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4.   Analytical Findings


4.2.3   Use of Chords

Graph 4.6 Harmonic Distribution by Nature's Best Position

When the Nature’s Best list is segmented, as in Graph 4.6, harmonies are similarly distributed. Tonic major harmonies spike in the second quartile of songs; however, the difference between songs ranked 1-25 and 26-50 equals approximately one extra bar of I every sixteen bars. In the context of a song, such a variation would hardly be noticeable.

The chord distributions change little according to the peak chart position, dividing between, for example, top twenty hits and those outside the top twenty.

Overall, this supports Moore’s claim that popular music has historically been founded on a “static” musical language7, although greater sample sizes would be beneficial. This observation does not render these results irrelevant; they

provide important insights into pop and rock’s musical language, discussed further in Chapter 5.

harmonies. This will help identify the varying degrees of harmonic complexity across the Nature’s Best songs.

On average, Nature’s Best songs featured just over six fundamental harmonies, in relation to a localized tonic note. This excludes inversions, colourations and

“No Chords.” The frequency of chord quantities is shown in Graph 4.7. Citizen Band’s ‘Julia’ contains thirteen chords, while the Herbs’ ‘French Letter’ uses only two.

Graph 4.7 Frequency of Chord Quantity

Graph 4.7 can be read in conjunction with Graph 4.1 and Graph 4.3. There are five chords with proportions greater than five percent — I, IV, V, vi and bVII — and another five between two and five percent — i, II, ii, bIII and bVI. It should be expected that the majority of songs contain between three and nine different harmonies.

Of the songs with fewer than five chords, six can be located in hip-hop or R & B influenced styles, which place less emphasis on harmonic elements. These songs include ‘How Bizarre,’ ‘Screems From Tha Old Plantation,’ ‘Can’t Get

Enough,’ ‘In The Neighbourhood,’ ‘Chains’ and ‘Poi E.’ Similarly, ‘French Letter’ is a politically motivated reggae song; the limited harmonic movement

allows for clarity of their anti-nuclear message; much the same technique is evident in Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’

Jordan Luck’s three songs, under the Dance Exponents and The Exponents monikers, only use the primary triads; again the harmonic simplicity allows for an uncluttered narrative. Dave Dobbyn also follows this trend. ‘Whaling’ uses I, IV and V and ‘Bliss’ is built on I, IV and bVII, perhaps reflecting the stasis of binge drinking — “Get yourself another” implores lead vocalist Peter Ulrich as the band endlessly cycles through bVII-IV-I. Dobbyn’s ‘Naked Flame’ uses only I, IV, V and vi but blends the chords through added notes and a slippery bass line.

With the exception of Bic Runga’s ‘Drive’ and the hip-hop examples, it seems that the three-chord song was abandoned by the 1990s generation of

songwriters. By comparison, only one song, ‘Glorafilia’ by Zed, explores more than eight chords. Of the new songwriters in the 1990s, the average number of chords per song falls to 5.67. Furthermore, of the songs with five chords, 30 percent were written post-1995. This begs the question whether songwriters became more harmonically conservative, with neither the adventurous nature nor the concision of their predecessors. This issue will be revisited in Chapter 5.

Harmonic complexity can be measured, to a certain extent, with regards to a diatonic-chromatic spectrum. “Diatonic” refers here to chords taken from a single mode throughout a song; thus, ‘Drive,’ ‘Liberty’ and ‘Victoria’ are diatonic, using the Aeolian, Mixolydian and major modes, respectively.

Conversely, a “chromatic” song borrows chords from another mode; the more intriguing aspect is the degree and type of chromaticism.

Overall, 21 songs were strictly diatonic. Four of these songs — ‘Slippin’ Away,’

‘Poi E,’ ‘Screems From Tha Old Plantation’ and ‘Can’t Get Enough’ — contained key changes but maintained the same diatonic progressions within each section. By default, these songs contained few chords, averaging less than

four per song. Strawpeople’s ‘Sweet Disorder’ was the only song to use all diatonic triads, except for viio, in Eb major.

The remaining songs contained chromatic chords of some description. That said, the chord distributions change little between chromatic and diatonic songs. This indicates that diatonic harmonies predominate across all the songs. In terms of chromaticism, it is easy to distinguish between ‘Loyal,’ which introduces bVII for the final four bars, and the harmonically anarchic ‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand.’ It is more difficult to classify and categorize the songs in


A number of chromatic harmonies function as applied dominants, briefly

tonicizing another note. This also includes implied interrupted cadences, such as E-F in the key of C. The E chord acts as an applied dominant of A minor, but resolves to F, essentially VI in the ‘new’ key.

