“Overjoyed”: A Lesson on Chromaticism and Modulation


Stevie Wonder is known for so many of his brilliant hits, but one of his most intriguing songs is "Overjoyed". The tranquility it seems to conjure in a listener is only possible because of the layers of complexity that Wonder wove together in every single measure of the song. In this article, I will make a harmonic analysis of "Overjoyed" to demonstrate just how potent his techniques of chromaticism and modulation were.

The introduction immediately throws us into Stevie Wonder's world. The percussion is almost entirely environmental - birds chirp, crickets chirr, pebbles fall into a pond, and leaves rustle - pulling us out of our own life and inserting us into a dream. For the first four measures the listener is just floating on the surface-the Db6-C7-Cbmaj7 progression is not rooted in any key. But the slowly descending half steps every two beats pulls the listener in like quicksand, trapping them in a state of expectation and unease until Stevie Wonder finally nudges us into his song with a Bb, the dominant of the song's key, Eb.

The verse begins innocently with a I-vi-ii-V chord progression, and variations of Eb, D, and Bb in the melody. But the second time around, Stevie Wonder unveils some of the modulations that make his song so remarkable. In the seventh measure of the verse, he moves to an Fmaj7 chord instead of an F minor, using an A natural in the bass to highlight the shift. Then in the next measure he moves one half-step down to a B, playing a Gmaj7. Now at the dominant of C major, he has successfully modulated to a second key before the end of the first verse. Stevie Wonder then reverses the method he used in the first measure of the verse, now replacing a major chord with a minor chord. In the space of these four measures, he coddles us with a melody rich with gentle major 9th's, 6th's, and 7th's, communicated on syncopated sixteenth notes. Right before the bridge, we are taken through an ii-V-I in Bb major, ending on a Bbmaj7. This is such an uncomfortable position for the listener as we rest on the major 7 chord waiting to fall off.

Fortunately, Stevie Wonder rushes to our rescue with a series of 5 ascending sixteenth notes, very literally building a platform for us to rest on Ab major, thereby masterfully making the melody note, G, a seventh. The first two bars of the bridge repeat the end of the verse, but a minor sixth higher. Here is where the magic happens: Stevie Wonder modulates (or some may argue he doesn't modulate as the progression is just IV-I-ii-V in the home key of Eb major) to Ab major over the course of those first four measures, ending on a Db chord, with a Db in both the bass and the melody. Next, he descends to C in order to repeat the first two measures of the bridge a whole step higher. Stevie Wonder was very well known for his use of chromaticism - the use of non diatonic tones to modulate between keys -, but "Overjoyed" exemplifies his mastery of the technique. At this point in the song, the listener surely feels as if he is soaring above the Earth. Wonder repeatedly used chromatic steps to modulate to a key one tone higher, (with the melody increasing in pitch as well) throwing us into a whirlwind of emotion. However, while listening every chord change seems prescribed; he does not seem to be posturing.

So, what does Wonder do? He pops our figurative balloon by following the Fmaj7 with an Fm7 in the seventh measure of the bridge. Once again he made a switch from major to minor (and vice versa) to drastically shift the path of the song. Now we return to that mysterious introduction with the abstruse Db6-C7-Cbmaj7 cycle. The verse and bridge repeat but this time end in a very direct modulation. Wonder does not hide anything from us this time and rises from a Bbsus7 to a Csus7 very plainly.

We have arrived at the coda and Stevie Wonder works his magic yet again. In the fifth bar, he uses the C chord to sing up the C scale exactly the way he did with the Bb in the beginning of the coda. This is just one more example of using chromatic steps to modulate a single tone higher. Finally, measure 8 makes a compelling resolution into the key of F major. But, we only stay there for one and a half measures before a sudden drop down to E. Only then does a II-V progression allow us to return to our home key of Eb. The environmental sound effects begin to fade away and leave us in a state of peace as return to our own world.

One of the most remarkable features of "Overjoyed" is Stevie Wonder's ability to constantly move upward in pitch, both in the chord progression and in the melody and still return to the very same notes at the end of each section. I believe he does this so smoothly because of his immaculate voice leading. In most other songs, these modulations would seem random, but because he can move between chords brilliantly with chromatic steps, as illustrated in the intro, every move seems predestined. I have not even mentioned the string section that he uses throughout the entire song, (which bolsters the conviction that we feel before we are thrown off our pedestal at each turning point) because this analysis alone demonstrates Stevie Wonder's brilliance. Ultimately, though, all these elements make "Overjoyed" both elegant and approachable, a song for the casual listener and the music aficionado.