A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Def Leppard’s “Photograph”

Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images

A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Def Leppard’s “Photograph”

Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images

In January of 1983, Def Leppard released their massively influential third album, Pyromania. It’s a masterpiece — made of equal parts hard rock and radio-friendly melodic pop, fusing the raw crunchiness of AC/DC with the tuneful, painstaking sophistication of Boston. Forty years ago this week, the album’s lead single reached its peak on the Billboard Hot 100 (#12) after hitting #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. That single, “Photograph,” perfectly encapsulates all the maximalist elements that combine to make Pyromania a truly transcendent album. On this 40th anniversary, let’s dive deep into the song’s composition and production elements to explore how it all works.

Chromatic Surprises

Everything in “Photograph” is a hook, from the opening guitar riff and pre-chorus syncopation to the vocal harmonies — even the sound of the snare drum. It’s hooks upon hooks upon more hooks. Even the setups for the main hooks are extremely catchy. A Stereogum commenter once described it perfectly: “[Most songs have] a boring part and then an exciting part. Def Leppard songs only have exciting parts.” In particular, a defining characteristic of “Photograph” is the clever harmonic alterations that connect all of its hooks, drawing the listener from one section to the next. It’s these surprises — rooted in chromaticism — that ratchet up the music’s excitement at every turn. Let’s check out the first part of the verse (see Figure 1 below).

[Note: Those of you with perfect pitch will immediately hear that the song is tuned down roughly a quarter tone — with the key center about halfway between E♭ and E. (Def Leppard guitarists Steve Clarke and Pete Willis played their respective parts using ordinary EADGBE tuning, but it’s approximately 50 cents flat.) For simplicity, let’s reference “E” as the key center here, and proceed as though it’s tuned to A=440Hz, the pitch standard in the US and UK.]

Figure 1: First Part Of The Verse Of "Photograph"

The melody Joe Elliott sings in the verses is constructed using notes from the A Major scale: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, and G#. But since the song’s harmonic “center of gravity” is E Major, we can say the song’s verses are in “E Mixolydian mode.” (For more background on this concept, check out a previous In Theory article on Lorde’s “Solar Power.”)

The chord movement from EMaj to BMaj to Asus creates a lovely descending chromatic line embedded within the progression: the note E (the root of EMaj) to D# (the Major third of BMaj) to D♮ (the “4” in Asus). This inner-line movement implies shifting modality between the bluesy-sounding Mixolydian mode and the familiar “Ionian” mode heard in most European Classical music (think of the notes that go along with Do, Re Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti). The juxtaposition of the D# and D♮ (the natural 7th and flatted 7th scale degrees, respectively) creates a kind of tonal rub that helps to give the “Photograph” verses a vaguely abrasive edge. (Of course, the overdriven guitar sound bolsters this crunchiness. More on this later.)

Notably, we can describe the chord progression from EMaj to BMaj to Asus as an example of “modal interchange”: the practice of borrowing chords from a different mode — but only temporarily (or in this case, fleetingly), in order to inject harmonic color and depth while still staying true to the established key center. We wouldn’t call it a modulation, per se, because the borrowed chord doesn’t function as a “secondary dominant” or pivot chord that orients the song towards a new tonal center. Indeed, throughout the verses of “Photograph,” the boys from Sheffield never abandon E as their harmonic center of gravity (even with the chromatic alterations).

And there’s yet another way to think about what’s going on in the verses: If we combine the Ionian and Mixolydian modes, as Def Leppard has in essence done here, we get a hybrid octatonic (8-note) scale containing both the flatted-7th and natural-7th scale degrees. In the jazz world, we call this the “bebop dominant scale.” (See Figure 2, below.)

Figure 2: Bebop Dominant Scale / Raag Khamaj / "Photograph" Verse Mode

Listen to blazing solos by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, or Dizzy Gillespie, and you’re likely to hear melodies shaped from this hybrid mode. Furthermore, the Raag Khamaj, from Indian classical (Hindustani) music, also uses this same octatonic scale. It’s amusing to observe that Def Leppard’s “Photograph” shares this musical building block with the seemingly disparate traditions of bebop and Hindustani classical music — even if it’s just pure happenstance.