In ‘Loyal,’ the introduction of bVII neither disrupts the tonal order nor disturbs the sense of key, rather, it embellishes the final cadence. Chromatic chords that had a similar function have been labeled “secondary,” not to be confused with the term’s conventional use as a synonym for applied dominant. Rather,

“secondary” reflects the harmonies’ relative importance. That is, the chords themselves may be significant, providing colour or dramatic interest, but their chromatic nature does not impact on the overall harmonic structure.

‘Forever Tuesday Morning’ presents two examples of secondary chromatic chords. The introductory progression, I-ii-IV-bVI-V, drives from I to V; the chromatic addition, bVI, is a pleasant surprise but serves as an upper neighbour that slips down to the dominant, altering the expected IV-V movement. The bridge features a descent from vi to IV. Across eight bars, the bass line falls G-F-E§-Eb, the third note not ‘belonging’ to Bb major. Again, the chromatic note does not signal any tonal change but passes from F to Eb. Both harmonies are, therefore, subordinate events within the phrases.

Secondary chromatic harmonies, by definition non-diatonic, are borrowed from outside the home key. “Mixed mode” chromatic harmonies are, therefore, closely related but differ by degree. That is, mixed mode harmonies impact on the harmonic orientation of the phrase or section. There is no rule for

determining mixed modes, compared to a secondary harmony. Usually, they will have some structural importance so as to undermine the prevailing mode. A couple of examples should help define this distinction.

The verse of ‘Nature’ proceeds as follows in Ab minor:


Each chord lasts two crotchet beats, except for the latter III and VII (one crotchet beat each), with the hyphens indicating barlines. The issue is the subdominant harmonies, borrowed from the parallel major key. The initial Db/F (IVb) is a secondary chromatic chord because it is part of a descending

movement from Ab to Fb in the bass, analogous to ‘Forever Tuesday Morning.’

The latter IV harmonies would count under “mixed mode” because they signal a temporary shift away from the tonic. Although III, Cb, and VII, Gb, are diatonic in the Aeolian mode, they are heard as a Mixolydian double-plagal cadence onto Db. Thus, the two modes are “mixed” in the one phrase.

‘Part of Me’ by Stellar also mixes modes. The majority of the song is built on Mixolydian harmonies — I, IV, v and bVII. Within the two verses and

instrumentals, I and bIII alternate, although the synthesizer textures are harmonically ambiguous, often omitting the third. The vocal line provides the major third, which, therefore, clashes with the flattened third of the subsequent chord. Given this phrase only uses the two chords, bIII cannot be regarded as secondary. Although understated compared to ‘Nature,’ there is a degree of harmonic ambiguity in ‘Part of Me’ that leads to a mixed mode classification.

Sectional key changes, such as in ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ (chorus to coda) or ‘Nature’ (verse to chorus), are not noted in this context, even though the songs, in their entirety, present different modes. The classification identifies the chords that blur tonal boundaries at a particular point in the song. Despite

the issues of subjectivity, the analysis was guided by musical details such as phrasing or accents. Others may, of course, classify the songs differently.

Without further explanations, Table 4.3 presents the frequency of chromatic types within Nature’s Best. Some songs are represented multiple times; ‘Nature’

provides one count of a secondary chord — IVb in the main riff — and two of mixed modes — in both the verse and chorus. Multiple instances of the same harmony in a song are only counted once; different harmonies using the same technique are counted individually. Thus, Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’ is counted twice for using both I7 and II as applied dominants. This approach ensures shorter songs, with fewer frequencies of a specific harmony, are not discriminated against. Simultaneously, it recognizes variations of a particular technique adopted by songwriters.

Chromatic Type Frequency

Applied 31

Secondary 61

Mixed Mode 60

Substitute 3

Pivot 6

Colour 1

Table 4.3 Frequency of Chromatic Chords

The categories not yet discussed are easily explained. Sneaky Feelings’

‘Husband House’ is the only song with chromatic colours added to the chords;

the tonic harmonies are infused with major ninths and sharp elevenths. Pivots are chromatic chords used in the process of a modulation, as heard twice in ‘I Hope I Never’ and ‘1905’ and once each in ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha’ and

‘Fraction Too Much Friction.’

Substitute chords are theoretically recognized as pairs of chords with two common notes, such as IV and ii. In this context, the term denotes a non-diatonic chord that seemingly fulfils the same function as a non-diatonic option.

