Harmony in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”

May 23, 2006

suzchords.gifThere are some marvelous harmonic details in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” It was Mark Carlson who pointed out to me that there is no dominant chord in the song. I was incredulous. He was right.

Look at the chart of the chord progression for the song. I laid out the harmonic analysis so that the line starts over every time the tonic (I) recurs. And was I surprised to find a perfect palindrome in the layout of the chords!

Young composers often attempt to write their first songs travelling up the scale: I ii iii IV and back, and it almost always sounds terrible. Cohen’s handling of the harmonic apex is brilliant, and only goes to the subdominant (IV), never the dominant (V). In this song, the harmonic syntax is this: I may go to ii or iii; ii goes to iii or I; iii only goes to IV; IV only goes to I.

Many of you know Judy Collins version of the song. That version is by Joshua Rifkin and is a thrilling and touching variation of the original. Here is the first verse of the Cohen original:
[audio:http://rogerbourland.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2006/05/suzvs1.mp3]

Verse 1 of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen”

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