Pedals Aren’t Just For Bicycles

As the verse progresses into its second half, we hear the same chords cycle through, but now with the entrance of a second rhythm guitar and a bass line. These new parts work in octave unison to undergird the established chord progression via a persistent eighth-note “E” pattern—what we call a pedal point. Thus far, we’re 32 seconds into the song and we’ve grown accustomed to the absence of tonal bass. So when it finally arrives, it feels extra heavy — grounded and driving. The pedal point, the fixed bass note, creates cycles of tension and release in the harmony because it remains steadfast while the chords change above it. The E, B, A, and Asus chords hover over the unflinching low-E bass pattern, as though they’re balloons tethered to the ground, yearning to break free. See Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: The Verse Continues

The concept of the pedal point is quite old, and it was already well established in the Baroque period (in 17th- century Europe). Bach’s “Fantasia in G major for Organ, BWV 572” contains a marvelous example of a pedal point. Fast-forward 265 years and John Williams’ “Rebel Fanfare” from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has some of the best examples of pedal point I can think of. Check it out:

Eight seconds into the John Williams piece, the C pedal point anchors triadic Major chords above it. The chords move in minor-3rd intervals, invoking all kinds of tension and release moments in their interaction with the C pedal. It’s a powerful device for scoring films due to its ability to move the harmony deftly through varying degrees of consonance and dissonance, evoking a range of emotions in the listener.

And how about in Def Leppard’s “Photograph”? Returning to Figure 3 above: The reason this pedal point harmonic device works so well here is that the “E” bass note acquires a different meaning under each chord. In turn, the bass note imbues a new personality to each chord on top of it — i.e., it imparts some trait the chord didn’t previously possesses on its own.

On the first EMaj, the pedal point is at home, at rest. But when the BMaj enters, the pedal point modifies the role that chord plays; instead of serving as the V chord relative to the tonic (I), it now sounds a bit like an EMaj9, a more vibrant variation of the chord that preceded it. The D# note in the BMaj chord creates a little intervallic friction with the pedal because it’s a half step (semitone) away — but the spread voicing produces a pleasant kind of dissonance. Next, on the AMaj, the pedal point affects the chord’s sense of stability, making it crave resolution because it’s now in second inversion (it’s no longer a simple root-position IV chord). When the Asus chord enters, the pedal point heightens the unresolved harmonic tension further — infusing it with a greater sense of anticipation because it’s now effectively a “stack of fourths,” with the notes E-A-D. (For more info on stacked fourths, check out a previous article, on Silk Sonic’s “Blast Off,” where we discuss quartal harmony and open chord voicings.) The G# in the melody produces a wondrous “Lydian” sound over the stack of fourths because that note is a raised 4th interval up from the D and a Major 7th interval up from the A. Who would have thought such subtle-but-delicious harmony would come from a band that shares much of its musical DNA with AC/DC?

At the end of the verse section, the pedal point finally relents, and the bass line moves along with the chords in a I-V-IV progression. The double-tracked melodic phrase Joe sings here concludes with a sustained high B, a gorgeous note (the 9th) over the AMaj. The result is a satisfying release of tension, and it prepares us for the huge lift that’s about to come in the pre-chorus. The melody in the second part of each verse is so hook-laden that it actually feels like it could be a pre-chorus — that is, until the actual pre-chorus arrives, creating a seismic shift. See Figure 4, below.

Figure 4: Pre-Chorus Of "Photograph"

A Key Change By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

Def Leppard’s modus operandi for intensifying drama is to build structural key changes into the song’s pre-chorus. You can hear it throughout their catalog, with two notable examples being “Foolin’” (off of Pyromania) and “Animal” (off of Hysteria). “Foolin’,” in particular, features multiple cascading pre-choruses replete with key changes, each more exciting than the preceding one, culminating in an explosive chorus. The massive lift between the “Is anybody out there” pre-chorus and the “Oh, I just gotta know” pre-chorus comes, in part, from a surprise modulation using a Neapolitan chord — a Major triad built on the song’s flatted-2nd scale degree. (For background on the Neapolitan chord, see the In Theory article on Beyonce’s “Break My Soul.”).

You can hear a similar effect going into the pre-chorus of “Photograph” — but in this case, it’s a minor-3rd modulation. Remember that the verse is in E, and as we can observe in Figure 4, the pre-chorus modulates to G (a minor-3rd up). Shifting the key center up by this distance sounds so dramatic because it’s akin to shifting the harmonic axis from a Major key to its parallel minor key. Moving from the key of E Major to the key of G Major feels like going from E Major to E minor… because E minor is the relative minor to G Major (they have the same key signature). More importantly, the key centers of E Major and G Major share some crucial common tones, but not others. See Figure 5 below.

