Waiting for a Chord to Fall

The eighties is the reflection of the sun on the water here, and Shannon Rubicam’s shades. The song, too.

This is one of a number of seemingly rote, clichéd pop texts that actually features a fiendishly inventive use of tonality (and, as a result, structure). Without ever straying from the home key (until the middle eight, that is, when we shift in to the parallel minor, and then endure a false modulation up a tone for the final chorus), the song uses its whole range of primary triadic resources with a fluency that plays out in a sense of irresistible insouciance. After the initial burst of sun-kissed verse, we’re pushed through a series of tonal displacements, propelling forward with a sense of questioning and yet buoyant harmonic drive that perfectly matches the ‘waitings’, ‘tryings’, and ‘wishes’ of the lyrics.

The first of those displacements comes with the B section of the verse, on ‘I wish I didn’t feel so strong about you’, where we move to a dominant chord elaborated and stabilised in parallel to the tonic from the beginning. With the shift through ii7 and iii7, we feel as if we’re modulating to the relative minor, but on the bridge we unexpectedly pivot back once again to the dominant, this time in a tricksy, somewhat enigmatic sequence in which harmonic rhythm itself takes over the dramatic progression of the song’s form. For the final, sustained phrase of the bridge, transitioning in to the chorus, a stable ii – V cadence occurs, but yet again we move from there into an unexpected IV as chorus orientation.

The harmonic sequence in ‘Waiting for a Star to Fall’ uses the inherent expectations of tonal hierarchy to promise affirmation, but resolutely, playfully, holds it back in favour of a submerged mirror of the love games of the lyrical surface.

This is one of plethora of pop songs that makes use of traditional, common-practice harmonic and voice-leading practices, but irreverently reconfigures them in a way that echoes the manner in which their composers learn and practice their trade; orally, informally, freely. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, with its Gospel-derived three chord vamps in the verse (even there we get a cheeky shift up a full step), and its irresistible series of pivots into bIII for the chorus, comes to mind, but there are thousands you could choose from; play through ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ask whether it would be anything without those head-spinning, almost grace-giving modulations that continuously come, ramping up tension and atmosphere at each new tonal plane. Much of The Beatles’ output portrays this very process of (sometimes) gauche invention. This attribution of gauchenss is not to suggest, incidentally, that those with classical music educations have any valid claim to expressive authority over popular musicians, it is merely to admit that the two use form, harmony, and texture, in immanently different ways.

And who knew Boy Meets Girl’s Merrill and Rubicam wrote ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’? Yet another song, incidentally, that derives much of its impact from a toying with tonality, in this case an anticipatory, beautifully weighted delayed resolution into the tonic, which only comes finally with the jubilant chorus.

Modern pop may be largely without the sophisticated chord substitutions and added notes of Broadway (or jazz), but its cheekily realised and surely deeply sophisticated tonal designs add as much spark to common practice as anything else currently being offered under that often tired regime.


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4 Responses to “Waiting for a Chord to Fall”

  1. scott mc laughlin Says:

    Great post, and great tracks! I agree with you completely except on one minor point.

    In ‘Waiting for a Star…’ I hear the “I wish I didn’t feel so strong about you” section as being in the relative minor rather than as an elaborated dominant. Although there’s no strict modulation, there is a strong VII-i component all the way through the section, culminating in the emphasis on “star”. And the opening chord of the section seems more like a delayed VII-i (if you follow the bass), holding off on a strong statement until the “catch a star” line.

    I haven’t sat down and worked it out properly so i may be missing things, but that’s how I intuitively hear it.

    Thought you might like this if you don’t know it, Wax – “Building a Bridge to Your Heart” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0g5gKp2BHg

    It has a similar ambiguity between major and relative minor as “waiting for a star” and similarly uses chord to to get to the relative minor as modal shift. And there’s some great sneaky chromatically altered dominants that emphasise and stabilise the ambiguity between the major key centre and the relative minor.

  2. Stephen Graham Says:

    Hey Scott, great to hear from you. That’s a cool song, I can’t say I knew it well, but I have been listening to 10cc a lot recently. They, of course, can boast of maybe the most famous case of major/minor oscillation (in that case between parallel modes) in all pop music. Building a Bridge is excellent; I’m only going on ear but I can hear a neapolitan second in there on the way to the minor, and then a flattened sixth which actually suggests a move to the parallel minor, before the motion leads inexorably back to I via V! Great stuff. I could be persuaded to your argument re Waiting for a Falling Star, for sure!!

    Are you planning on going to the Coventry Symposium on Experimental Music in September? If so, catch you there hopefully.

  3. scott mc laughlin Says:

    You might like this for your 10cc listening (I love that song):

    I hope to make it coventry for that, haven’t decided on a topic yet though. Hope to see you there.

  4. Stephen Graham Says:

    Great vid, thanks. Yeah, see you there perhaps. I think Sean (Clancy) will be going too.

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