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Classical Analysis of Popular Music

2.   Literature Review


2.5.2   Classical Analysis of Popular Music

The problem appears to stem, in part, from the perceived practices of each school of musicians — ‘learned’ and theoretical on the classical side, improvisatory on the popular side. Lucy Green supports this point, although

82 Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, 300.

83 Ibid., 300.

84 Middleton, Studying Popular Music, 117.

probably not in such simplistic terms, by arguing that popular musicians predominantly learn by listening to and copying recordings.85 She states that even when popular musicians acquire theoretical knowledge, they tend not to apply it, “instead carrying on by feel, ear and trial and error.”86 As one of Green’s interviewees pointed out, his mode of learning involved determining

“What sounds right. Just get the bass note, the first note they’re playing [on the record], then work a scale round that.”87 New Zealand songwriter Don

McGlashan agrees; although classically trained and a composition student at university, he very rarely “engages [his] brain theoretically” while writing songs.88

In practice, this distinction between classical and popular music is not tenable;

as Nicholas Cook points out, the long-running joke with Liszt was that his

“finest performances were when he was sight-reading, because that was the only time he ever played the music as written.”89 Furthermore, it is foolish to think classical composers never compose by “feel, ear and trial and error” or that popular musicians only create music through improvisation.

Placing this debate aside, the issue seems not so much whether analytical frameworks fit popular music, but whether one should try. McClary and Walser sum up this dilemma; it is worth quoting their passage in full.

The sociologist who has jumped up with excitement…turns to the adjacent musicologist and asks: “How did that happen?” The musicologist calmly replies: “You were expecting an E-flat, and he sang an E natural.” And the sociologist explodes because she knows perfectly well that she was not expecting an E-flat, that in fact she would not know an E-flat from a hole in the wall, and that the musicologist is once again taking a perfectly

transparent phenomenon and obfuscating.90

85 See Lucy Green, How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 60-76.

86 Ibid., 93.

87 Ibid., 94.

88 Interview.

89 Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction, 89.

90 McClary and Walser, “Start Making Sense!” 279.

Tom Constanten, keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, concurs with this view. In response to Graeme Boone’s essay on the band, Constanten wrote,

The paper sounds like a weather report in French, delivered perfectly by someone who doesn’t speak a word of the language. While the points made are all true, the spirit of the paper has nothing to do with the spirit in which the music was made.91

These anecdotes suggest an underlying suspicion of formal analysis: why should one discuss popular music in technical terms if this practice is divorced from the experiences of audiences and musicians?

In reply, a beginner guitarist does not need to understand descending Aeolian progressions or chromatic passing notes to produce the correct sounds of

‘Stairway To Heaven.’ The theory illustrates, for the guitarist, why the notes work, per se. Whether analysing or playing, the same musical concepts are at work; the difference is articulating these concepts theoretically or practically.

Furthermore, popular musicologists should not abandon analysis just to capture the “spirit” of the music. This sort of thinking promotes a vague type of

‘criticism’ that explains little of anything. The challenge is to reconcile the technical details with the “spirit” of the music.

The more pressing issue is whether the classical analytical framework fits popular music. Middleton is correct to warn analysts about the connotations of terminology; certainly, the notions of “syncopation” and “dissonance” differ from classical to popular music. Although Middleton’s argument is a little over-zealous — is anything lost by referring to the “melody” of Schubert, Gershwin or Joni Mitchell? — analysts must broach these terms and concepts cautiously.

The overarching concern, however, is harmony. If popular musicology is to utilise the same tools of harmonic analysis as classical music, then the two idioms must share the same harmonic principles.

91 Quoted in Graeme M. Boone, “Tonal and Expressive Ambiguity in ‘Dark Star,’” in Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, eds. John Covach and Graeme M. Boone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 205.

