Comfortably Numb Key and Chords
Pink Floyd’s song, Comfortably Numb, features chords that don’t fit together into any one major scale, causing many guitar players to wonder which key it’s in and why the chords work together. Here you see how each song section breaks down, where the chords come from, and what scales to play.
The verses are straight out of the B minor scale, moving backward from Bm to A to G, skipping F#m and ending on Em before repeating. By number these changes are i-bVII-bVI-iv. That’s “one, flat-seven, flat-six, four” in case the Roman numerals are throwing you off. You might better understand these chords by viewing them as being in the relative major, D. In this case, Bm is the vi chord (six chord) and the whole progression is vi-V-IV-ii. That’s “six, five, four, two.”
Scales to play: However you view them, the chords are drawn from the parent scale of D major/B minor and so you can use any type of D major/B minor scale pattern for lead lines. You can also play the simpler five tone pentatonic scale, specifically, B minor pentatonic.
“There is no pain you are receding” D-A (1:22 in the embedded YouTube video)
This next section changes from B minor to the relative major, D. D-A is I-V (one, five). You can continue playing the same scales as before, but now your focus has shifted from B to D. B minor pentatonic is also D major pentatonic.
“You are only coming through in waves” C-G (1:37)
This is where guitarists get thrown off. Where does the C chord come from? Well, it doesn’t come from the key of B minor/D major because B minor/D major features a C# note, not a C natural that is needed for the C chord. So, something is different here. What’s actually happening is a key change and many musicians would view it as the composition technique called modal interchange.
Modal interchange, or modal mixture, is when notes and chords from parallel scales are combined. Parallel scales are different scales that both start on the same pitch. One of the most popular ways in which this occurs is the mixing of Ionian mode (the plain major) and Mixolydian mode (a major scale with a flattened seventh). Using D as your starting point, the two scales look like this:
D major scale
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
D E F# G A B C#
D Em F#m G A Bm C#mb5
I ii iii IV V vi viib5
D Mixolydian mode (the 5th mode of G major)
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
D E F# G A B C
D Em F#mb5 G Am Bm C
I ii iiib5 IV v vi bVII
In the key of D major the three major chords are D, G and A, which together make the typical I-IV-V chords of a key. In the key of D Mixolydian, the three major chords are D, G and C which are actually I-IV-V from the G major scale (specifically D-G-C is V-I-IV in the G scale), but when renumbered to reflect the modal starting position of D become I-IV-bVII. The main difference between D major and D Mixolydian is the flat seven chord, C. Since major and Mixolydian are two popular major key types, you sometimes see composers mix them together. This means that you get a total of four major chords: I-IV-V from the major and bVII from Mixolydian. In the key of D this becomes D-G-A-C, or I-IV-V-bVII. Another way to think of this is that you’re borrowing the C chord from the parallel scale of D Mixolydian. Borrowed chords and modal interchange mean the same thing.
Scales to play: When playing over a song that mixes two different scales you have a few options when it comes to scales.
- You can switch scales completely, which in this case means changing from D major scale patterns to D Mixolydian patterns (which are really just G major scale patterns). Flattening the 7th degree of the D major scale, C#, to C natural will accomplish the same thing. Perhaps you’ll find it easier to think of it that way.
- You can stick in the D major scale throughout and just avoid the C# when the C chord comes up.
- You can just play a D major pentatonic, which doesn’t include a 7th degree at all (it doesn’t include a 4th either, but you can play one in both major and Mixolydian).
- Finally, you can avoid soloing altogether, which is a choice to keep in mind the more complicated a chord progression becomes.
David Gilmour himself opted to use the full D major scale, and then mostly avoided the C# during the C chord, except at 3:02 when he included the C natural. The closing lead guitar solo is played over the original progression Bm-A-G-Em and mainly sticks to notes from the B minor pentatonic.
So you now see that “Comfortably Numb” is primarily based in the D major scale with some focus on the relative minor, B minor, but then borrows from the closely related D Mixolydian scale which adds another major chord into the mix (as well as a b7th into the lead line).
Wow. Thanks for shedding some light on a complicated guitar concept. Really helps with getting creative with your own guitar compositions to see key options opening up for you.