Figure 5: Common And Differentiated Notes In Scales That Are A Minor-3rd Apart

In jazz theory, we call the 3rd and 7th scale degrees “guide tones” because they communicate the most pertinent information. They point to the essence of what’s happening in a chord progression. The 3rd tells you whether it’s Major or minor, and the 7th gives you the chord’s “intention.” For example, a natural 7th over a Major triad might indicate that it’s comfortably at rest, whereas a lowered (dominant) 7th over a Major triad can suggest that it’s seeking resolution by moving somewhere more stable. In contrast, the other scale degrees function as the musical scaffold upon which the guide tones can operate.

As we can observe above in Figure 5, the fundamental (1, 4, and 5) scale degrees in E Major are also present in G Major. Further, we can find G Major’s harmonically vital guide tones (3 and 7) in the key of E Major. So when pivoting the harmonic axis to this unrelated key center, we hear that there’s still some tonal glue holding them together. But E Major and G Major do sound jarringly disconnected because the former’s guide tones don’t survive the key change to the latter. (The notes G# and D# don’t live comfortably in G Major — at least, not in the “Ionian” mode Def Leppard is using here.) Indeed, it’s the specific common and differentiated notes that makes this particular modulation so evocative. And it’s why the key change in the pre-chorus of “Photograph” creates such a commanding lift.

The Mother Of All Hooks

When the chorus lands, it continues in G Major, but we don’t hear the tonic (I) chord in root position — which is the most obvious way to start a chorus. Instead, the tonic arrives in first inversion, G/B — a relatively unstable variety of the “home” chord. (Even though the pre-chorus and chorus are in G Major, we don’t ever hear a G Major chord in root position. This makes the tune feels like it’s always moving, never resolved.). Bassist Rick Savage, producer Mutt Lange, and newly hired (at the time) guitarist Phil Collen sang all the harmony vocals (without Joe Elliott, in an effort to keep his lead vocal distinct). But you can probably hear that there are many more than just three voices in the mix — and we’ll get to that later in this article.

The group vocals form stacked Major triads, which affect the character of guitar arpeggios underneath, adding harmonic depth and color, creating rich compound chords via superposition. So the G/B becomes a GMaj9/B (with the notes F# and A sung on top); the CMaj becomes a CMaj9 (when combined with the notes B and D); etc. The call-and-response phrases between lead and harmony vocals produce one of the strongest, hookiest, Def Leppardiest choruses ever. See Figure 6 below.

Figure 6: The Chorus Of "Photograph"

Take It To The Bridge

The song pivots from G back to E after the chorus via a maneuver we can call “chromatic mediant modulation.” Specifically, the chorus ends on a CMaj (the IV chord in G), so the transition to E Major represents a Major-3rd jump. (For more info on chromatic mediants, check out the In Theory article on Lana Del Rey’s “A&W.”)

After the second chorus, Joe Elliot sustains a high B note over the CMaj (in essence, making it a CMaj7), and he holds the note over the EMaj that starts the bridge. The B note is the “5” of EMaj, so this common-tone modulation helps to bind the two disparate chords. The bridge section is where we hear Phil Collen’s double-tracked guitar solo, played over the verse chord changes. The solo, unsurprisingly, is eminently singable. It’s based mostly on the E Major pentatonic (5-note) scale and it serves as yet another melodic hook in the song. Notably, it’s the only part of “Photograph” that prominently features blues harmony — including an “upside-down” version of a famous Jimmy Page lick. (Actually, Jimmy did also play the upside-down version on a Led Zeppelin record at some point — but it’s not quite as well known.) The last bar of the solo requires alternate picking (rapid up-down strokes) for a flurry of fast notes to bring us into the last pre-chorus and final vamp-and-fade chorus. Similar to the high B note Joe sings coming out of the second chorus, Phil ends his guitar solo on a high B. This note, again, facilitates the common-tone modulation back into G Major for the final pre-chorus. See Figure 7 below.

Figure 7: Guitar Solo In "Photograph"

To execute this solo, Phil used his 3-pickup Ibanez Destroyer guitar with Kahler tremolo. I mention this tidbit while pondering the various factors that make Def Leppard’s music so indelible. This column normally doesn’t spend much time highlighting production techniques, but it’s a topic worth exploring here given how integral these techniques are to the Def Leppard sound. Under the direction of famed producer (and co-writer) Mutt Lange, Def Leppard crafted their musical ideas and their sonic presentation (i.e., the recording) concurrently, as one cohesive process. This method is not at all unusual today, but 40 years ago it was rare — and the Pyromania album helped forge and normalize this approach. I’d venture to say that music like this would be nearly impossible to create any other way. Let’s check it out.

