What do the chords of a patriotic classic have in common with some popular hits?

It’s the 4th of July, and, along with fireworks and flags, that means patriotic music (at least for our American readers). In that spirit, we will be analyzing a famous 4th of July tune and looking at how some of the chords it uses show up in modern music. The song we’ll be looking at is the beautiful Battle Hymm of The Republic.

In this article, I’ll be referring to chords mainly using Roman Numerals, so if you aren’t familiar with how this is done, I recommend reading our Introduction to music theory for songwriting first.

Below is the analysis of the chords used in the verse synchronized to a YouTube video. Appropriately, the background video happens to use scenes from the movie The Patriot, which shouldn’t be surprising given this song’s patriotic history.

In the video montage from the YouTube clip above, Mel Gibson yells a lot, waves his arms wildly, and attacks a person in uniform. In other words, sounds like a typical Friday night for Mel. And yet, set to this song as the background, it’s impossible not to feel patriotic. It’s a powerful reminder of the sway that music holds over our emotions.

This song uses a few chords in noteworthy ways.

One chord I want to highlight is the I64 near the end of the progression. A quick note for those unfamiliar with the notation for inverted chords: a I64 in the key of C is just a C with a G in the bass (C/G). The interesting thing about this chord is not so much that it is used, but how it is used.

The use of I64 → V → I (C/G to G to C in the key of C) is an extremely common and powerful way to end chord progressions across many genres of music. Truth be told, it’s more common in Bach than in popular music, but it still shows up from time to time today. One current example is the hit We Are Young by Fun which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February and is still getting a ton of airtime. Notice the nice use of I64 → V → I in the chorus analyzed below:

The use of the ii6 chord (Dm/F in C) in Battle Hymm is also noteworthy because it has a very distinct sound that isn’t all that common in pop harmony. That’s not to say it never shows up, however. A great example of a popular song using the ii6 in the same way is Can’t Help Falling In Love by Elvis:

Reader challenge: ii6 isn’t very common, but I know of at least one other famous song that also uses ii6 → I64 → V → I exactly as in Battle Hymm. It was #1 on the Billboard 100 for 7 weeks in the early 90’s and won a Grammy Award for Best song written for a motion picture.

Can anyone name that tune?