The Louis Armstrong Twist

[Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947] (LOC)A few months ago I realised the error of my songwriting ways.

Having learnt the basics of music theory, I thought I had it sussed:

The diatonic scale has its modes: the Ionian (major scale) Aeolian (minor scale) and the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Locrian.

Take the diatonic scale and determine the tonal centre of a piece and you’ve got your mode. Then, build your chords from each note using the 1st, 3rd and 5th (and maybe whack in a 7th, 4th, 6th or 9th for flavour), develop a chord progression, play around with the notes of the scale to create melodies and you can write songs.

Now, there is effectively nothing wrong with this approach of course. Plenty of great songs do not waver from the one mode and the possibilities within these confines are seemingly infinite.

But having recently committed to improving my songwriting, I started analysing some tunes and their chord progressions with a particular concern for those songs that don’t restrict themselves to this approach and are decidedly more flavoursome as a result.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve learnt plenty of these songs before, I’ve just never tried to understand how and why they work.

At any rate, my first ‘aha’ moment was Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’, in which I discovered what I refer to as the Louis Armstrong Twist.

And what is the Louis Armstrong Twist?

Have a listen while reading my explanation below.


‘What a wonderful world’ is in F major. The F major chord scale (with chords built from the 1st, 3rd and 5th of each note in the F major scale) consists of the following: (I)F major , (II)G minor, III)A minor, (IV)Bb major, (V)C major, (VI) D minor, (VII) E diminished.

Now most of the song sticks to these chords… except where it counts.

The chorus, ‘And I think to my self…’, starts with a Db major.

This is unexpected, a nice little sonic twist, and gives a great new flavour to the tune, grabbing your attention for the punchline, ‘What a wonderful world’, which follows it immediately in the comforting world of the established key (using the chords G minor, C major and F major – a V – I resolution).

And why does the Db major work?

It’s a borrowed chord.

A borrowed chord is a chord borrowed from a parallel key (i.e. a key that has the same root note) – in this case F minor.

And the 6th chord in the F minor chord scale, you see, is Db major. I have since discovered numerous examples of this. And not just with the 6th chord. It also happens a lot with the 3rd and the 7th.

At any rate, I decided to use the Louis Armstrong Twist in the song I was working on at the time, ‘Full Moon Rising’.

I used it in the the ‘C’ section after the second chorus. You can check it out below.  It comes in at 2 minutes and 43 seconds, at the beginning of the phrase ‘All these sensations…’ and returns at the beginning of the following two phrases.

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