When The Drummer Still Had All Four Limbs

Upon listening to “Photograph” (or any song on Pyromania), the drums leap out with their massive sound. Mutt Lange’s engineer, Mike Shipley, explained that prior to making the album, Mutt had expressed a desire to have the drums to take on a cinematic larger-than-life scale. On the previous Def Leppard album, 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry, Mutt had recorded drummer Rick Allen playing his Ludwig kit in the exact room and using the exact mics and signal chain that he used when he produced AC/DC’s Black In Black. (Same goes for the guitar amps and cabinets.). That, in part, explains some of the sonic resemblance between those albums. Take a minute to enjoy the sound of Rick Allen’s drums on “Let It Go,” from High ‘n’ Dry:

The drum sound you hear on “Photograph” maintains the colossal size and depth of field you hear on “Let It Go,” but there’s a notable difference: On “Photograph,” the drums sound even bigger and they’re all programmed, not played. To maintain maximum flexibility, they sampled a number of snare and kick drums into the Fairlight CMI audio workstation and programmed Rick Allen’s drum patterns. The enormous backbeat you hear on “Photograph” resulted from layering, pitching down, and processing a variety of superimposed snares — most notably the Ludwig Black Beauty. This drum happens to the most-recorded snare in history (for heavy rock music), and for good reason: It has an extremely wide tuning range and it cuts through dense mixes easily. Mike Shipley and Mutt Lange captured the sound using a combination of the venerable Shure SM57 (for the mid-range) and the Neumann KM84 (for the highs and lows). See Figure 8 below.

Figure 8: A 6x14 Ludwig Black Beauty Snare

The toms they used are Simmons electronic drums with stock patches—detuned and processed with EQ and dynamic range compression. (Yes, the astonishing four-stroke tom fill at the end of the first chorus in “Photograph” was programmed!) Rick played the cymbal parts live — and when combined with the programmed drums, it produced a convincing human-like touch. You’ll notice there’s very little dynamic variation in the programmed drums (kick, snare, toms) in “Photograph.” Almost all of the expressive feel comes from Rick’s live cymbal performance.

For years, it has been my feeling that the most important “voice” in a rock band is not that of the singer or even the lead guitarist. It’s the snare drum. There’s more information embedded in the sound and feel of the snare drum than in any other single instrument. It’s surprising how much you can glean about what went on behind the scenes just by focusing on the sound of the snare. For example, the snare sound can sometimes tell you in what year the music was recorded, what the budget was for the recording, who produced it, where it was recorded, and what the record company’s marketing strategy was. Mutt Lange spent an inordinate amount of time devising the specific, not-of-this-world snare sound you hear on “Photograph” because he understood how crucial that one “voice” is when you’re trying to craft an iconic record.

Vocal Sauce

It’s hard to think about “Photograph” without hearing in your head the layered vocal sound that is unique to Def Leppard. Certainly at the time, there was nothing else like it — and that’s because they recorded and layered the vocals in a very bizarre manner.

For the first half of each verse in “Photograph,” Joe Elliott sings a single-tracked lead vocal, and it’s awash in AMS reverbs and several long and short delays. Beginning with the second half of the verse, his vocals are double (and at times triple) tracked. You’ll hear that Joe scoops the beginnings of a lot of his vocal phrases and conspicuously sings fall-offs at the ends. None of this is especially unusual, but things really get interesting when you dive into the tight, Queen-style harmony vocals.

How do they get that sound? Along with Phil Collen and Rick Savage, Mutt’s rock tenor voice is vital here. Figure 4 and Figure 6, above, describe four-part harmonies. In reality, the vocal layering is much more dense. Mutt sang additional, faintly mixed vocals in upper octaves, which thickens up the vocal soup considerably. All the guys sang their parts without vibrato and, importantly, every high note is in head voice, not falsetto. This technique imparts a kind of strained urgency to the sound. And there’s another secret ingredient: what I call the “shout whisper.” Mutt routinely superimposed a hissy, harsh-sounding layer of whispers over the vocal harmonies. These are not the gentle, romantic kind of whispers used to say sweet nothings in someone’s ear. They’re the raspy, exclamatory kind you might use to get someone to stop talking in a movie theater. (“Be quiet!”) When blended with the main background vocals, and by emphasizing some of the diction while omitting some hard consonants, the whispers fabricate the sound of a large crowd — and a desperate, panicked one at that.