Yep, I play along to the live 8 and Gdansk performances often. Your explanation is spot on, but then again I learned it from you and by playing along with Gilmour dozens of time. Good job Obi-Wan.
Very useful theory tutorial – thank you! The last paragraph says”.. but then borrows from the closely related C Mixolydian scale.. ”
Is the C Mixolydian a typo? Should it be D Mixolydian? If C Moxolydian is the correct related scale then, I didn’t understand it as well as I thought I did 🙂
Thanks, Desi. That’s fantastic. This is one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve just about manged to work out the first solo and am about to start figuring out the ending one. The information you provided will really help me out by giving me the starting point, i.e. which scale to use and which notes to avoid. Having an understanding of what is going on really makes learning songs so much easier, especially complicated ones like this.
It should be D Mixolydian mode. Will change. Thanks.
What seems head-achingly complex at first, Desi makes simple!
Thanx for that.
Now if only I could induce him to ‘Desify’ Bobby Womacks origninal take on: ‘All Over Now’ … esp. those incredible opening guitar licks(sigh)
Desi, once again you provide great songs to analyze. I have worked through 1 and 2 books and cannot wait to get into this.
I think try to look at such popular songs from a modal point of view could create potential confusion as such the explanation above.
Western popular music is based around the tonal system or major-minor scale and 12 keys. This songs could be broken down to a simple explanation of a C# as a chromatic chord used outside the key but not a full blown modulation.
Modal theory is good for may be drone based/guitar instrumental music but doesn’t work for most popular songs which is major based on tonal music. and modal harmony being the most problematic as due problems not having leading tone etc…but a good effort anyways!
Excellent analysis ! The breadown of the solo and the various intricacies are well explained keep it up .
For the first solo I see a very simple thought process. For the DADA section he is simply playing arpeggios, (D-F# for D chords and A6 for A chords) and sticking with the D major scale for passing tones. The melody seems to gravitate toward the D note. I see this section as I-V.
When he moves to the CGCG section he is now playing G chord arpeggios with lots of passing notes. He’s using the G major scale so he doesn’t stray to far from D major. Notice how he sits on G, B and Ds (G chord) most of the time. I see this section as IV-I. I and IV chords are very friendly soloing chords.
The last few solo bars begin with a G note (the end of the CGCG section) and then wraps up the solo with a B minor pentatonic flourish.
I think this solo stands out because he avoids the usual pentatonic scales and licks. He instead allows the phrases to breathe and he highlights the chords with arpeggios which are more common among jazz musicians. He rocks it with exciting rhythms and bluesy bends. Great guitar playing.
For the second solo Gilmore is simply showing off his B minor pentatonic skills probably to kick up the excitement a little.
It’s lovely to hear what he did, but there is no way Dave Gilmour knew all that, or did it deliberately – when you write a song, you have in your mind what you want, and you search through the chords you know until you find something that fits – I’ve done exactly the same myself. I’ve used nearly every chord I know, not even knowing which key it fitted in. I hate it when my musical friends tell me that I can’t do something because it’s not perfectly in the key – I have no idea what they are talking about. So when he did the solos, he simply avoided anything which didn’t fit, and ended up with something that worked. You can hear it working or not.
If you listen to Roger Waters talking about Pink Floyd, he always thought they were rubbish musically. So take heart. Listen to the theory if you want to reproduce it, but write whatever comes out, and if it works, it works…
We are not all as gifted as David Gilmour. For most of us, ideas don’t come naturally. Rather than go without, we can study music theory and learn how to apply composition techniques to our playing. In many cases, players will start to hear parts after they train themselves to hear them. That’s the focus of my instruction.
Thanks for this, Mr. Serna. I am new to guitar (1 year) and music theory and purchased your first book after listening to your wonderful 21 episode podcast, on Spotify. Having gone “all in” on music theory, I must admit I lost sight of you after sometime as I eventually built up a nice little collection of books. Reading this analyses reminded me that I got sidetracked away from you in my enthusiasm and why I liked your teaching in the first place, i.e. such clear and concise explanations of fretboard theory with everyday applications to the guitar. I will definitely give tyat first volume of yours the place of honour it deserves in my arsenal of immediate references and check my library to see if I ever did get around to purchasing that second volume and should I not have it, will give it a home right next to Ted Greene’s books…Regards, from Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada.
Thank you sir!