This article is about a technique in metal song composition that hasn’t received it’s fair share of attention, the turnaround. “Turnaround” is a term used more broadly than just metal, and it comes from blues music, where it describes a figure at the end of a twelve- or sixteen-bar blues that leads into the next verse or cycle of the blues form. Its use in metal is a bit more specific, and has to do with defining key. My goal is to explain a neat ambiguity of tonality in a turnaround used in Ozzy Osbourne’s song “Crazy Train” (and by “ambiguity I mean two conflicting possibilities, not vagueness). But to understand what’s happening in “Crazy Train,” you’ll need to know how turnarounds are used in riff-based metal songwriting.
Most metal music, and a lot of hard rock as well, is based on the repetition of a distinctive rhythmic/melodic unit called a “riff.” Riffs are often either repeated exactly, or varied slightly in a few ways. One example of exact repetition is the verse of “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, which repeats the same guitar riff several times in a row without changing it.
The bass riff in the song’s introduction has a slight variation, but it’s still more or less the same riff. The first time we hear the riff it uses three different pitches, F#, A, and E. In the second and fourth times the riff is played during the intro, the As are replaced with Ds (circled in red in the example below). This kind of variation might keep the riff from being too repetitive, but it doesn’t necessarily signal any real change, as the rhythm and the rest of the pitches are still pretty much the same.
Some songs use more substantial variations to mark off larger sections, after multiple repetitions of a riff. These variations serve to wrap up one larger phrase or section, and lead into the next one. Below, Susan Fast describes one such variation in Led Zeppelin’s “Wanton Song” in an excerpt from her book about the band. Below the quote, I’ve included a transcription based on a figure from her book.
Segmentation is problematic with this riff, since the pattern can be defined in three ways: 1) a recognizable repeated pattern that is one measure long, 2) the threefold repetition of the pattern followed by a cadence, and 3) an eight-measure pattern that consists of two four-measure units, each with a different cadential pattern. (Fast 2001, p. 117)
Susan Fast calls these variations that mark off larger sections “cadences” or “cadential figures,” perhaps because they tend to point towards the key of the riff or modulate to the key of the next section. In academic music theory (which mostly deals with classical music, not metal), the word “cadence” implies harmonic closure or ending, the finishing off of a section. The problem is in riff-based rock and metal, these figures do not usually have a sense of “stopping,” but propel the music onwards. Another term for these figures, a term which is more exclusively used in blues and rock music, is “turnaround.” Stephen Valdez, in his dissertation about rock guitar solos, defines a turnaround as “A melodic formula played at the end of a chord progression that leads into the next section, the next line, or a repeat of the entire progression” (Valdez 1992, pp. 249-250). I prefer to call these figures “turnarounds” because it captures their function better than “cadence,” but it is important to keep in mind that turnarounds often point towards key like cadences do in classical music.
One of the subtler details of the songwriting in “Crazy Train” is that one of the turnarounds in the song leads to different keys in different places in the song. The whole song moves back and forth between A major and F# minor; the introduction is in F# minor, the first verse is in A major, the first chorus is in F# minor, etc. At the end of the first chorus (which is in F# minor), there is a turnaround that has a D power chord (with an A in the bass)1 followed by an E major chord. This time, it leads back to A major, and I hear the two chords in the turnaround taking functions in A major (for you theory nerds out there, the D chord is a IV and the E chord is a V in A major). If you include the F# power chord that is before the D chord, this turnaround forms a vi-IV-V-I progression in A major. This is a stock harmonic cadence pattern that has clearly indicated the key of A major going back several hundred years in classical music.
When the same turnaround comes back at the end of the second chorus, it leads into the Bridge/Guitar Solo section instead of leading into another Verse. But the Bridge section is in F# minor! I hear the same chords in the turnaround taking on new functions in F# minor. This time around, the F# and D power chords and E major chord form a i-bVI-bVII-i progression that is completed by the arrival of F#. Andrew Cope (2010) calls this progression the “Aeolian Trichord,” and it is a central style marker of metal music (and mid-century rock more generally).2
Both of these spots use the same chords, but they form different stock harmonic progressions in different key contexts, either the classical vi-IV-V-I or the classic rock i-bVI-bVII-i. In some cases, some people might argue that this kind of double-coding is just a coincidence, some chords that happen to work in two different keys. But Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist for this album, Randy Rhoads, reportedly knew tons of music theory, so it seems likely that he was aware of this nuance, and it’s even possible that he constructed the progression this way deliberately. More generally, I think it’s interesting to hear a that a progression can sound clearly cadential in two different keys, without sounding like an odd or vague progression. In classical music theory, this wouldn’t work: the penultimate chord of every authentic cadence is a dominant V chord, and the same chord in another key would take a different function and wouldn’t lead directly to the tonic. In rock music, there are a variety of stock progressions that lead to a tonic chord and clearly establish key, and this song takes advantage of that variety in a really cool way.
- The D power chord has only a root and a fifth (D and A) so it could be heard as having an implied major or minor quality depending on context. [↩]
- Some other music theory scholars, including Nicole Biamonte, describe the progression bVI-bVII-I as an “Aeolian cadence.” See Nicole Biamonte, “Triadic Modal and Pentatonic Patterns in Rock Music,” Music Theory Spectrum 32, no. 2 (2010): 95-110, page 98. [↩]