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.
One of the high points of my musical career was playing in a cover band in college called Harsh Mouse, and one of the high points of our repertoire was this song.
The song’s subtitle refers in part to its childlike simplicity. Still, there’s more going on here than immediately meets the ear.
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.
Click each image to play the scale on the aQWERTYon.
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: