Category Archives: chords

18 More Eurochoruses

Semi-Final 2. Here’s how the refrains worked out, in terms of tonic chords and otherwise.

Serbia - Nije ljubav stvar

Not in verse-chorus form, which makes a nice change. But the tonic chord happens at the start of the refrain.

Macedonia - Crno i belo

Tonic chorus.

Netherlands - You and Me

Tonic chorus.

Malta - This Is the Night

Tonic on the refrain. I had a brief ethical dilemma with this one – after all, the verses are minor, but the chorus hits the tonic major. So how come major key Malta gets a pass, but Switzerland’s major verse/minor chorus qualified as a key change, with a non-tonic chord at the top?

I reason thus: Switzerland used an interrupted cadence, and the start of the chorus felt like a break, like a fresh idea. Malta have used a perfect cadence, and the chorus feels like coming home, as though the song was really in a major key all along.

Belarus - We Are the Heroes

Tonic chorus.

Portugal - Vida minha

It’s nearly the tonic chord at the top of the chorus, but it takes a bar to resolve.

Ukraine - Be My Guest

Another song with the same chord progression throughout (I-bIII-bVII-IV). Tonic right at the top.

Bulgaria - Love Unlimited

Tonic chorus.

Slovenia - Verjamem

Tonic chorus.

Croatia - Nebo

Damn, but all these songs sound the same tonight. Non-tonic chorus, however.

Sweden - Euphoria

Tricky, this one. It feels like the tonic minor when the chorus starts, but then the chorus itself moves to, and stays on, the relative major (at the “uh-uh-uh-uh” bit). It finishes in the major too, so I have to call this a non-tonic chorus.

Georgia - I’m a Joker

Another song that isn’t in verse-chorus form. Tonic on the refrain. If it were up to me, this sort of thing would win a lot more often than it does. Which is pretty much never.

Turkey - Love Me Back

Such a tease on the dominant the first time, before the chorus happens! Tonic chord when it does.

Estonia - Kuula

Ah, my old friend! Can’t Smile Without You, Last Christmas, Cuts Both Ways, Why God Why?, how I have missed you. Tonic on the first chord of the refrain. Nice extension of the form after that, but tonic on the refrain.

Slovakia - Don’t Close Your Eyes

Tonic on the refrain.

Norway - Stay

Depends what you call the chorus. It probably has to be the “I don’t know what I’m doing tonight” section, which would qualify as a non-tonic chorus. More songs with flattened ninths, please.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Korake ti znam

Tonic chord on the refrain. Pretty extensions on the tonic chord the first time, but still the tonic chord.

Lithuania - Love Is Blind

Tonic refrain.

Of the ten qualifying songs, eight tonic chord refrains. And two non-tonic refrains, obviously.

Of the eight non-qualifying songs, two non-tonic refrains – there were only four non-tonic refrains in the entire night.

But this means that the twenty songs in the final (so far – The Big Five and host country are yet to be heard) will feature four non-tonic refrains, from a possible ten, and sixteen tonic refrains, from a possible twenty-six.

40% chance of qualifying for a non-tonic chorus, 61.5% for tonic. If the favourites, Sweden, win (and they may have already done so, but faithful Australians won’t watch the final until Sunday night, our time), they’ll have the first non-tonic winning refrain since the hat-trick of Latvia’s “I Wanna” in 2002, Turkey’s “Everyway That I Can” in 2003, and Ukraine’s “Wild Dances” in 2004.


Eurokeys, Eurochords and the Eurochorus

For those who’ve not heard me bang on about this in the past, a little preamble.

I contend (and I’ve crunched the numbers) that a Eurovision entry has a better chance of winning if the song’s chord progression hits the tonic chord at the top of the refrain. There was a time when I thought the song had to be in a major key, too, but several recent minor key winners have shaken my faith there.

No doubts about the tonic chord at the top of the refrain, though. For non-musicians, the tonic chord is the home chord of a song’s key. If the song is in the key of D major, D major is the tonic chord. If the song is in F minor, F minor is the tonic chord. The refrain is usually the chorus, but even in songs that aren’t in verse-chorus form, the refrain is the part that’s heard the most.

