Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Rock Modulation and Narrative

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Rock Modulation and Narrative

Article excerpt

[0.1] Key changes have long been employed in rock music to great dramatic effect.(1) Examples range from slick, poppy chart-toppers to the songs of alternative, experimental, and progressive groups. Changes of key are influential in shaping our sonic experiences of these songs, experiences that in turn contribute to our understanding of their lyrical content: musical features like modulation can clarify an ambiguous lyric, reinforce a song's central theme, or subvert a singer's message. This paper takes as its point of departure the premise that modulations constitute marked events, which provide fertile ground for narrative analysis. This paper is guided by three related goals--one theoretical, one methodological, and one repertorial:

(a) I aim to demonstrate, through analysis, the profitable intersection of ideas of musical narrative on the one hand (following in particular Burns and Woods 2004, Almén 2008, and Burns 2010) and, on the other hand, current understandings of modulation in rock music (Capuzzo 2009, Doll 2011, and Temperley 2011b).

(b) Acknowledging the elusive nature of one-to-one correspondences between musical narrative and the patterning of pitch materials, my analyses seek to highlight relevant analytical questions. Although I avoid offering an overtly theoretical framework based on my findings, the conclusion suggests five potential archetypes, each describing a different narrative function that may be supported by modulation; these archetypes are neither definitive nor exhaustive.

(c) In selecting repertoire I continue a trend (in Burns 1997, Capuzzo 2009, Osborn 2011, and many others) towards the inclusion of ever-more-contemporary artists. My choice of repertoire also broadens the discussion of rock modulation by eschewing vocally dominated passages (like the "breakout chorus" discussed by Doll 2011) for predominantly instrumental textures--i.e. riffs and guitar solos. My selections are further limited to songs that begin and end in the same key (though at least one of my examples is debatable in this regard). It is certainly not my contention that this feature is necessary in deriving meaningful insight from a song's internal modulations, nor that such songs constitute a strain of musically superior compositions. Rather, this criterion avoids entanglements like the temptation to invoke narratives associated with directional or progressive tonality.(2)

I use the term "narrative meaning" to invoke the broader tonal context surrounding modulatory passages. I employ descriptors like "expressive meaning" or "affective potential" to refer to the more immediate impact of modulations. A better understanding of these issues will allow for more meaningful engagement with rock songs that modulate.

[0.2] My analyses are grouped according to the duration and complexity of modulatory material. My first examples--Fun.'s "One Foot" and Mother Mother's "Hay Loft"--explore passages in which a modulation away from a song's initial tonic key occupies only a few measures before the tonic is regained. In such cases, the distinction between modulation and tonicization might reasonably be called into question. I submit that the distinction is difficult to maintain in rock music, largely because the cadential structures found in rock music differ substantially from those of the classical canon. Moreover, because rock music often comprises shorter and more regular phrase lengths than classical music, short tonal detours, which some analysts would doubtless identify as tonicizations, retain their salience for a narrative analysis. It is therefore not difficult to interpret narrative meaning in and demonstrate the affective potential of these especially short-lived instances of modulation. The next two songs each invite discussion of a unique methodological issue: Coldplay's "42" features a somewhat ambiguous return of tonic at its end, while Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" explores more than two keys and affords a discussion of pivot modulations. …

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