Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Fragile, Emergent, and Absent Tonics in Pop and Rock Songs

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Fragile, Emergent, and Absent Tonics in Pop and Rock Songs

Article excerpt

[1] Skilled nineteenth-century song composers such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms often exploited tonality and its expectations for symbolic or expressive purposes. About Brahms’s 1873 song “Regenlied” (op. 59 no. 3), for example, Heather Platt observes that “[t]hroughout most of this song the tonic is absent . . . [and] the resulting wandering harmonies . . . create a dream world in which time seems to be suspended” (1999, 248). Broaching the issue of harmony and tonal design in their analysis of German lieder, Deborah Stein and Robert Spillman use the term implicit tonality to refer to “a section of music where a key is suggested (i.e., implied) but not fully (i.e., explicitly) presented” (1996, 135).(1) This essay argues that popular-song composers since the 1960s have often toyed with tonality in much the same way, and that many striking examples of such ephemeral tonal designs can be found in the vast repertoire of pop and rock songs recorded over the past several decades. Before proceeding, however, I will first anticipate my conclusions, positing three tonal scenarios to be explained more fully over the course of the music analyses that follow: 1) songs with a fragile tonic, in which the tonic chord is present but its hierarchical status is weakened, either by relegating the tonic to a more unstable chord in first or second inversion or by positioning the tonic mid-phrase rather than at structural points of departure or arrival; 2) songs with an emergent tonic, in which the tonic chord is initially absent yet deliberately saved for a triumphant arrival later in the song, usually at the onset of the chorus; and 3) songs with an absent tonic, an extreme case in which the promised tonic chord never actually materializes.

Example 1. Daryl Hall and John Oates, “She’s Gone” (1973)

Audio Example 1

Audio Example 2

Audio Example 3

[2] Example 1 provides a formal synopsis of Daryl Hall and John Oates’ 1973 song “She’s Gone” alongside a summary of the harmonic content in each of the song’s respective sections.(2) Like many pop and rock songs, “She’s Gone” opens with an extended introduction built upon an oscillating two-chord vamp—in this case, close position A major and B major triads alternating over a B pedal. Well over a minute into the track, the vocals enter with the first verse, the initial three lines of which are built upon this same oscillating vamp, yielding fleetingly toGminor-seventh andCminor-seventh chords in the fourth line before returning to the vamp for the song’s second verse. Audio Example 1 contains the end of the introduction through the first and on into the second verse.

[3] How are we to make sense of the tonal information that has been presented to us so far? All of the chords conform to a key signature of four sharps, suggesting E major, and yet the tonic chord is notably absent from the verse’s chord progression. In fact, the entire introduction and first two verses seem to be all about prolonging the dominant, with particular emphasis placed on the A major over a B bass “slash” chord that begins and ends each verse. This distinctive keyboard sonority which I have christened the “soul dominant”—best thought of here as a close position IV chord over 5ˆ in the bass, conflating subdominant and dominant functions—is common to many pop and rock styles, but especially prevalent within the lush, extended harmonic language of 1970s soul music, hence its nickname.(3) The resulting effect felt throughout the introduction and first two verses of “She’s Gone” is one of constant tension, setting the stage for the E major tonic chord to emerge triumphantly in the song’s chorus. When the tonic chord ultimately does emerge, however, it is quite fragile, relegated to a passing harmony in first inversion (Audio Example 2).

[4] The ending of “She’s Gone” is also special and merits further commentary. …

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