I’m working with Soundfly on the next installment of Theory For Producers, our ultra-futuristic online music theory course. The first unit covered the black keys of the piano and the pentatonic scales. The next one will talk about the white keys and the diatonic modes. We were gathering examples, and we needed to find a well-known pop song that uses Lydian mode. My usual go-to example for Lydian is “Possibly Maybe” by Björk. But the course already uses a Björk tune for different example, and the Soundfly guys quite reasonably wanted something a little more millennial-friendly anyway. We decided to use Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” instead.
A couple of years ago, Slate ran an analysis of this tune by Owen Pallett. It’s an okay explanation, but it doesn’t delve too deep. We thought we could do better.
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.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: Björk is the best thing to happen to contemporary music theory education. No matter what weird scale you’re trying to teach, she’s used it in a catchy, memorable tune. “Possibly Maybe” uses two weird scales: Lydian mode, in the verses, and melodic minor scale, in the chorus.
The most appalling song that appears on Mad Men is over the closing credits of the fifth season episode “Mystery Date.” It is not Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s finest work.
It’s easy to cluck your tongue at 1962. They were so primitive back then! Surely we’re doing better now. Right? Well…
A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.
To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.
- If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
- If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
- Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
- Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
- Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
- The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.
I hear it all the time from my friends in the rock world, and see it all the time in internet discussions: guitarists are struggling with their music theory, or they’ve given up on it completely. This is not their fault! Music theory is taught pretty badly for the most part, and it rarely addresses the music that rock musicians are playing.
I’ve been working on rectifying that situation. If you play guitar, or any other rock-adjacent instrument, I hope that these posts are useful to you:
The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.
Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.
I’m doing a ton of writing for grad school, and will be posting the highlights here. First off, an abstract and discussion of this article:
Katie Wilkie, Simon Holland, and Paul Mulholland. Winter, 2010. What Can The Language Of Musicians Tell Us About Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pages 34-48
The authors discuss the ways that user interface design for music production and teaching software is informed by embodied cognition, as articulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson argue that all metaphors trace their roots to states of the human body, which are the only basis for abstract thought that we possess. The closer a metaphor is to a state of the body, the easier it is for us to understand.
When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.