What is the ‘secret chord’ in Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’?

29 November 2018, 16:55 | Updated: 30 November 2018, 06:48

By Sofia Rizzi

Leonard Cohen hides a sneaky message in his lyrics, and it's all amazingly reflected in the music.

Below are the somewhat confusing lyrics of the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s best known song, ‘Hallelujah’.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

It’s all about chords, music, numbers, minor and major. But what does it all mean?

The ‘secret chord’

The ‘secret chord’ is a biblical reference. David was a King from the Hebrew bible, and although we all mostly remember him for being the underdog who defeated Goliath, he was, first and foremost, a musician.

David, a biblical character, was a musician
David, a biblical character, was a musician. Picture: Getty Images

So we know David played a ‘secret chord’, whatever that may be. The next part of the verse explains this a little further... ‘it goes like this’.

The fourth, fifth, minor fall and major lift

The line ‘the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift’ is in fact a description of the chord sequence taking place under those words. Here's the breakdown:

– 'The fourth': This phrase sits on the fourth chord of the scale, or sub-dominant chord (IV) of F major.

– 'The fifth': The melody moves up one note to the fifth chord of the scale, the dominant (V) of G major.

–'The minor fall': Again, the melody moves up one note here to the sixth chord, the submediant (vi) of A minor. The 'fall' in this phrase is referring to the minor, or 'fallen' third of the chord.

–'The major lift': This is a first inversion chord of the fourth, or sub-dominant (IV) of F major. The 'lift' refers to the chord changing from a minor to a major chord, and in the process 'lifting' the harmony. There is only one changing notes in this chord, it moves from A–C–E to A–C–F.

Chord progression of 'The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift'
Chord progression of 'The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift'. Picture: Classic FM

It's Leonard Cohen giving a subtle nod to musicians – and for non-musicians, it's an actual explainer of what's going on in the music.

What does this mean?

A simple take on it would be that David played a secret chord that 'goes like this': IV – V – vi – IV. But of course, that isn't just one chord, it's a chord progression.

So is David's 'secret chord' in fact the underlying chord progression of the song – which in essence makes up the whole song?

Meanwhile, the whole song and its message is 'Hallelujah' – so is Cohen saying that the song itself is the 'secret chord'?

Cohen's lyrics and harmony leave a lot to the imagination – which is maybe the whole point. He himself said that he chose the word 'Hallelujah' because it means so much in so many ways.

All in all, we're very impressed and a little confused, Mr. Cohen.

Buy Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' here >