Sunday, August 10, 2014

On One Measure of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" (1937)

Robert Johnson recorded "Love In Vain" during his final session in June 1937. The song resembles Leroy Carr's 1935 tune "When The Sun Goes Down" in several significant ways. Though the lyrics of the two songs are different, the melody, harmonic structure and tempo are very similar. (Both "When The Sun Goes Down" and "Love In Vain" follow a twelve bar blues form.)

"When The Sun Goes Down" is in Bb, and aside from a brief introduction and coda, repeats a twelve bar pattern with the following harmonic structure (all 7s indicate minor sevenths above the bass; blank measures indicate continuation of the harmony from the previous measure):

I | V(b13)* | I | I7 | IV7 |    | I - V(7) | I | V(7)! |    | I - V7 | I |

* Once, at 1:50-1:53, a I chord is used here instead.
! Except for the chord beginning at 2:08, the chordal third (A) is omitted here.

In terms of melody and harmony, the two most characteristic moments here occur in measures 5 and 9. In measure 5, an F (scale degree 5) is repeatedly emphasized in the melody against an Eb7 chord. In measure 9, the descending line F-D-Bb-G (scale degrees 5-3-1-6) is heard in the vocals against what is most often the chord F-C-Eb (F7, without a chordal third).

I will call the tonic pitch of Johnson's "Love In Vain" Ab. After an introduction, the song repeats the following harmonic structure:

I(7) | I7 |    |    | IV |    | I7 - V7 | I |  ?  | V7* | I(7) | (I - V7) |

* This chord always appears in first inversion (Eb7/G).

Notable differences in harmonic structure from Carr's "When The Sun Goes Down" include the use of a "turnaround" in the last bar (as in 0:41-0:43), the lack of a chordal seventh in mm. 5-6 (as in 0:22-0:27) and the recurring, descending chromatic line Gb-F-Fb-Eb [spanning scale degrees (b)7-5] in measure 11 (as in 0:38-0:41).

The most striking deviation from "When The Sun Goes Down" occurs in measure 9 (where the question mark appears above; see 0:32-0:36). In measure 9, Johnson consistently plays the following chord (from low to high): F-Bb-F-Ab (scale degrees 6-2-6-1). This chord acts as a pre-dominant, employing stepwise voice leading toward the Eb/G chord in measure 10 (the chordal seventh, Db, is not approached linearly). The specific voice leading used in mm. 9-10 is shown below.

m. 9 - m. 10
Ab - G (s.d. 8-7)
F - Eb (s.d. 6-5)
Bb - Bb (s.d. 2)
F - G (s.d. 6-7)

This pre-dominant harmony in measure 9 could be called "ii7 in second inversion with a missing chordal third," but that seems rather unnecessary, given that it seems to arise primarily from stepwise voice leading elaborating V. The inclusion of this chord creates a beautiful and particularly memorable moment. Using scale degree 6 as the bass note, it is almost as if Johnson has converted part of Carr's melody into harmony, as the final note of the melodic line from measure 9 of "When The Sun Goes Down" (scale degree 6; see 0:32-0:35 of the Carr) does not appear in Johnson's vocal at the comparable point in "Love In Vain." Instead, scale degree 6 is used as the bass note for the entire measure.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nontonic Endings

The following songs have a clear tonal center and end on a pitch or harmony different from that tonal center. There are different types of such endings; some provide cadential closure and others conclude with an abrupt stop. (There are additional types of nontonic endings that I will not address here, including those emphasizing material unrelated to most of the song, such as the ending to the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night.") Some readers may disagree with my conclusions regarding tonic pitch in examples. I welcome such input in the comments.

Major: IV

Christopher Cross - "Sailing" (1980)

Despite the frequency of D in the bass, I hear A as tonic here. The pitch material is limited to an A major diatonic collection with the exception of the instrumental bridge from 2:43-3:08. It is not a surprise when the song concludes on a D (IV) chord (E is added to the triad), as each previous chorus ends this way (1:47, 2:37). Still, the resolution feels less complete than it would had a I chord been placed at the end. (This is, of course, not a bad thing and makes perfect sense given the lyrical content.)

Starship - "We Built This City" (1985)

F is the tonic pitch here, though as in Cross' "Sailing," each chorus ends on IV (Bb here). This emphasis prepares the listener for the use of Bb as a pedal during the outro beginning at 4:24. Also like "Sailing," chromaticism is used sparingly. Here it is mainly reserved for the third and fourth line of the verse, where the harmony is Eb/F | C/F | F | (as in 0:37-0:42).