This is, by and large, the case. Most popular music is tonal or modal insofar as the melodies and harmonies revolve around a central pitch. Even with

modulations, either up a semitone (Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On A Prayer’) or to a variety of keys (Queen’s ‘All God’s People’), a localized tonic is usually evident.92 Furthermore, the relationships between the tonic and other chords are fundamentally similar in classical and popular music. As Everett plainly states,

“the tonal norms basic to the pop music from which rock emerged are the same norms common to the system of common-practice tonality.”93

It is not difficult to identify these “norms.” Diatonic chords prevail in standard popular music progressions, such as I-vi-IV-V or I-V-vi-IV, as is parodied by Australian band Axis of Awesome in their song ‘4 Chords.’94 Basic harmonic principles are also evident in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland.’ The

introduction, in skeletonised form, progresses: I–iii–IV–vi–ii–V // vi–iii–ii–vi–

ii–V, before leading into a drawn-out IV–I cadence. This example highlights fundamental similarities between popular and classical harmony: overall movement between the tonic and dominant, progression through the circle-of-fifths, and basic chord substitutions.

These observations have led, particularly American, theorists to adopt classical music’s analytical tools and apply them to popular music. Thus, Nicole

Biamonte discusses chords in terms of Riemannian functions95; Guy Capuzzo employs neo-Riemannian operations to analyse harmonies in terms of voice transformations96; and Everett has used Schenkerian techniques from the earliest

92 The cyclical chord patterns and particular phrase structure might make ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ a partial exception to this statement. The verse’s D-C-G progression can be heard as either I-bVII-IV in D or V-IV-I in G.

93 Walter Everett, “Making Sense of Rock’s Tonal Systems,” Music Theory Online 10, no. 4 (2004), from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.04.10.4/mto.04.10.4.w_everett.html (accessed 11 May 2011).

94 See “The Axis of Awesome: 4 Chords (2011) Official Music Video,” YouTube, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ&feature=related (accessed 9 November 2011).

95 See Nicole Biamonte, “Triadic Modal and Pentatonic Patterns in Rock Music,” Music Theory Spectrum 32, no. 2 (2010), pp. 96-97.

96 Guy Capuzzo, “Neo-Riemmanian Theory and the Analysis of Pop-Rock Music,” Music Theory Spectrum 26, no. 2 (2004), pp. 177-199.

days of popular music analysis.97 At the heart of these methods lies the normative assumption that the fundamental principle of classical music is present in popular music; as stated by Shepherd, “The sense of direction and resolution produced in functional tonal music is symbolized by one chord — the dominant seventh.”98

Everett and other American theorists acknowledge that this chord is not always present in popular music. However, Everett, for example, states that the absence of a I-V-I progression does not “suggest a different underlying system.”99 He further argues that an absent dominant may be implied or latent in the music through other voice-leading or contrapuntal events.100 Elsewhere, Biamonte’s Riemannian approach treats chords such as bVII as dominant functioning.101 Biamonte does not argue that bVII is the same as V, but in treating bVII and other harmonies as variations on V, they are implicitly seen as less normal. The issue is not necessarily the analytical techniques but the normative theory underpinning those techniques.

Moore argues,

It is intrinsic to what rock music has been, that the use of the 'flattened' diatonic seventh scale degree (and sixth, third, second and occasionally fifth, and also 'sharpened' fourth), far from being aberrant, should not even be viewed as departures.102

Furthermore, it is easy to agree with Moore whose “ears refuse to hear VII [i.e.

bVII] as merely a substitute V.”103 The prevalence of flattened harmonies stem from popular music’s origins in the blues. It is the crucial difference between

97 See Walter Everett, “Text Painting in the Foreground and Middleground of Paul McCartney’s Song, ‘She’s Leaving Home’: A Musical Study of Psychological Conflict,” In Theory Only 9 (1985), pp. 5-21; or Walter Everett, “Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon’s Crisis of

Chromaticism,” in Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, eds. John Covach and Graeme M. Boone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 113-153.

98 John Shepherd, Music as Social Text (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 124.

99 Everett, “Pitch Down The Middle,” 139.

100 Ibid., 139. I am grateful to Walter Everett for also discussing this point by email in July 2011.

101 Biamonte, “Triadic Modal and Pentatonic Patterns in Rock Music,” pp. 96-97.

102 Allan Moore, “The So-Called ‘Flattened Seventh’ in Rock,” Popular Music 14, no. 2 (1995), 186. Italics are original.

103 Ibid., 187.

classical and popular music. Several examples highlight how this difference is musically articulated.

