords, respectively, is self-explanatory. C harmonic minor over the Cm chord works even better than C natural minor because it replaces a Bb note with a B note. That note is in the G and B chords, and the C major scale of the C chord also has B, so it just makes the C minor scale sound a little more consistent with the song. And playing C harmonic minor over the G chord— G phrygian dominant— carries that exotic feel into the G chord while containing all of the notes of the G chord. Playing G mixolydian over the G chord does something similar, but less exotic and drawing from the C chord instead of Cm.

If you go with G phrygian dominant over G, try also adding an F#, which works because it is in G major. This creates an 8-note scale known as the phrygian dominant beebop scale, which is more commonly used in jazz.

These aren’t the only options, of course. For example, you can play the parent scales for the borrowed chords (E harmonic minor over the B chord, G minor over Cm).

4 Responses so far.

  1. trochitv says:

    I am really grateful to have found this! The harmonics of this song were seriously troubling me. The explanation of my musically talented friends “Well this chord is borrowed” was not really making me sleep better at night. This article does 🙂 I really want to get into music theory! Next up: Toxic ^^

  2. PC says:

    I wonder is this song just a harmonic minor progression. The first chord G belongs to E minor. B, C and Cm are all diatonic to E harmonic minor scale: E F# G A B C D#. Major V chord in minor key is a very popular move (e.g. Sultans Of Swing). To me C to Cm can be seen as a diatonic chord movement in harmonic minor that give you that very distinctive gloomy feeling.

    • mixedup says:

      First, great timing — I just made a new post yesterday and updated another, for the first time in a couple of years, and I was about to update this post, too.  Mainly to clean up the solo section and add mention of the phrygian dominant scale over the G.

      So, you’re right that the progression is made of chords and notes that are also in G major’s relative minor key, E minor.   Specifically, the G is in E natural minor and the three other chords are in E harmonic minor.  (And my view in my original post was that the B chord is borrowed from E harmonic minor).  So your description is accurate.   But, how do we tie this in to the fact that the tonic is G?  The progression resolves to G; the song is in G major.    It could be modal, which is perhaps what you are suggesting:  That this is in G major, using what is called the “Ionian #5” harmonic minor mode.   That is the major scale with an augmented 5, which also happens to be the third mode of the E harmonic minor, i.e. the scale notes of E harmonic minor played over a G tonic. 

      With the disclaimer that I have no formal training, the problem I see with that is that G major is not in that scale (and not in E harmonic minor).   It’s in E natural minor, but there’s not really a mode for that over a G tonic, it’s just G major.   So the explanation would be that the song is in G major, starts with the regular ol’ ionian major scale, then switches to ionian #5 for a three chord harmonic progression drawn from E harmonic minor, then resolves back to G major, which is not in E harmonic minor.   I suppose that is a possible and even plausible explanation.

      But what makes more sense to me is considering all of the chords in relation to the I chord, G major.  Borrowing chords from the relative or parallel minor keys is a common way of pulling in those sounds while staying in the major key.   I see the B as borrowed from the relative minor, specifically E harmonic minor, which perhaps makes our ear possibly expect a resolution to Em, for which the B is the dominant V chord.   That would make it a secondary chord, what’s called the “V of VI” (the VI coming from the fact that the E is the sixth degree of G major).    But the song doesn’t do that; it goes to the IV chord of G major, which is the C.   It’s true that this chord is also VI chord of the E minor scale, but does that sense of it override the role played by a IV chord in a major key?   My thinking is that we really hear this as a IV chord from G.

      And then C minor, a minor iv chord.   While that too is made of notes from the E harmonic scale, it’s sort of an odd construction because you are taking adjacent notes from that scale (C and D#) rather than making the triad from every other note. Maybe that is a thing and I need to learn more about it; I just haven’t heard of doing that.   But I do know that borrowing a minor iv from the parallel minor while in a major key is a very common way to resolve to a tonic.   And, remember, a C minor in E harmonic minor wouldn’t resolve to G major on paper because G major isn’t in that scale (G augmented is the analogous chord).  So you’d have to alter the scale anyway, even under the view that this song is really about E minor. 

      Tldr:   the cleanest analysis to me is still that the song is in G major, where the progression starts and resolves.  The B major is “borrowed” from the relative minor key, specifically E minor (harmonic minor scale).   That creates a cool quality where our ear might expect to be taken to Em, but instead we get pulled back with the C chord, the IV chord in key.   Then the C minor is borrowed from the parallel minor (G minor), which lends a mournful minor quality resolving back to G major.

      That doesn’t mean you’re wrong — the E minor harmonic sounds are definitely prevalent and give the song its distinctive sound.  And you can solo over the chords with that theme in mind.  I just view the construction of the song as Radiohead pulling those sounds into the G major context in the way I described.  It’s the shared notes that create uncertainty and interest in the push and pull between the keys, but we’re always in G major. 

      But if I’m wrong, please let me know.  It will at minimum be in the comments, and if it persuades me I’ll update and edit the post to fix my mistakes.  I’m doing this as I learn, and in order to learn, and if I’m wrong I want to know!   Plus I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone else. 

      Thanks so much for your comment. 

  3. PC says:

    My ears keep telling me C to Cm is where it resolves but I don’t have an solution for it. Don`t get me wrong. I think your analysis does make a lot of sense. It is a very sad song.

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