The tonic chord makes a progression sound as though it’s arrived somewhere, like it’s come home. Here’s an example, for a song in D major:

Verse: |D        |E         |A   G    |A        |

|D        |E         |A   G    |A        |

|Bm     |Bm     |Bm       |E7      |

|A         |A7      |

Chorus:  |D        |D         |G          |G          |

|A         |A         |D          |A         |

That’s the progression for ABBA’s Waterloo. Think about how that chorus lands right at its beginning (“always repeating itseeeeeeeeeelf … Waterloo”). Boom. That’s how you win Eurovision.

I’m not saying there aren’t magnificent songs with refrains that start on something other than the tonic chord. All The Things You Are famously holds off on the tonic chord until its very end, and it’s gorgeous. Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky, to pick a pop song example, saves the tonic chord until the final bar of the chorus, and it sold a truckload of singles. But a chorus that sounds restless, or that sounds forward-moving is, I think, not a Eurochorus. The Eurochorus feels like this:

This. Here. This is the chorus. Now.

Last night, for Aussie viewers, was Eurovision’s first Semi-Final. Here’s how the entries, in tonic refrain terms, played out:

MontenegroEuro Neuro

Like a lot of – ahem – rap, this song has a one-chord funk groove for the verses. The chorus shifts to a different chord, effectively functioning as a movement away from the tonic. Plus it’s dreadful.

IcelandNever Forget

Minor key verse, which resolves to the tonic. Pre-chorus, or climb, that works itself up to a big fat dominant chord (that’s the fifth chord of the scale, and it longs to resolve to the tonic). Then, sure enough, tonic minor chord, right at the top of the chorus. The third chorus has the vocals-only-breakdown-at-the-key-change trick. Worthy of Broadway. Not good Broadway, but still.

GreeceAphrodisiac

Minor key verse, which works up to the dominant. Minor key chorus, starting on the tonic. Vocals-only breakdown on the third chorus, but without the key change.

LatviaBeautiful Song

Minor key verse, which resolves to the tonic. Chorus finishes on the tonic, but doesn’t start there. Oh, and a vocals-only breakdown for the third chorus.

AlbaniaSuus

Minor key verses, the second of which resolves to the tonic. The chorus (quite pretty, these chords) starts away from the tonic, and gets back there by the end. Someone did a jazzy, trained-musician chord progression like this last year, and they didn’t win either.

RomaniaZaleilah

Major key verse (in fact, it’s the classic I-V-vi-IV four-chord progression). Tonic chord at the top of the chorus.

SwitzerlandUnbreakable

Major key verse, working up to the dominant. Then an interrupted cadence! Relative minor chord at the top of the chorus! This becomes the new tonic, and the songs resolves in the minor key. Emo madness!

Belgium - Would You

Major key verse, which works up to the dominant. Chorus starts on the tonic.

FinlandNar Jag Blundar

Nice chord progression, this one. You can’t tell if the song’s major or minor, until it hits the chorus. Turns out it’s minor, but the chorus doesn’t start on the tonic.

IsraelTime

Major key verse, working its way to the dominant. A major key chorus, with the tonic firmly at the top.

San MarinoThe Social Network Song

Minor key verse, ends on the dominant. Minor key chorus, with the tonic at the start. Also dreadful.

CyprusLa La Love

Minor key verse, which resolves to the tonic. Pre-chorus resolves to the tonic too. Chorus starts away from the tonic. Vocals-only breakdown on the third chorus!

DenmarkShould’ve Known Better

One of those songs with the same chord progression throughout, and it’s one that starts on the tonic minor: i – III – bVII – IV, a faithful standby heard most often in the verses to Wonderwall, by Oasis.

RussiaParty For Everybody

Tonic minor for the verse? Wait, it wasn’t a verse. OK, that’s the verse, with a tonic minor. Pre-chorus works its way to the dominant, then boom – tonic minor on the chorus.

HungarySound of Our Hearts

Minor key verse, resolving on the tonic. Then the chorus starts on the tonic too, which is a bit of a snooze, harmonically. Later, the second verse introduces a little pre-chorus, ending on the bVII. Tonic at the top of the chorus.

AustriaWoki Mit Deim Popo

Minor key verse, with “rapped” vocals, ending on the bVII. Minor key chorus, with the tonic at the top. Horrendous.