Green Day - "When I Come Around" (1994)

I'll go with F# as tonic here, with the chord progression I-V-vi-IV cycling through most of the song. 0:54-1:02 and 1:53-2:02 present a repeated II-IV pattern (yes, that's major II) concluding with a B major chord that supports a C# in the lead vocal (IVadd9). Following several repetitions of the titular line from 2:31-2:48, the song ends on IV at the conclusion of the I-V-vi-IV pattern.

Faith Hill - "Breathe" (1999)

Here the beginning of the verse contains the chords Am, G/B and Cadd9. The initial absence of F(#) allows either G or C to be heard as tonic, though for me, the vocal's emphasis on G suggests the former interpretation. This ambiguity is removed at 0:46, as a D major (G: V) harmony is introduced. Another D (V) chord at 1:14 leads directly into the chorus, which begins with a repeated G: I-ii7-IV(add9)-V(sus4). The song ends with the opening lines of text repeated against the same harmonic pattern concluding on C major (IV), with B and D added.

Michelle Branch - "All You Wanted" (2001)

Though an F in the bass begins the introduction as well as every verse and chorus, Ab is clearly tonic here. The verse employs Ab and Eb pedals above the bass pattern F-Eb-Db-Ab (scale degrees 6-5-4-1), and the chorus uses the (slightly) more tightly structured harmonic sequence Ab: vi7-IV(add9)-I-V. A V chord, initially appearing in first inversion at 0:30, serves to connect various sections. (The use of V6 at 2:20 is rather memorable, as scale degree 7 is briefly present in both bass and Branch's lead vocal.) The song ends with the repetition of an earlier line of text (from 1:32-1:42) and a IV chord (Db major, with Eb added).

Minor: VI

Kesha - "Tik Tok" (2009)

I hear D as tonic throughout, with the bassline Bb-C-D first harmonized in thirds (with the melodic line D-E-F) during the verse, and later supporting complete triads in the chorus. This progression, Bb major-C major-D minor, can be represented by d: VI-VII-i. G minor (iv) appears occasionally in the verse (as in 0:31-0:33), chorus (as in 1:03-1:05) and bridge (as in 2:14-2:15) as well. The song ends abruptly with a single Bb in the bass following the final chorus, as if beginning another refrain.

Miley Cyrus - "Wrecking Ball" (2013)

As in "Tik Tok," I hear D as tonic throughout, though the chorus (as in 0:40-1:02) may be heard as promoting F or Bb as tonic. The music from 2:38-2:42 (toward the end of the bridge) presents d: V4-3 (A major) and contributes to the case for hearing D as tonic. Each chorus ends on Bb major (d: VI) with Cyrus' vocal on the note Bb. This same configuration ends the song, completing the last of several repetitions of the chorus' final lyric (beginning at 3:23).

Minor: VII

Adele - "Set Fire to the Rain" (2011)

D is immediately established as tonic with the progression d: i-III-VII-iv in the introduction and verse. The chorus is also centered on D and presents d: i-VII-iv-i-VII. The song ends with d: VI-VII, a motion first introduced at 2:22-2:26. Against the C major chord at 3:53-3:58, the vocal falls from G to F as if anticipating a tonic (D minor) triad that does not arrive.

John Legend - "All of Me" (2013)

Though the beginning of the chorus (as in 1:00-1:31) is centered on Ab [Ab: I-vi-ii6-V(9-8,4-3)], I hear F as tonic overall. The verse (as in 0:16-0:31) and the end of the chorus (as in 1:31-1:46) contain f: i-VI-III-VII (the introduction contains the same harmonic pattern with i and VII missing chordal thirds). The song ends with a repetition of the last portion of the chorus (4:18-4:35), closing on an Eb major (VII) chord.

Kelly Clarkson - "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" (2011)

The tonic here is A, and with the exception of the bridge (2:15-2:37), the harmony consists of a repeated a: i-VI-III-VII6. Clarkson's vocals exit at 3:31 and the song ends with a final repetition of this harmonic pattern, closing on G/B (VII6). Worth mentioning is the Bb major chord (bII) during 2:19-2:23 and its subsequent direct return to the tonic (A minor).


Weezer - "Buddy Holly" (1994)

I hear Ab as tonic here, though F minor begins each verse. The chorus (as in 0:28-0:43) presents Ab: I-IV-V-I-IV-V-vi-IV-V-I-IV-V-I. After three repetitions of the final line of the chorus (2:26-2:36), the harmony makes a quick move to F minor (vi) to end the song.

