Why the song “Born to Run” revs me up

The trajectory of temporary tonics in Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run lends a sense of epic distance and fantastic voyaging to a song whose melodies and local progressions, in isolation, are not especially noteworthy.

From the very first guitar ‘n glockenspiel riff, the song spends two long verses and a sax solo using chords drawn exclusively (almost) from the E major diatonic palette (EM, AM, BM, C#m, F#m7).

Beginning with the words “Beyond the Palace…”, however, the harmonies vacate the established key: now we hear, twice, a new progression (DM – GM – AM – CM) whose final C major chord (“an everlasting kiss”) behaves as the dominant of the subsequent phrase in F major (a.k.a. The Neapolitan, bII).

With a I-V-I oscillation in F major (again the sax is highlighted), the Neapolitan is secured only fleetingly as a new tonic, then we’re hoisted unceremoniously up a semitone to an F#M chord. Under this F#M a rising chromatic crawl in the bassline motivates a motion to BM: yet another V-I in a non-tonic key (this time it’s the Dominant, V).

In punchy syncopated unison, the band plunges chromatically through an entire octave: from B down to B with everything in between, including a suspenseful hangup on the penultimate C. Upon reaching the low B, misleading signals seem to convey the song’s completion – the final note is sustained while the drums abandon all allegiance to meter in a cymbaline wash, reinforced by a crunchy atonal organ cluster. Forward momentum is suddenly dispersed into an a-rhythmic field of noise.

The Boss, yelling “One, Two, Three, Four!”, reignites this momentum just before the false ending is explosively banished in a revelatory return to E major. “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes,” sings Bruce an octave higher than in the first two verses, “on a last-chance power drive.” The guitar/glockenspiel riff that served as the tune’s wordless intro is now cleverly “jammed” into simultaneity with the lyrics.

Having journeyed through remote key areas like the Neapolitan, and in light of a weak false conclusion rendered integral to a strong final cry for escape, effects like registral shift and motivic “jamming-together” are heightened well beyond the impact they might have achieved without the tonal forays that intervened.

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