MoldovaLautar

Minor key verse, dominant at the end, and tonic minor at the top of the chorus. Key change for the final choruses. Easily my favourite song of the night, which is never a guarantee of success.

IrelandWaterline

Major key verse, pre-chorus takes it up to the dominant. Then the chorus is in a new key! But it starts on that new key’s tonic major chord. Reminds me, structurally, of Westlife’s When You’re Looking Like That. Vocals-only breakdown on the third chorus. Naturally.

Iceland, Greece, Albania, Romania, Cyprus, Denmark, Russia, Hungary, Moldova and Ireland made it into the final. Of these ten songs,  eight began their choruses on the tonic.

Montenegro, Latvia, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, Israel, San Marino and Austria were eliminated. Of these eight songs, four began their choruses on a chord other than the tonic.

We’ll see how it all pans out in the final, of course.


Eurotheory, Part Three – The Final Countdown

So here they are, the top ten countries in Eurovision 2011:

Azerbaijan
Italy
Sweden
Ukraine
Denmark
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Greece
Ireland
Georgia
Germany

Here’s how they look as choruses in a major/minor key, starting on the tonic chord (key change in parentheses):

major, tonic (no)
minor, tonic (no)
minor, tonic (hell, yes)
minor, tonic (no)
major, tonic (no)
minor, non-tonic (yes)
minor, tonic (yes)
minor, tonic (no)
minor, tonic (no)
minor, tonic (no)

Commiserations to the songwriters who tried starting their choruses on something other than the tonic. May they console themselves with dark mutterings about voting blocs and former Soviet economies.

Eurotheory, Part Two

The following table shows the results from the second semi-final of Eurovision 2011. It was a big night for choruses in the minor key (only five out of nineteen choruses were in a major key), and seven choruses began on something other than the tonic chord (usually a IV chord, closely followed by the tonic). The qualifying nations are in festive pink, and notice that, despite the fashion for minor keys:

Of the ten qualifiers, eight began their choruses on the tonic.

Of the nine non-qualifiers, only four began their choruses on the tonic chord.

I’m telling you, Europe, tonic chord at the top of the chorus. Major or minor. Go with the odds.

The AABA for Moldova (my favourite of the night, incidentally) indicates that they didn’t use verse/chorus form, but their refrain still began on the tonic.

And Sweden gets a double tick for key changes, because the song already changed key between each verse and chorus, and still gave everyone a big fat key change for the final chorus. That’s some serious Eurovision writing and arranging right there.

Eurotheory, Part One

According to my major key, tonic chorus theory, the first semi-final of Eurovision 2011 should have eliminated Albania, Turkey, Russia, Portugal and Serbia (non-tonic choruses).

The contest is in a rut of minor key choruses at the moment (the last five winners), so Poland, Georgia, Malta and Hungary (minor choruses, started on the tonic) should have been in with a chance. Greece had a chorus starting on the tonic minor, and with a big fat key change towards the end, so that’s good odds.

The countries that ought to have done even better, according to the theory, are Lithuania, Armenia, (minor key, but major key tonic chorus), Azerbaijan, Iceland, San Marino, Finland, Switzerland, and Norway (major key, major chorus starting on the tonic), with Croatia doing particularly well (major key, major chorus starting on the tonic and a big fat Eurokey change).

In reality, the eliminated countries were Poland, Norway, Albania, Armenia, Turkey, Malta, San Marino, Croatia and Portugal.

So my theory predicted three out of five eliminees purely on the basis of a non-tonic chorus. And I was really, really wrong about Croatia.

Of course, if one actually listens to the songs, and sees the performances, Serbia’s non-tonic chorus is overidden by its Bacharach-esque charm. It’ll do well.

Also, I think the songs are getting shorter (no data, just a hunch), and that makes the big Euro key change harder to pull off. A grand institution is under threat, folks.

A Collection of I – iii Chord Progressions

If you’re my age, and incurably white, when you heard this song …

The chorus made you think of this song:

It’s not just the melody. It’s that progression from the tonic chord to the minor chord on the mediant. When I was at the School of Music, we were always taught that, say, Em was a viable substitute for Cmaj. But they’re not substitutes in the world of popular songwriting – oh no, they’re two very different chords, with only one note different (the tonic shifts down to the leading note), and you can use them to make your listeners cry like little girls.