Bonnie Raitt - "I Can't Make You Love Me" (1991)

Despite the frequency of Eb major and G minor chords, I hear Bb as tonic here. Simplified (chordal sevenths and ninths, most often the notes Bb and F, are frequently added), the chords in the verse (as in 0:32-1:11) are Bb: IV-vi-IV-I6-vi-ii[-V(6-5,4-3)]. The chorus (as in 1:13-2:15) presents Bb: IV-I-IV-I(6)-IV-vi-IV-V6-vi-IV-V6-vi-ii-V-IV-I-IV-vi-IV-I6(-vi)-ii. The first chorus leads seamlessly into the second verse beginning at 2:16; the second chorus leads to an extended outro beginning at 4:00. At 5:13, the song seems to have reached an end on Eb major (IV), but moves unexpectedly to Ab major (bVII) at 5:21.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bill Walton, Music and Basketball

For those who don't know, I am devotee of basketball in addition to my musical pursuits. With the 2014 FIBA World Cup beginning later this summer, it's a perfect time to celebrate basketball and broadcasting great Bill Walton, lover of both sport and music. Here are three memorable and music-related broadcasting moments from Walton:

Boris Diaw and Beethoven

In this 2006 clip, Walton makes reference to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony while praising the virtues of French forward Boris Diaw, then of the Phoenix Suns. (Casual basketball fans will recognize Diaw from his recent resurgence in San Antonio, which included an important role in the 2014 NBA Finals.) I particularly enjoy broadcasting partner Mike Tirico's reaction at 0:34.

Ray Allen, "Lettin' it Flow"

In this 2001 clip, Walton compares shooting guard Ray Allen (then of the Milwaukee Bucks) to "an unbelievable guitar player" after Allen's missed shot at 0:07.

Grateful Dead and the NBA

In this 2011 clip, Walton discusses parallels between rock band Grateful Dead and professional basketball, including "creativity," "teamwork" and "building a dream."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Musicians with homonymic names

Nancy Wilson and Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson - "Guess Who I Saw Today" (1960)

The arrangement here works for me: no real solos and clearly defined instrumental roles, including the absence of the piano during the bridge (1:56-2:29). Wilson's performance, particularly the memorable way she sings the cascading titular line at 1:01 and 2:31, is stunning.

Heart - "Stranded" (1990)

Nancy Wilson sings a powerful lead vocal on this track from Heart's Brigade album (produced by Richie Zito, who also produced Cheap Trick's "The Flame" and Bad English's "When I See You Smile"). The chorus features one of the great uses of the I-V-ii-IV pattern, evoking the chorus of Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way" (with which "Stranded" shares the key of G major following the half step "pump-up" modulation at 2:55).

Patti Smith and Patty Smyth

Patti Smith - "Free Money" (1975)

From her first album Horses (produced by John Cale of the original Velvet Undergound), this track features Smith's distinctive mix of song and spoken word. I enjoy Smith's vocalizations as well as the arrangement, which features a somewhat gradual buildup of instrumental forces. The accompaniment begins with piano; the bass and drums enter at 0:30 and rhythm guitars at 0:48. A double time feel begins at 1:01, followed by an uneasy, repeating eighth note gesture in the drums beginning at 1:33. Additional vocal tracks enter at 2:24 and a lead guitar comes in at 3:08.

Scandal - "Goodbye To You" (1982)

Featuring lead vocals by Patty Smyth, this song preceded Scandal's bigger 1984 hit "The Warrior." (Both became karaoke staples long ago.) The background vocals on this track are nicely placed in 1:18-1:31 and 2:48-2:56. The decision to elide Smyth's voice with the synth lead beginning at 1:48 provides a smooth transition into the solo section, which ends with what are possibly my favorite two seconds of the song, from 2:19-2:21. 

"Papa" Jo Jones and "Philly" Joe Jones

Jo Jones Trio - "When Your Lover Has Gone" (1958)

Also featuring Ray Bryant (piano) and Tommy Bryant (bass), this track features Jones' uniquely colorful cymbal playing. I especially enjoy Jones' contribution during the last chorus, beginning at 2:32.

Sonny Clark Trio - "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (1957)

With "Philly" Joe Jones (drums) and Paul Chambers (bass). Jones is in top form here with pianist Sonny Clark and frequent rhythm section mate Paul Chambers. The group's interplay during Chambers' solo (2:31-3:21) is particularly engaging, as Jones and Clark create a subtle interplay within the accompaniment.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Hello, everyone! I now have a blog. Stay tuned for posts on a wide range of topics related to music.