I’m working on a new music theory course with the good folks at Soundfly, a continuation of Theory For Producers. We were looking for contemporary songs that use modal interchange, combinations of different scales to create complex blends of emotion. Soundfly producer Marty Fowler suggested a Frank Ocean song, which I was immediately on board with.
Frank is one of the freshest musicians and songwriters out there–his song “Super Rich Kids” is one of my favorite recent tracks by anyone. For the course, Marty picked “Pink And White,” a simple tune with a deceptively complex harmonic structure.
The track begins with a brief burst of anxious strings, and then the song goes straight into a four bar loop that repeats for its entire duration. The rhythm is a relaxed 6/8, a strangely old-fashioned groove, more evocative of the sixties than the present. The production evokes from the late eighties, with doubled vocals, simple piano and drums, and big reverb. The soundscape reminds me of PM Dawn.
Like his fellow genius oddballs Björk and David Byrne, Frank’s lyrics are introspective and elliptical streams of consciousness that mostly don’t rhyme. He sings in a detached and wistful voice, which is overdubbed dreamily. At the end of the song, he’s joined by angelic layers of Beyoncé.
So, how about the chords? They repeat identically for the entire song:
||: Cmaj7 | Bm7 | Amaj7 | Amaj7 :||
The progression has a strong Paul McCartney flavor, reminiscent of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” What’s the mood here, aside from the general ambient dreaminess we get from the lyrics and production? Where does this harmony come from and what does it make us feel?
There is no single scale that produces all of these chords. However, there are some different scales that produce similar chord progressions. Let’s try them out for clues. You can play each one on the aQWERTYon by clicking the scale images. To get the progressions, play the chord starting on the third scale degree, then the second, then the first. On the aQWERTYon, that’s the keys CDE3, then XSW2, then ZAQ1.
If we use the A natural minor scale, we can make this progression:
It’s somber in that classical music way, but weakly so. It feels nursery-rhyme-ish, and sounds too much like C major, which undercuts the sense of tragedy. (A natural minor and C major are the same collection of pitches, just rotated to start in different spots.)
If the underlying scale is A Dorian mode, we can make this progression:
||: Cmaj7 | Bm7 | Am7 | Am7 :||
This vibe is serious, in jazzy, hip way–imagine Miles Davis in a sharp suit not smiling at the audience.
If the underlying scale is A major, we can do this progression:
||: C#m7 | Bm7 | Amaj7 | Amaj7 :||
It feels uncomplicatedly sunshine-y, like sipping white wine on the beach.
And if the underlying mode is A Mixolydian, we can make this:
||: C#m7b5 | Bm7 | A7 | A7 :||
I originally heard this as the correct scale for the last chord, because the piano melody implies A Mixolydian by using a G natural in the melody. However, Marty pointed out that the guitar is playing an unambiguous A major seventh chord. Mixolydian has some more dissonance and bite to it than straight major because of the tritone between the third and flat seventh. The C#m7b5 is intriguingly close to the real first chord – just take the C-sharp down a half step and you get Cmaj7.
You could think of the actual “Pink and White” progression as combining chords from all four modes: natural minor, Dorian, major, and Mixolydian. It therefore evokes aspects of all four moods: somber and formal, hip deadpan, mellow relaxation, and bluesy groove. That certainly describes the Frank Ocean vibe.