Play the riff yourself using your computer keyboard!
Press these keys to get the riff:
So why is the riff so impossible to forget? Its melodic structure certainly jumps right out at you. The first three phrases are descending lines spelling out chords using similar rhythms. The fourth phrase is an ascending line running up a scale, using a very different rhythm.
First let’s take a closer look at those rhythms. The first three phrases are heavily syncopated. After the downbeats, every single note in each pattern falls on a weak beat. The fourth phrase is less syncopated; it’s a predictable pattern of eighth notes. But because your ear has become used to the pattern of the first three phrases, the straighter rhythm in the fourth one feels more “syncopated” because it defies your expectation.
Now let’s consider the harmonic content. The left diagram below shows the D natural minor scale on the chromatic circle. The right diagram shows it on the circle of fifths. Scale tones have a white background, while non-scale tones are greyed out.
Three of the four phrases in the “Careless Whisper” riff are arpeggios, the notes from a chord played one at a time. Here’s how you make the chords.
- Take the D natural minor scale. Start on the root (D). Skip the second (E) and land on the third (F). Skip the fourth (G) and land on the fifth (A). Skip the sixth (B-flat) and land on the seventh (C). Finally, skip the root (D) and land on the ninth (E). These pitches – D, F, A, C, and E – make a D minor 9 (Dm9) chord. Now look at the first bar of the sax riff. All the pitches in D minor 9 are there except for C.
- If you do the same process, but starting on G, you get the pitches G, B-flat, D, F, A, C, which make up a G minor 11 chord. The second phrase has most of those pitches.
- Do the same process starting on B-flat, and you get B-flat, D, F, and A, making a B-flat major 7 (B♭maj7) chord. The third phrase has all of these pitches.
The fourth phrase is different from the others. Rather than outlining an arpeggio, it runs up the D natural minor scale from A to A. This sequence of pitches (A, B-flat, C, D, E, F, G, A) is also known as the A Phrygian mode. The half-step interval between A and B-flat gives Phrygian its exotic quality.
This riff certainly is catchy. It’s also notoriously corny, and to many people’s ears, quite annoying. Why? Some of it is the timbre. The use of unrestrainedly passionate alto sax through heavy reverb was briefly in vogue in the 1980s, and then fell permanently out of style. To my ears, though, the real problem is the chord progression. In D minor, both Gm11 and B♭maj7 are subdominants, and functionally they’re interchangeable. Jazz musicians like me hear them as being essentially the same chord. It would be hipper to replace the Gm with G7, or the B♭maj7 with B♭7. The A minor in the last bar is weak too; it would be more satisfying to replace the C with C-sharp, to make D harmonic minor. But your mileage may vary.
Enjoy my mashup of this track with “Calabria 2007” by Enur featuring Natasja.