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Old 3rd September 2018
Gear Nut
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Cool tune!

Most theory taught in conservatories tends to be an analysis of music styles created predominantly in Europe during the "Common Practice Period". That is music from roughly 1650 to 1900. Representative composers would include Bach, Beethoven, Tschaikovsy, etc.

During that time, composers shared many conventions of technique and style with regard to note choices, rhythmic patterns and other forms. Certain resolutions from dissonance were inevitable, and every piece had to have a key center, which every note choice revolved around. And, every piece had to end on that key note, known as the "tonic".

There are many problems with trying to analyze the El DeBarge song in those terms, as it was written long after the common practice period music had become unfashionable. In short, "It's Got To Be Real" is not going to neatly fit the traditional analysis.

In my experience, a huge number of R&B and Soul compositions, like "It's Got To Be Real", are built from a pentatonic scale. Melodies and basslines, too, will be drawn from and reference that pentatonic scale. Other notes can be added to the pentatonic scale as passing notes, or to create melodic tension.

The vocal melody in the verse of "It's Got To Be Real" comes strictly from the F minor pentatonic scale. All the notes he sings are either F, Ab, Bb, C or Eb.

For example, when DeBarge sings "and I'm so glad I found you baby", the notes go right up the scale: Bb, C, Eb, F, Ab, C, Eb, F, Ab. It's straight up scale, except the melody skips the second Bb.

Because the song's melody is built on the F minor pentatonic scale, most professional transcriptions of the song would write the sheet music with a key signature with four flats, basically F minor. That's the closest fit to a common practice key. However, "It's Got to be Real" is not really in F minor in a common practice sense. Neither the melody or the chords move and resolve in a way that fits with those rules.

Also in my experience, most R&B and Soul music will accompany pentatonic melodies with complex chords, each chord having four or more notes. Plain major and minor triads, the backbone of Common Practice Period music and a lot of world folk music, is frequently not considered rich enough sounding in R&B.

To my ears, the chords to the verse of "It's Got To Be Real" are:

Bbm7(add 11) G7#5 C minor7 F7

Two of the chords fit in the F minor key signature: Bbm11 and C minor7. The other two chords include just a couple notes not in the key signature. The G7#5 has a B natural, and F7 has an A natural. So again, most pro sheet music would have the key signature written with four flats, as overall most of the elements of the chords fit in that mode. However, the chord progression is not operating under the conventions of common practice period music and is definitely not following the "rules" of F minor.

As a side note, chords like these were first written down a lot in the late 1800s. French and Russian composers like Debussy and Scriabin used those sounds in some of their pieces. Starting in the 1920s, Jazz musicians and composers like Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Evans incorporated similar chords to the ones from France and Russia and brilliantly developed a number of conventions that would be found in Jazz harmony.