Flattened-seventh chords appear frequently in blues-derived rock music, such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s ‘Taking Care of Business’ with its repeated I7 -bVII7-IV7-I7 pattern. The added sevenths cannot be viewed in terms of dominant-tonic resolution because the requisite voice-leading, from scale-degrees 4-3 and 7-8, does not occur. Furthermore, in this progression, the double-plagal cadence, the bass descends in fourths to the tonic, avoiding the dominant. Other songs with this progression include Free’s ‘It’s Alright Now,’

REO Speedwagon’s ‘Roll With The Changes,’ ‘Take Me To The River,’ Guns

‘N Roses’ ‘Paradise City’ and the coda from ‘Hey Jude.’ In each case, the tonic is the harmonic focal point, yet harmonic stability and closure is achieved without the dominant.

One can also note songs featuring both bVII and V harmonies, such as

Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ or Little Feat’s ‘Let It Roll,’ thereby juxtaposing b7 and §7 scale degrees. ‘Let It Roll’ deserves special mention because this contrast occurs at important structural points. Each chorus repeats V-I-IV-bVII before concluding with a two-bar dominant chord. The subsequent instrumental refrain, however, is built predominantly on the minor pentatonic scale and thus the flattened leading-note ‘resolves’ to the tonic. While the harmonic language may be similar, Moore correctly argues that some of popular music’s harmonic practices are “distinct” from the leading-note/tonic relationship that

axiomatically defines classical music.104

The issue at stake is a theory of rock harmony. This brief introduction to the debates will be supplemented in Chapters 4 and 5 with the analytical findings.

Despite subtle differences in opinions, there is a consensus amongst popular music analysts, best summed up by Shepherd — “it is apparent that there is a harmonic-rhythmic framework more or less common to functional tonal music

104 Ibid., pp. 186-188.

and Afro-American musics.”105 Therefore, classical analytical tools are appropriate for popular music. At the same time, the two idioms diverge in places. One cannot, therefore, assume a priori that the attendant concepts of harmonic stability, closure and resolution are directly applicable from classical to popular music. Songs must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The

problematic analyses are those that fail to heed this caveat.

This point is exemplified in Everett’s fleeting account of the Smashing

Pumpkin’s ‘Soma.’ The initial progression, B-Em-G, repeats for three minutes and Everett sees this as “suggesting B as tonic” given the phrase structure.106 The vocal melody uses an Ionian and Aeolian modal combination but frequently begins phrases on the mediant, D#, and ends phrases on the tonic. When an F#sus4 chord enters, he argues the subsequent I-IV-Vsus4 progression provides relief to the listener because it confirms the tonic key.107

This interpretation is debatable for two reasons. First, the suspended fourth undermines the dominant-tonic relationship by obscuring the leading-note; this is, however, only a minor issue. The main problem is hearing the harmonies within the song’s context. The progression appears once in full, before the music launches towards A and then back to the initial chord pattern, now with the guitar heavily distorted.

There is an audible difference between the two chord progressions, I-iv-bVI and I-IV-Vsus4, and undoubtedly this affects the shape, direction and flow of the song. But it is arguable whether the latter progression provides the harmonic resolution supposedly found wanting in the former. Even with its modal implications, the hypermetrical emphasis of the B major harmony and melodic construction are strong indicators that B is the tonic. Furthermore, Vsus4-I is heard only once, which means any relief is short-lived. These factors seem to

105 Shepherd, Music as Social Text, 133. Italics are original.

106 Everett, “Pitch Down The Middle,” 171, n. 32.

107 Ibid., 171, n. 32.

undermine Everett’s interpretation. To paraphrase Moore, relief is there only if one looks for it.108

The problem is that Everett’s analysis is based on a rigid theory; namely, tonic and dominant harmonies equate to tonal stability, security and resolution. This theory is often, but not always applicable to popular music and Everett’s analysis lacks the required flexibility. When popular music is made to fit classical theory in a wholesale manner, there is the potential for skewed results that are not sympathetic to the “distinct” features of popular music.