Tonality and tonal strategy in pop

I’m a sucker for the unexpected key change in tonal music, particularly the broadly unprepared one.

The song above contains an especially mischievous – and thrilling – example, with its leap from the Eb resolution implied by the bridge (which itself is an enrichment of the Bb of the verses), into the brightest of F majors for the chorus. (This lift seems also to help shift proceedings beyond the reach of language; the wonderful ‘o ah oh’ triadic hook in the voice that occurs here matches the hyper-condensated energies apparent in this tonal moment of release).

Upward modulations of a whole tone like this one occur all the time in pop music. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ jumps up buoyantly from A to B within its verse (although the argument could be made, because of the presence of flattened seventh chords ornamenting both of these tonal regions, that we actually move from E to F sharp), before twisting, via a minor mode dominant of B and then of A (which represents a neat reverse of the strategy of the verse), into C major, which movement is itself made somewhat ambiguous by the big release substitution of the sub-dominant for the tonic chord in the key of C, which substitution serves to delay the final resolution onto the putative home key (C). As soon as this resolution happens, and it does so only fleetingly, we jump unprepared back to A for the next verse.

Many other cases exist that make more of the tension being played with in the flattened seventh major chords used above; for example, ‘Waterloo’ turns its initial tonic D into that flattened seventh for a charged momentary modulation into the dominant at the head of every verse. This delaying of tonicisation only adds further weight to the confirmation of that tonic that takes place in each chorus (though it could also be argued, in a cheaply Foucauldian way, that all of this deferral of the home key – instead of weakening it – only serves to bring it into sharper focus, creating a sort of tonal discourse and a concomitant spiral of delay and subterfuge that actually serves to strengthen the tonic all along). Ingenious variations of these types of strategy are legion in the pop canon.

The Beach Boys’ humbling and beautiful ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ outlines a simple and elegant transition from E to F sharp major from verse to chorus, with chord iii in E being used as a pivot, substituting for ii in the conventional ii-V cadence in the new key. In contrast to the expected heightening of energy that is usually suggested by an upward tonal shift, the modulation in ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, perhaps because of the structural preparation, has a calming, soothing feel. The pivot is used again, in reverse, to accomplish the transition back to the verse, with B major turning from sub to dominant amidst a bed of transitional vocals.

Brian Wilson uses subtle upward modulation of a semi or whole tone all over the place in his early music, as in, for example, ‘Warmth of the Sun’ and ‘Surfer Girl’, where the shifts are almost imperceptible, creating a sense of sonic illusion or trap-doorness, and, to me, shaming the X Factor’s fetid, telegraphed use of a version of the same modulation on the chorus repeat. And we shouldn’t even get started on the many and varied tonal folds of ‘Girls on the Beach’!

His later work (by later I mean 1965 on) is filled with sophisticated chord substitutions and chord alterations derived from Broadway and jazz composers and musicians, but it is Wilson’s especial obsession with the subtlest grades of inversions, particularly on Pet Sounds and tracks like ‘Surf’s Up’ (the pinnacle of pop music?), that marks that later work out from the common musical language of pop. This sort of harmonic approach was of course enabled by Wilson’s habit of composing at the piano – chord inversions, without due care being paid to voicings and voice leading, sound thin and askew on conventional pop instruments such as guitars, and as such are comparatively little used.

Anyway, these songs and more besides show us that tonality has been used in a discursive and dialectical manner in popular music, a realm where funk droning vamps (see Hip Hop) and blues-derived triad doubling and chromatic derivations thereof (see Extreme Metal) often dominate, but surely do not tell the whole story. Tonality has in some important examples determined form, affect, and musical dynamics in popular music as much as it did throughout the symphonic repertoire of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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4 Responses to “Tonality and tonal strategy in pop”

  1. johnny s Says:

    Hi from Australia robots (you might remember me), liked yr post. Reminded me of similar things in Stevie Wonder’s songs. Cheers til next time.

  2. robotsdancingalone Says:

    Thanks Johnny, I do indeed. Hope you’ve been well. And good point about Stevie Wonder!

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