Song Analysis – ‘You Oughta Know’ by Alanis Morissette

Song Analysis – ‘You Oughta Know’ by Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette’s 90’s smash hit ‘You Oughta Know’ has three weird and wonderful musical moves that make it totally unique. This blog post, for songwriters and musicians, dives into the musical concepts, and shows you how to use them in your own songwriting.

This blog post is a summary of our video ‘This 90’s Hit is Far Weirder than You Thought (Modes, Modulations and more)’. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.

Exploring the Dorian Mode

The verse and pre-chorus sections of “You Oughta Know” are both in the Dorian mode. This can be explained by examining the chord progression in both the verse and pre-chorus. In both sections, the chord progression just moves back and forth in between F# Minor and B Major.

The following are the chords usually in F# natural minor:

F#min  G#dim  Amaj  Bmin  C#min  Dmaj  Emaj

And the following are the scale degrees:

1  2  b3  4  5  b6  b7  1

In comparison, the following are the chords usually in F# Dorian:

F#min  G#min  Amaj  Bmaj  C#min  D#dim  Emaj

And the following are the scale degrees of F# Dorian:

1  2  b3  4  5  6  b7  1

The Dorian mode is a minor mode characterized by a raised sixth scale degree (natural six), which distinguishes it from the natural minor scale. 

In the case of ‘You Oughta Know’, we can see this in the F# Minor and B Major chord progression. This combination creates a classic and characteristic Dorian sound, where the dark tonality of the minor chord is complemented by the brightness of the raised sixth scale degree.

You can also hear how Alanis Morissette picks the notes of the Dorian scale to use in the melody, particularly in the pre-chorus. 

Studying Parallel Modulation

The chorus of “You Oughta Know” introduces a significant musical shift through a technique known as parallel modulation. 

Instead of starting on an F# Minor chord like the verse and pre-chorus, the chorus begins with an F# Major chord. This change in tonality signals a transition to F# Mixolydian, another mode with a unique sound. Mixolydian is essentially a major scale with a flattened seventh scale degree (b7). For reference, the following are the scale degrees in a major scale:

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1

And the following are the scale degrees in a mixolydian scale:

1  2  3  4  5  6  b7  1

In the chorus, the E chord, built from the F# Mixolydian scale, adds the flat seven major chord, enhancing the Mixolydian flavor. The combination of the one major (F#) and flat seven major (E) creates a distinctly Mixolydian chord progression, which adds brightness and complexity to the song.

Examples of some other popular songs that use the Mixolydian scale are:

  • Norwegian Wood by The Beatles
  • Sweet Child of Mine by Guns n Roses
  • Royals by Lorde

Click below to download the free PDF ‘3 Chord Progressions Using Parallel Modulation’.

Modal Borrowing

Once Alanis is in F# Mixolydian in the chorus, she also uses chords from a different F# mode as well. Below are the chords in F# Mixolydian:

F#Maj  G#Min  A#Dim  BMaj  C#Min  D#Min  E

And below are the chords in the chorus:

F#  E  A  D

The chord progression is using the AMaj chord, which does not exist in the F# Mixolydian scale. That AMaj chord is a flat three major chord (bIII) in reference to the tonic of the key i.e. F#. When a chord is used that is not from the scale, this is known as modal borrowing, and that chord is known as non-diatonic.

It is important to be careful when using non-diatonic chords, as too many of them will cause the song to lose track of its tonal centre. When we lose track of the tonal centre, we also lose the ability to create resolution and meaningful tension. So, the key is to be sure to use just enough non-diatonic chords to add colour to a song, or to really put a spotlight on specific moments.

Conclusion: Song Analysis – ‘You Oughta Know’ by Alanis Morissette

‘You Oughta Know’ is a lot more interesting and complex than you might think on first listen. There are three particularly unusual and usable chord moves at play: Dorian mode, parallel modulation and modal borrowing. Try using these chord techniques in your next song!

If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now.

Turn your inspiration into beautiful songs with step-by-step guidance through two professional songwriting methods. By the end of this course, not only will your tool belt be stocked; you’ll have a plan and a method for finishing your songs – all of them.

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