Cranes in the Sky

Solange Knowles is Beyoncé’s artsier younger sister. “Cranes In The Sky” is her biggest hit so far. It manages the rare feat of being both extremely catchy and extremely weird.

Solange helpfully explains her songwriting process on the invaluable Song Exploder podcast.

The track started as an instrumental by Raphael Saadiq, just drums, strings and bass. Solange wanted some chord changes, but Saadiq couldn’t find the stems, so she was stuck with the track as a unit. She talks about drawing inspiration from Alice Coltrane, which might be where she got the idea to add harp. She had her synth player put down a temporary track with a toy instrument from Toys R Us, intending to eventually replace it with the real thing. But she got attached to the vibe of the toy harp, and quite rightly decided to keep it.

The harmony is both simple and mysterious. Every note in the song comes from the F-sharp major scale, but the bass and strings roam around unpredictably, making it impossible to tell where the tonic is. Is it really F-sharp, or actually C-sharp? Or B? It’s totally ambiguous. Play along on the aQWERTYon and see for yourself. It sounds like Solange and Saadiq are really treating the F-sharp major scale as a mode, not as a diatonic scale spelling out functional harmony. In conventional tonal music, certain notes in the scale feel restful and conclusive, while others feel suspended or tense. In modal music, all notes in the scale have equal weight, and together form an ambient mood rather than a linear story of tension and resolution. Usually you get a modal feel by using, you know, the modes, but you can get the same effect from the major scale if you arrange the notes so as to undermine their usual functions. This is the strategy that Björk uses in her beautiful “Anchor Song,” which sounds strange and angular, but is written entirely in B major. It’s no wonder that Solange cites her as an influence.

The form of “Cranes In The Sky” is similarly hard to pin down. Efa Etoroma analyzes it on the Soundfly blog like so:

Cranes In The Sky form chart

This analysis was very helpful to me, because I was having trouble figuring out where any of the sections might begin or end. I mostly agree with Etoroma’s analysis. Typically, songs will have phrases and sections that are four, eight, twelve or sixteen bars long. Solange’s six bar refrain is quite peculiar, especially with her jazzy rhythmic phrasing. The twelve bar chorus is strange too. Usually a twelve bar song section is three phrases of four bars each, but Solange’s chorus is two phrases of six bars each. I start to disagree with Etoroma’s analysis when we get to verse three–it’s fifteen bars long, not sixteen. That’s just about unheard of in R&B, or any other style of popular or vernacular music for that matter. Chorus two is nine bars, and it’s cut off by the final refrain, which is fourteen bars. That is all emphatically not normal. Here’s my take on the structure, as color-coded in Ableton Live. Click to see it bigger:

Cranes In The Sky structure

It’s one thing to write a hit with an infectious and memorable hook. It’s another thing to write asymmetrical and idiosyncratic music. Managing to do both at the same time is something only the very best musicians manage to do.