Stairway to Heaven was released in 1971 on their fourth title-less album known as Led Zeppelin IV, or ZoSo. It is regarded highly as one of, if not the greatest rock song ever composed, and I used the word composed because that is what it was. It was constructed by no accident. Every detail and thought put into it has allowed it to become so widely popular, and well renown.
Here’s a video of the song if you’d like to read while you listen, or hear it before or after you read.
Jumping right into why I believe the song is very effective, and why it’s so popular, I’ll start with the very first chord which is a soft arpeggiation of an A Minor chord on a simple guitar where one string is even slightly out of tune (I think it adds character). The guitar introduces sort of a medieval theme, and after it goes through a progression, it’s next joined by recorders that emulate the sound of pipes perhaps heard in the medieval period, and is also an important theme through out the text of the song. This is also quite a major part of the song since it sounds like it is now in the relative major key of C, rather than it staying in A Minor from the use of the I-II-IV-vi-I-V-II, but returns to the minor mode allowing for the vocals to build on top of the recorders.
These three elements remain as it goes through the cycle of the minor area, major area, and back to the minor before allowing another part to add on top of the vocals making the opening text clear, and almost alluring.
“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”
The song begins to depict an image, or story of a woman in a medieval era with not only words, but the music.
Once the song has gone through the opening cycle, it introduces a new chord progression with a almost unnoticeable accelerando, and bears the text, “and it makes me wonder.” This chord progression feels like it revolves tonally around G (the dominant of C) as the cycle has ended on an Am, and opens on a G. This progression includes for this section Am7, G, D, and C. This section has also added to the three parts, a 12 stringed guitar to allow the acoustic sound to become fuller, as well as replacing the recorders with an organ.
Next, the song returns to C Major in a new progression as well as adding an electric guitar with a “clean” tone. This progression is now I-V-vi-I-V-IV-vi including lyrics that build as to why the narrator of this story feels wonder, and finally encounters the piper. This section of wonder continues for two cycles before the plot, and song both unfold once more with new instruments and text ideas, and accelerates toward the end into the next section.
“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving. In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees…”
“And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason. And a new day will dawn…”
By the third section, it continues with the same chord progression as the last, but introduces a new melody, text ideas, and now drums that push the song’s tempo. Also by this point, it’s noted that both acoustic guitar elements have been removed which gives the song a contemporary rock sound which is as if the song had come out of its dark medieval period, and into a bright spring as the text suggests,
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now. It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.”
After two cycles of this idea, this area ends on the V, and introduces a short, yet new idea in D. Jimmy Page (guitarist and writer of the song) has rightly described this area as a fanfare. “The concept of the solo was to have something like a sort of fanfare, so it’s a definite transition.” -Jimmy Page 2014. The fanfare introducing the solo carried the initial medieval idea, as well as temporarily tonicizing D as that was considered a regal key in that time period. With no surprise, this happens twice before ending on G and going into the next section, and accelerating again.
The penultimate section is introduced now with the removal of the organ sound being replaced with a bass giving it the full contemporary rock band sound featuring a guitar solo over IV-vi-V beginning in an A pentatonic scale and progressing melodically with the song. By the end of the solo, the “rock band” sound has also reached a thicker sound as the guitars use barre chords which only allows the lower notes to ring giving it a hard rock sound, as the drums, and singer’s voice becomes more aggressive, as well as one last change of text.
“And as we wind on down the road; our shadow’s taller than our souls. There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show how everything still turns to gold…”
The final section begins again with a short guitar solo that leads the rest of the band to a ritardando as each part quickly fades one after the other leaving the text to be song alone,
“And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
What I’ve found fascinating about this entire song was how only four chords could be made to tell a story, depict a setting using instruments, melody and text ideas, and create at least six sections to unfold in the span of eight minutes with never a dull moment. There’s a reason why this is consider by many such an amazing, and powerful song, and really, let’s not even get into the idea of having it played backwards…