Accordingly, substitutes were deemed to occur in Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and ‘Distant Sun’ — III, with the leading-note, instead of V to conclude phrases — and The Mutton Birds’ ‘Dominion Road’ in which each

chorus ends vii-IV-I, instead of the more conventional bVII-IV-I. The substitute chords are, thus, subtle variations on the expected chord progressions.

Within the mixed mode section, it one can identify the combinations used by songwriters, as shown in Table 4.4.

Modal Combinations Frequency

Major/Aeolian 26

Major/Mixolydian 12 Mixolydian/Aeolian 7

Major/Dorian 1

Aeolian/Dorian 1

Composite 8

Parallel 4

Table 4.4 Frequency of Modal Combinations

The description “composite” does not imply a sense of polytonality. It is

employed when chords do not fit, as such, the seven modes.8 Composite modes, therefore, ranged from single chords — a non-functional VI in ‘Pressure Man’

or a III-iii-IV progression in ‘If I Were You,’ both of which obscure the key — to lengthier progressions, such as I-II-bIII-bVII-IV-V in ‘History Never

Repeats.’ This song also contains an unusual II-vi-I-v riff in the verse; the harmonies alternate between major and minor chords in fourths. ‘I Hope I Never’ is also regarded as using composite modes; it opens with B7-A7, suggesting the Mixolydian mode on both harmonies.

The parallel category was coined for the four cases in which chromatic harmonies moved in parallel motion outside diatonic conventions. Two

instances are similar in that the songs’ bridges rock between harmonies a major second apart, bII-bIII in ‘Julia’ and vice-versa in ‘Sensitive To A Smile.’

Similarly, the bridge in ‘I Got You’ repeats I-II-III before leading into the chorus with bIII-IV. Finally, in Shona Laing’s ‘1905’ the final chorus revisits the IV-V-VI movement that had been used in the bridge as a pivot progression.

8 The seven modes are Major (Ionian), Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian, corresponding, to the white keys, C-C, D-D, E-E (etc.), respectively.

Like the composite modes, the parallel harmonies do not have Lydian or whole-tone implications.

The prominence of major, Aeolian and Mixolydian combinations reflects the relative prevalence of bIII, bVI and bVII in the chord distributions. bVII, in particular, appears in each of the three categories, suggesting either the Mixolydian mode, or Aeolian mode when combined with bIII and bVI.

Although some songs genuinely juxtapose different modes, such as ‘Nature,’ a number conform to Everett’s fifth type of “rock’s tonal systems” whereby each note of the pentatonic scale supports a major triad.9 The most common triads in these cases are I, bIII, IV, V and bVII, which can also be read as combinations of the major, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes. This feature is idiomatic of popular music. Everett points to its origins in the blues tradition and 1960s pop, such as

‘Proud Mary’ or the introduction of ‘In The Midnight Hour.’ The technique was later entrenched in the barre chords of hard-rock styles, ‘Smoke On The Water’

being an early and prime example. Of the Nature’s Best songs, The Crocodiles’

‘Tears’ harks back to the 1960s, while Darcy Clay’s post-punk ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ stylistically derives from the latter category.

Don McGlashan, for The Front Lawn and Blam Blam Blam, is the only songwriter to experiment with Dorian inflections, aside from Shihad whose chorus for ‘Bitter’ hints at D Dorian. The Front Lawn’s ‘Andy’ is debatable in this context; there is a shift away from the tonic, F, in the bridge, to either G major or D minor, depending on one’s perspective. The G-Dm progression could either be considered G Mixolydian or D Dorian. Although G is heard on the stressed bars of each phrase, the D minor melody suggests the latter interpretation. In ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha,’ the introduction contrasts iv and IV within D minor. According to McGlashan, the Dorian twist enhances the narrator’s manipulative and twisted nature.10

9 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 23 September 2011).

10 Interview.

One can also mention ‘Spellbound’ and Crowded House’s ‘Weather With You.’

The songs open Bm7-E7 and Em7-A, respectively. This is the same progression as heard in the bridge of ‘Andy.’ With no other reference points, one can

interpret the chords as a Dorian i-IV. When A major and D major are introduced in the respective choruses, however, it becomes clear that the modal

implications mask the tonic whose appearance is delayed. The difference

between ‘Spellbound’ and, for example, ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha’ is that the latter maintains its guise of Aeolian/Dorian conflict, while the former hints at the Dorian mode before subsuming the harmonies into standard major tonality.11

Another way of examining chromatic harmonies is the number of different types employed in each song. ‘Blue Smoke,’ as mentioned above, uses two applied dominants and three secondary chromatic harmonies, and hence it ‘scores’ five.

