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 clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Verse 1 of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

outpost May 24, 2006 at 6:09 am

How inspiring to have a graphic revelation about this song that I’ve always loved. It has a subtle power to stop me wherever I happen to be and take me inside to my heart.

The palindrome mantra/mandala brings to mind the internal beauty of stone or wood when cut and displayed in a “matchbook” fashion. Mirror images of a single plane within our universe.

“Suzanne” reveals that reality repeatedly. Every time I hear it another moment takes the opportunity to open up and show deep wondrous truth. Not always a happy moment but certainly one full of the beauty of life.

Jay September 11, 2006 at 8:16 pm

This is a fascinating analysis.
I completely agree with outpost about “Suzanne”, it was one of the first songs that ever affected me, and Judy Collins was the first performer I ever went to see live, at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in 1967.
I stumbled here looking for guitar tab for the Judy Collins version. Anybody know where to find it?

Previous post:

Next post: