We’re putting together the segment of Theory For Producers that deals with the minor modes. We needed an iconic example of natural minor, and we ideally wanted it to be by a woman. After many rejected alternatives, we settled on one of the high water marks of contemporary R&B, “Family Affair” by Mary J Blige.
I didn’t know until I looked it up just now that this was produced by Dr Dre. I’m not surprised, though, because it’s such a banger. Here’s my transcription of the string riff:
Let’s just get Vanilla Ice out of the way first. White people and hip-hop, oy.
“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is a testament to the power of a great bass groove. The song itself is pretty weak sauce–it emerged out of studio jam sessions and it doesn’t sound like it was ever really finished. But what a bass groove!
The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.
The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:
Hearing the news of Bowie’s death made me go listen to Blackstar, which is excellent, his best work in I don’t know how long. His voice aged exquisitely well. So did his restless sonic adventurism: the man never settled in a style for very long. This particular one suits him.
Victor Wooten is an absurdly proficient bassist best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. There was a period in my life when the Flecktones’ music was my favorite thing in the world. That period is long behind me, but I have a lingering fondness for their amiably nerdy sound. Recently, I came across a TED talk that Vic gave, and it’s a good one.
Vic’s experience doesn’t necessarily generalize. Most of us aren’t born into families of professional musicians. Still, his central message applies: we do a much better job teaching language than teaching music, and we barely “teach” language at all. We learn to talk by being around other people while they talk, and by doing it badly a lot without anyone correcting us. Eventually, through real-life practice, we iron out the technical kinks, find our own voice, and in the process, barely even notice that we’re learning. What if we learned music this way? It would probably be more effective.
Vic’s wisdom about music education is undeniable. What about the wisdom contained in his actual music? On this, my feelings are mixed. If you aren’t familiar with Vic’s playing, here’s a representative sampling.
The I-IV-V chord progression is one of the cornerstones of Western music, uniting everything from Mozart to Missy Elliott. Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” is as clear and concise an introduction to I-IV-V as you could ask for.
The song uses three chords: A, D, and E. They’re shown in the diagram below as turquoise, blue, and pink lines respectively.
Björk did the music theory world a huge favor by writing a pop hit entirely in Locrian mode, since it’s really hard to find a good real-world example of it otherwise.
You don’t see too many melodies written entirely, or even partially, in Locrian mode. It’s not a friendly scale. That mostly has to do with its fifth degree. In a typical Western scale, the fifth note is seven semitones above the root (or five semitones below, same thing.) In the key of C, that note is G. Almost all scales starting on C will have a G in them somewhere. But not Locrian. It has the note on either side of G, but not G itself.
This is confusing to the Western listener. So confusing, in fact, that it’s hard to even hear C Locrian as having a C root at all. Depending on the phrasing, it quickly starts feeling like D-flat major, or A-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat natural minor, all of which are way more stable.
Herbie’s 1973 funk epic opens with an extended exploration of a characteristic chord progression from Dorian mode, one that’s a defining sound of groove-based music in general.
Start on the first note of Bb Dorian and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is B-flat minor seventh, abbreviated Bb-7. Now start on the fourth note and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is E-flat dominant seventh, abbreviated Eb7. These two chords are known as i-7 and IV7, respectively. (The lowercase Roman numeral denotes a minor triad, and uppercase denotes a major triad.) In the diagram below, the red arrows connect the notes in Bbm7. The blue arrows connect the notes in Eb7. The purple arrows connect the notes that are in both chords.
There are uncountably many funk tunes based on the i-7 to IV7 chord progression. The bassline to “Chameleon” is an exceptionally hip way of spelling the progression out.
“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.
Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.