Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bon Iver, Michael Jackson, and the conclusory IV chord

I have given Bon Iver's second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011) much more listening attention than I usually grant to most artists I've come across, and it's well deserved.  The positive review over at Pitchfork shares a lot of my feelings towards the music -- it's simply an eclectic, well composed work.

Having somewhat of an involuntary music-theoretical bent to my casual listening alerted me to the interesting way that the band closes the majority of their songs on the album.  All of the tracks are explicitly tonal with a comprehensible tonic, yet a whopping six of the ten total end on a IV chord.  Of the remaining four, only two actually end on I, and one of those two ends outside the key that the song began in.  In this blog post I want to speculate why these songs might have been composed to end this way, and what the consequences of this are.

Ending a popular song on a IV chord is by no means the innovation of Bon Iver.  One prominent example that comes to mind is Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror, a massive hit from the late 80s.  This song begins with its tonic chord, a bright G-major in a synthesizer effect unmistakably familiar to popular music of this decade.  After an abrupt modulatory shift up a semitone at 2:53, what some refer to as the "Truck Driver's Gear Change," the tonic then revolves around the key of A-flat-major.  The music itself doesn't introduce any overtly new material follow this modulation; the new key appears to be introduced only to try and sustain listener interest in familiar material.  At 3:50, however, begins a significantly prolonged IV chord.  Michael Jackson and his gospel choir just riff and seemingly improvise over this chord for the rest of the song, which ends up consisting of over a whole minute of material -- quite a large chunk of time for the five-minute pop song.

I hear this perorational section as building up quite a lot of tension in its stressing of the IV chord.  I think that on some level I want to hear a resolution to I, the tonic chord, after all that emphasis on IV, a subordinate tonal element.  This is, of course, never granted.  The song just ends on IV, teasing the listener with its unfulfilled tonal expectation.

Here's where I think it gets interesting.  Say we're not satisfied with this ending and decide to reject it.  Ending on IV doesn't give us the closure we tend to yearn for in tonal music.  How can we resolve this tension and grant ourselves peace of mind?  Well, by starting the song over, of course.  Clicking that play button once more gives us access to that resolutory I chord.  The catch is, we are then impelled to listen to the rest of the song once again, since terminating the track just after hearing that opening I chord a few seconds into the piece, or whatever, wouldn't give us the track's literal closure.  This puts us in a predicament: how can we ever achieve closure?  Compulsively repeating the song seems to be the closest attempt at getting nearer to it, even though it's essentially unobtainable.

Driving an audience to incessantly repeat their listening of a popular song; does this sound like the perfect marketing tool or what? I can't help but speculate, perhaps not totally seriously, but definitely not unseriously, that the song was composed in this way to induce its listeners to want a repeated engagement with the work.  Not necessarily for some sinister marketing purpose, but as a gentle push for the listener to want to enjoy the same song once again.  We already listen to our favorite pop songs many, many times over. With that in mind, it seems like a useful compositional technique to end on something that's not tonic; it just gives us another reason to hear the song once more.

But why IV?  Why not ii, iii, V, vi, or vii?  Coming back to Bon Iver's 2011 album, I noted that six of the ten songs ended on IV. It seems to be no coincidence that IV was chosen as the most frequent ultimate chord over the other five non-tonic triads in a diatonic collection.  I'm not entirely sure why it is privileged over the others, but it definitely works.  IV is typically a predominant chord, but in certain contexts it can be interpreted as a prolongation of the tonic, I.  Perhaps this is the aural sensation we get when hearing IV as the concluding sonority -- it sounds a little like I, but isn't, because it functions as its prolongation.

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