There are several things going on in the song “What I like About You” by the Romantics. Depending on your perspective, you can refer to the key in a few different ways. And you can play a few different scales. In this free guitar lesson, I”ll break the song down and explain all the music theory elements occurring in it.
First off, I”m going to just focus on the chord progression used in the verse and chorus, which is E A D A. I”m skipping the bridge section. And I”ll be referring to some of the places in my book, Fretboard Theory, where I mention this song. In the book I say that “What I like About You” stems from the A major scale.
Parent Major Scale
The chords used in “What I like About You,” E, A and D, stem directly from the A major scale. They are V, I and IV (5 1 4). There is no other major scale that includes these three major chords together. Howeverâ€¦
E, not A, is the tonic. That means that it”s functioning as the tonal center of the song. This is a mode. When the fifth scale degree of the major scale functions as the root it”s called Mixolydian mode. So, “What I like About You” is in E Mixolydian mode. However, there”s moreâ€¦
It”s common in rock music to apply a blues technique that uses a minor third interval over a major chord. This is especially true in Mixolydian mode. “What I like About You” uses a minor third in the vocal melody. I refer to this in Fretboard Theory at the bottom of page 104.
As for the harmonica solo, guess which key harmonica is used? A! Why? Because blues harmonica players treat the tonic chord as a V and then play its parent major scale. The parent major scale is A. And blues harmonica players have a technique that is used to bend downward and produce flat notes–this is how they get the notes of the minor pentatonic.
As for the word “key,” this is a topic that causes much confusion (as I state in my book). I choose to focus on the simplest and most fundamental handling of the subject, which is to fit everything into a parent major scale first. But there certainly is more to do after that. I”ll have a whole chapter dedicated to this topic in my upcoming book, Fretboard Theory Volume 2. In the meantime, here”s a quick explanationâ€¦
The word “key” is used to refer to either the parent major scale, the tonic chord, the chord progression or, sometimes, the melody. Unfortunately, there just isn”t one agreed upon approach. For example, most people would say that “What I like About You” is in the “key of E” simply because the first chord is E. Some people would call it the key of E because they rightfully recognize that E is, in fact, the tonal center. Others would clarify the last example and say “E Mixolydian mode” which specifies that the parent major scale is A. Some would simply call it the key of A because they recognize that the chords stem from that scale. Still, it wouldn”t be out of the question for a musician to say that it”s in the “key of E minor,” especially a guitar player who uses E minor pentatonic scale patterns over it. Do you see why there”s so much confusion? And how do you know what scale to play? A major? E major? E minor?
What I like About You Key
The truth is, the most correct way that the key of “What I like About You” can be described would be something like: E Mixolydian mode with minor blues. That accounts for the parent major scale, A, tonic, E, the mode and the minor third interval used in the melody.
Interestingly, if you take the notes of E Mixolydian (A major) and flat the third (G# to G) Ã la the blues scale, then you end up with notes that match E Dorian, which stems from the D major scale. See below.
A major scale
A B C# D E F# G#
E Mixolydian mode
E F# G# A B C# D
E Mixolydian with b3
E F# G A B C# D
E F# G A B C# D
D major scale
D E F# G A B C#
What Scales to Play
So what are your scale options? Well, you can definitely use A major scale patterns because A is the parent major scale. Just remember that this is a mode so A is not the root, E is. This is E Mixolydian mode.
Because the tonic chord is E major, you can use E major pentatonic. All the notes of E major pentatonic are found within the A major/E Mixolydian scale.
Because this is a rock song in Mixolydian, you can play minor over major for a bluesy sound. In other words, use E minor pentatonic. Except the note G, all the notes of E minor pentatonic are found within the A major/E Mixolydian scale.
If you use a combination of everything above, you”ll end up with patterns that look like the D major scale. So you could think D major scale patterns, but with the tonic, E, this is actually more like E Dorian mode. All the notes of E minor pentatonic are found in E Dorian.
In my book, Fretboard Theory, I first taught that “What I like About You” is in the key of A because as a guitar player, you need to recognize which parent major scale the chords come from and the mode. Then you explore your options from there.
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Play Until Yer Fingers Bleed!
Mr. Desi Serna
Excellent explanation, Desi, thank you.