Elliott Smith's "Have You Seen Her"
Songwriting analysis. A Deep Dive into one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard
The first time i heard Elliott's "Have You Seen Her" I was driving home from a girlfriends house. I remember stepping into my old 2015 Toyota Corolla and having that stupid auto play feature blast this song through my car speakers. I immediately freaked out and turned it way down. I had been listening to music really loud with her in the car earlier in the day and now it was 1am and I didn't want to wake the neighbors. To preface, I am not a fan of listening to music in the car. When i'm driving I typically just want silence. It's usually the only time in my day that I can really gather my thoughts. A lot of times I'll just talk to myself. Almost like I'm on some kinda weird radio show and being interviewed. It's a really lame trait that I've had since I was a kid. Listening to music for me is something I've got to do at home with my AirPods in or sometimes my Audio Technica mtx40s. I just don't think i can hear anything over the roads without blasting the music, something that I'm not doing unless I'm in the car with somebody and doing it as a joke. One things for sure, I would never listen to an Elliott Smith song for the first time while driving. That would just completely ruin the experience for me. Or so I thought.
I turned it back up with a little hesitation to hear those beautiful Dyad chords whispering over the roar of the mid-west roads. As I listened further I was noticing a very familiar rhythm to the chord sequence. It sounded reminiscent of "Needle In The Hay." I guess you could call it a 3:4 polyrhythm or at least something along those lines. If you don't know what that is it is all over Elliott's catalogue. It's also found in songs like "Here Comes The Sun" or another George Harrison song that Elliott was believed to have been a fan of "So Sad." I remember feeling this weird ambiguity in the rhythm of the progression the first time I heard it. Like "Where is the downbeat?" Every listen since I've lost that sense of wonder but I can still remember how it felt the first time hearing it.
The chord sequence is definitely a thing worth mentioning here.
G#m - B - G#m - D# - E - G - G#m - F#
Most of these chords are played with just the root and third intervals. Sometimes the first G#m is voiced in such a way that it sounds more like an E to my ears. You can also consider the G#m at the beginning of the chord progression to be an E major without the root note voiced 3rd and 5th. The sequence alone is magical. The voice leading between the G and the G#m is something I haven't encountered in much of his music. With the song being in the key of B major or G# minor it is certainly an odd chord choice. The placement right in between the G#m and F#m makes it work because those are two chords that are in the key. Honestly I wish i could express just how much beauty I find in this delicate but sophisticated chord progression. Every time I hear it I am just in complete awe. It has a sort of divine quality. It's almost like it was made for my ears alone.
As for the Melody Elliott comes in with the first line "Covered the window with the sheet." Basically writing melody around the third interval of each note. Something he's one to do. It's what really gives him a melodic edge over a lot of his contemporaries. A very simple songwriting tool that he must've taken a liking to fairly intuitively considering you can hear it on his early childhood demos as well. He continues on singing the 4th over the 2nd G#m chord on the word "Window." "Looking out on the street and the side" is the next line of lyrics. Still singing thirds until "street and the side" where he sings the 4th interval again over the F# chord.
The chorus has some pretty typical Elliott Smith chord changes. It starts on an E, the IV chord of the key. It goes.
E - B/D# - G#m - F# -E - B/D# - C#7
Elliott is using his typical secondary dominants here when he plays the C#7 chord. In this case it's a II (Major 2) chord also known as a five of five (V/V.) Melodically he sings the root note of the E chord to the third of the B chord. Actually earlier in the song during the verse you could consider the G major chord to be a G7 chord which would also make that a secondary dominant. It would be a flat 6 dominant (bVi7) or a five of two (V/ii.) Well now I'm probably just looking for secondary dominants where there aren't any but It's such a huge part of his harmonic language that I think finding them is a quick and easy way to make sense out of his style. You could certainly analyze all of this in a way that makes more sense to you or your musical background but to me secondary dominants are just the easiest way to make sense out of all of this.
Now I am going to risk sounding stupid here but the song has a string player in it. I'm only going to assume its a violin but I am no expert in that area. Hardly much more than a rock guitarist myself. I'll pick up the occasional jazz gig from time to time but the money normally just isn't right and in my area it's a little bit challenging to find players for that sort of thing. Anyways, this violin adds this beautiful drone throughout the whole song. it almost goes unnoticed in the quality of the recording but in the chorus it comes up and starts singing. The violin droning at the beginning kind of reminds me of the beginning of "Angeles" with the organ. The violin pretty much drones a "B" (the root note of the key) throughout the whole first verse.
Probably my favorite thing about the violin part in this song isn't all the cool shreddy stuff in the chorus. To me it's the C# drone in the second verse. It almost sound like it's unintentional. It's held out so long. It's a very odd choice to drone out the 2nd interval of the key for such a long period of time but I think because of it's higher register it acts more like a 9th interval and just sound so pleasing to the ears.
Finally we reach the bridge of the tune.
G#m - C# - B - D#
Elliott is finally holding some chords out here. He has this way of moving chords so quickly throughout a song and build these super beautiful and unique melodies because of it. Here he opts for something a little bit more simple. He is singing a basic G# minor or B Major Pentatonic melody. It's so effective here and really gets you to slow down and digest the fast-paced chord sequences you've been hearing up until this point. I don't think you can overstate the importance of this super simple scale, especially when it's being used in conjunction with a more melodic sounding scale for the majority of the song. This simple melody and that slower chord sequence really lets you breathe and feel that he really is "over it now." You just want to sing it with him. A bridge like this in any other song might be considered a little bit lazy. "Couldn't you have done more than just repeat the same line over and over again while singing such a simple melody?" With this song you just don't feel that way at all and I think it's such a cool example of how chord sequences and the speed of the harmonic movement of a song can change based on what you want the listener to feel.
I want to add another thing. The first time I heard the melody in the verse of this song I didn't recognize it to be a simple 4 bar melody that was repeating. I almost heard each 4 measures as a set of 8 because i couldn't easily comprehend the chord sequence I was hearing. I guess my brain was trying to understand it as a longer idea than it was. That to me is what made me feel the most excited about this song when I first heard it. I was so eager to listen to it again and again until I could find the pattern. Elliotts choice of poly rhythm here mixed with the poor recording quality is what I think made this song such an enigma to me. That and I was hearing a guitar that wasn't perfectly tuned at 440hz so It wasn't as easy to just hear the key of the song. On top of that I was driving the first time I heard it which meant I didn't have an instrument handy to map out what I was hearing.
I feel like this is one of those songs that I will fortunately always remember my first time hearing. I would love to discover it all over again and experience that weird meter and chord sequence the way I did the first time I heard it. This song will be one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs for many years to come. I recommend you give it a listen if you haven't yet heard it. A link to the song and version that I first heard and like the most will be provided below!