Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Idioms of popular music (from the perspective of a classical musician)

I'm going to start writing a series of posts which examine aspects of popular music. These will be aspects which I find frequently in popular music's many genres but very rarely or not at all in common practice era music, and which can be described adequately with the tools of music theory. I don't intend this list to be a comprehensive study by any means; it's just a selection of things I've noticed from many years of listening to both popular and classical music. I'm not trying to come to any definition of what popular music is either, but I'd imagine that if one were to incorporate the list of things I plan to write about into their own tonal compositions, one would likely then be able to characterize their work as popular music.

I won't include songs in this series that are explicitly jazz or blues pieces because those genres contain a ton of unique elements to distinguish them from classical music. Instead, I focus on popular, radio-friendly, mass-consumed, mainstream works from roughly 1960 onward. I'll try to make each item interesting to read about by avoiding obvious differences from classical music like syncopation and orchestration. Below is the first part of this series.

Part 1.  Scale degrees 5-6-1 over a tonic chord

The title of this section refers to a simple musical idea -- three successive pitches in a melodic line. This idea is ubiquitous in pop music, and I've provided handful of excerpts of it occurring below. I like to understand this 5-6-1 melodic idea as an inverted cambiata figure, with the last gap-fill note omitted, moving through scale degrees 5, 6, and 1. All of this is done over a tonic chord. The main point of interest here is scale degree 6. From a classical musician's perspective, this scale degree on top of a tonic chord is considered a dissonance, since the tonic triad consists of scale degrees 1, 3, and 5. In the musical examples below it acts like a passing tone between 5 and 1, but rather than passing to the next scale degree in a diatonic scale, scale degree 7, it instead skips upward by a third to scale degree 1. This avoids any instance of the melodic line creating or alluding to semitonal movement (here, between scale degrees 7 and 1), which is the characteristic feature of a typical pentatonic scale (a scale comprising solely of major-second and minor-third intervals). My understanding of this phenomenon is that since so much popular music has a hard-on for pentatonicism, this is likely then a pentatonic-derived idea shoved into a diatonic context. Examples below show this with horizontal brackets identifying the exact location of the figure in each score.

Hall & Oates - You Make My Dreams
This song's opening line consists exclusively of scale degrees 5, 6, and 1. The pseudo-cambiata figure described above is used four times (twice in retrograde, with one instance of overlap) and scale degree 6 is freely skipped to and away from the tonic note, all over a tonic chord. 

Travis - Sing
Another instance of a song using the 5-6-1 figure.

Michael Jackson - Man In The Mirror
The first 5-6-1 figure is actually over an extended dominant chord (i.e. not a tonic chord), but I felt was still worth identifying. The second bracket shows it sounding over a first-inversion tonic chord.

Black Eyed Peas - Where Is The Love
This song uses solely a retrograde of the 5-6-1 figure: 1-6-5.

The Beatles - All You Need Is Love
This song opens with a quotation of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, but with a few interesting edits. 

The pickup measure in the top voice moves along D-E-G, the familiar 5-6-1 figure I've been addressing in this section. This wasn't originally in the national anthem, however. In the opening of the original score, pictured below, the pickup is a simple 5-1 without any intermediary pitch E (scale degree 6). To me, this is an indication of how salient the 5-6-1 figure is in popular music. It's as if the Beatles decided a literal quotation of the anthem wouldn't have sat comfortably in the context of a popular music work, and thus edited it into the more idiomatic 5-6-1 figure.

Besides this addition, the Beatles's version also includes some fun parallel fifths, which La Marseillaise would've surely avoided.

The Four Tops - I Can't Help Myself
This last example is so saturated with the 5-6-1 figure that there really isn't a need for a score.

The 5-6-1 figure can be found in late classical impressionist works like that of Debussy's, who was no stranger to pentatonic collections. The majority of classical works, however, e.g. that of Bach's, Mozart's, and Beethoven's, are decidedly without its presence. 

Regarding copyright:
Edited mp3 files are available on this web site to illustrate particular analytical points as well as for ear training purposes. Many of these mp3s are copyrighted material, but I believe my use of them here constitutes “fair use” since the mp3s are short excerpts only and used for an academic purpose. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you disagree with my definition of “fair use” and wish to have any musical examples removed from this web site.


  1. Hmm. What an interesting post.
    It's always been my contention that the popularity of the pentatonic scale in modern pop music derives from its widespread use in Christian Hymns (e.g. Amazing Grace), and America's affinity toward its traditions. From Sunday mass to mass-consumed!

    1. That's a great point, Cornelius. Modern performances of Amazing grace compared to its score is strikingly similar to how the Beatles used La Marseillaise. Rather than adhering to the opening pickup measure's plain 5-1 scale degrees (as is notated in the score), modern singers will often vocalize it as the 5-6-1 figure I've written about in this post.