Mutt recorded all the vocals with a Neumann U67, a holy-grail vacuum tube mic with a storied past, and he tracked everything straight into an SSL console using only the built-in preamps. This isn’t particularly remarkable, but there’s another trick at play: “Dolby A” tape noise reduction. Dolby A works by boosting high frequencies when recording, and then by attenuating them during playback — an “encode/decode” process that quiets down tape hiss. But Mutt “misused” the noise reduction system. He implemented only half of the process — the “encode” stage — effectively infusing additional high-end “sizzle” into the backing vocals. He also fed the vocals into an 1176 compressor to make the sound even more aggressive. Listen to any Def Leppard song, and it’s clear there’s magic in all this madness.

As stunning as the vocals sound, one consequence of this recording technique is that the song’s lyrics start to become unintelligible. But within this context, it doesn’t matter. In his review of “Love Bites,” Tom Breihan wrote that “…if you’re paying too much attention to [Def Leppard’s] lyrics, you’re doing it wrong.” Some artists choose words based primarily on the sounds of the phonemes rather than on their meaning. With Def Leppard, I think the words matter only to the extent that they’re singable, or that their sonic shapes can suitably carry the intended melody.

And Those Guitars…!

As we’ve discussed, Def Leppard songs tend to feature lots of chord inversions and stacked fourths. When played through heavily distorted guitar amps, these kinds of chord voicings can sound muddy and inarticulate. By the time the Hysteria recording sessions rolled around, Def Leppard had an easy solution: The Rockman X100, a device invented by Tom Scholz of Boston that allows you to record heavy, distorted guitars while maintaining harmonic clarity. The Rockman came to define the sound of 1980s pop/rock guitar, and it’s what Phil Collen and Steve Clark used to create all the guitar sounds on Hysteria. But it wasn’t yet available in time for the 1981-82 Pyromania recording sessions. So they had to find other solutions.

In 2004, engineer Mike Shipley wrote, “On Pyromania I remember the hell we went through trying to get guitar tones. It was a struggle to settle on something and we tried everything. We had every Marshall top and cab we could get our hands on… We tried so many different techniques and combinations from Angus Young’s custom heads to stock combos and ended up after trying about 100 amps going with a customized Marshall 100-watt head and an old cabinet.”

Specifically, they used full stacks of Marshall JCM 800 2203 amps and 4×12 cabinets with 65-watt Celestions speakers. Pete Willis’ guitar was a Hamer Explorer and Steve Clark played a few different Gibson Les Pauls — all using Seymour Duncan ’59 model humbucking pickups. That, with mid-forward EQ (a la half-cocked wah pedal) and a Morely boost, created the magnificent guitar sound on “Photograph.”

Another Dolby?

The keyboard part in the pre-chorus (Figure 4, above) is credited to “Booker T. Boffin,” AKA Thomas Dolby. Yes, that Thomas Dolby. Around the same time he was blinded with science, Thomas Dolby worked with Mutt Lang on Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” That’s him playing the main synthesizer riff. On “Photograph,” he performed the quarter-note pre-chorus chord pattern, and also doubled the guitar arpeggios in the chorus.

Thomas Dolby played what sounds like a Roland Juno 60 (bank A, patch 64—“Space Harp”). Roland introduced that analog synth in 1982. But it’s more likely the instrument was a Roland Jupiter, another analog synth capable of making that sound, and one that he owned at the time of the recording. The syncopation in the pre-chorus formed by the interaction of hard-left-panned synth and hard-right-panned guitar is itself one of the many exquisite hooks in the song.

[Note that Thomas Dolby is the stage name of Thomas Morgan Robertson, and he’s not associated with Dolby Laboratories, makers of the aforementioned “Dolby A” noise reduction and other audio technologies.]

And Yet More Dolby?

Def Leppard just released a 40th-Anniversary Dolby Spatial Audio version of Pyromania, available on Apple Music. And they’ve just kicked off a European and UK tour, with a handful of dates announced in the US. If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to the album — or if you’ve never heard it — take it for a spin. Or at the very least, put on the album’s lead single. After all these years, “Photograph” remains the quintessential rock tune — audacious and sublime.

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