This method, to a certain extent, measures the degree of chromaticism in each song. Its weakness is that there is no differentiation between complex mixed modes and a single secondary chord, nor between mixed modes in an eight-bar bridge, such as ‘Glorafilia,’ and mixed modes throughout an entire song, such as

‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand.’ A weighting system was considered, but determining the relative weights would be overtly subjective. Therefore, the results, shown in Graph 4.8, need to be considered in light of other harmonic features.

11 I am grateful to Graeme Downes for providing the eloquent description of this technique.

Graph 4.8 Frequency of Chromatic Scores

The most notable trend is the lack of contemporary songs with higher scores. Of the twenty scoring three or higher, only five were written in the 1990s, and two of these were penned by Neil Finn. The Feelers contrast VI and vi in ‘Pressure Man,’ while the bridge of Bic Runga’s ‘Suddenly Strange’ turns to a beautifully coloured bIIImaj7, complementing the sliding chromatic lines in the verse. But overall, these moments have a fleeting impact within the diatonic framework.

The ten highest scored songs were written before 1990 and can be split in two groups. ‘Blue Smoke,’ ‘Counting The Beat’ and ‘Blue Day’ have a tight

harmonic structure and, in general, use chromaticism to embellish progressions.

‘Better Be Home Soon’ likewise is diatonic in the verses and choruses, but moves towards the flattened leading-note in the bridge without ever confirming a new key. The harmonies hover away from the tonic, a move which strengthens the tonic’s return for the final verse.

‘I Hope I Never,’ ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha’ and ‘1905’ are more fluidly

chromatic, exploring modes and keys with little warning. Neil Finn’s ‘Message To My Girl’ also glides between different modes, which enhances the narrator’s message to his “girl.” The introduction and verse begin in a hollow Mixolydian mode, before descending into the relative minor. The verse ends unusually I7d-II, offering a glimmer of hope in the major supertonic, before rising to IV-V11 as

the singer promises that he will “sing it to the world // A simple message to my girl.” The chorus initially maintains the upbeat mood, but again, falls into the minor mode. The middle pair of harmonies within the eight-bar phrase is a dark v-bIII, which resolves into the brighter and optimistic IV-I cadence.

‘Message To My Girl’ is not complex; rather, the chromatic harmonies are precisely deployed to maximize their contrast with the diatonic harmonies. In the chorus, for example, the Aeolian pair of chords is surrounded at either end by only I and IV. The harmonic structure is thus arched — the simplicity of the opening chords gives way to a conflicting mode before returning to its original point.

Citizen Band’s ‘Julia’ garnered the highest chromatic score. The song is in E major but makes frequent recourse to E Aeolian. This is pronounced at the end of each section. The introduction presents a subtle iv-I cadence; the minor plagal movement is slowly expanded so that by the second chorus, there is a full iv-bVIc- ii7b5-ii7b5d progression, the resplendent descending line emphasized by the lead guitar. The verse also revolves around a descending pattern, the chromatic path from vi-IV.

The remarkable chromatic point of ‘Julia’ is the F major chord that opens each verse. As bII in E, the harmony is startling. It is possible to interpret F as being tonicized by the preceding C major chord (i.e. bVI-bII equals V-I), but this does not fit with its presentation, appearing to float free of harmonic, rhythmic and phrase structures. This problem is compounded by the ‘resolution’ down a major third, via E minor, to C# minor.

The instrumental preceding each verse ends on bVI and thus, the listener may anticipate a minor plagal cadence.12 Instead, the harmonies twist and turn through a host of unexpected chromatic chords before finding the tonic after eleven bars. The irony is that ‘Julia’ is a straightforward love song. The narrator plainly states in the chorus, accompanied here by diatonic chords, “Julia // Hear

12 I.e. treating bVI as a substitute for iv in a major key.

me now // I’m head over heels // And I’m turning in circles” and concludes each verse, “You see you are the one I love.” The extensive chromaticism, perhaps, reflects the overwrought emotions not expressed by the narrator’s words.

It is not surprising that ‘Julia’ was the only song to contain thirteen different chords. Furthermore, there appears to be a general relationship between the number of chord types used and the chromatic score. This is not revelatory, but it suggests those songwriters who are keen to expand harmonically are likely to do so in a range of ways. This situation also highlights the potential benefit of a weighting system. Such a system would help to further distinguish between songs that feature extensive chromaticism in a diatonic framework and songs that have a stronger chromatic foundation. This issue is taken up further in the following section, which moves from surface to structural harmonic