With only one note changing between the two chords, you might expect a songwriter to use that leading note in the melody. Lady Antebellum’s song does, first popping up to the dominant and down to the sweet money spot (“need you now“). So does the Alan Parsons Project song, coming down from the mediant (“I can re-ad your mi-ind”).

I used this chord progression myself, in a heartbreaking song devoted to my testicles, and played with the way the tonic and leading note change functions against the two chords (from chord tone with auxiliary note below, to chord tone with auxiliary note above). But I wasn’t thinking about auxiliary notes, or the Alan Parsons Project. I was thinking of this song:

Laurie Anderson takes the prize. Only two chords, count ‘em: tonic and mediant. Eight and a half minutes.

Many, Many Googlers Have Asked This …

… although I’m not sure why.

What Beatles song has its verses in a major key and its chorus in a minor key?

Umm … off the top of my head … She Loves You.

Now stop pestering me, I’m trying to write songs.

On second thoughts, come back: I need distraction.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Four

So it turns out I can orchestrate a bit.  No need for a ticker-tape parade just yet, but I can orchestrate a bit.

Not that the point of all this is to make me feel good about myself.  The point of this is for me to learn the sort of minute detail that makes the difference between a terrific orchestra call and a painful one.

To wit, the French Horn player (relax, she was just lovely to me), who asked:

“Would you like da da-da?  That is, should I re-articulate the second note, to match the singer?”

“Yes,” I say.  “Is that what I’ve written?”

“No, this is more da-ah-ah …”

“Oh, well, no, the first, to match the singer would be better.”

“OK.”

And there it could have rested, but curiosity got the better of me.

“For future reference,” I said, coming over, “how should I notate that so it’s clearer?  How would I write it so that you automatically re-articulate the second note?”

“Like this.  Remove this, and add this.”

Here’s a visual.  We’re talking about the difference between this:

And this:

See?  One has the phrase mark over all the notes, and the other just between the first two.  If French Horns weren’t so damn great when they’re well-orchestrated and well-played, you might be tempted not to care, but French Horns are damn great when they’re well-orchestrated and well-played.

Incidentally, it has taken me twenty years to learn this about orchestration:

Instruments sound best playing what those instruments should play.

That’s it.  Don’t give an oboe a line that rightly belongs to a trumpet.  Get a trumpet.  Or write an oboe line.  Also, don’t take instruments out of their best range so that triads remain triads.  Put the instruments in their best registers, and you’ll get the same impact as the original triads, even if it’s now spaced over more than an octave.

I will learn this again and again before I really learn it, though.

On Listening to Emily Howell, Non-Human Composer

Emily Howell’s debut album as a composer was released in February of this year.

I first read about Howell, David Cope’s astonishing feat of programming, here.  Other articles here, here and here.  You’ll notice the recurring reactions (fear and denial), not to Howell’s work, but to her existence.  These are helpful for Cope and Howell’s notoriety, but neither makes sense.  Howell, and her imminent offspring, are not going anywhere.

Fans of Howell say her critics are too harsh because they know she’s not human.  If you didn’t know she was software code, the argument goes, you’d be more inclined to like her music.  If there were a Turing test for music, Howell fans argue, Howell has passed it.

Excluding the false parallel with Turing’s test for language (notes and words are not the same), I think this is missing the point.  Knowing that Howell is not human is no different to knowing that Elena Kats-Chernin is female, that Shostakovich was Russian, or that Beethoven went deaf.  How’s the music?  Any good?

I’m going to listen as I would to any other composer’s work.  Open mind, hoping to love it.

The album is titled From Darkness, Light, and already Howell resembles many young composers trying to make a splash:  her album title is just awful, and its cover (as you can see above) is even worse.

From Darkness, Light I: Prelude - This, as with the other five parts of this work, is for two pianos.  Arpeggios running up the keyboard, firmly tonal, minor key.  Harmonic rhythm kind of dull.

From Darkness, Light II: Fugue – If you’ve never written a fugue, it might seem that software is ideal for a form with such rigorous rules of structure and harmony.  But for me, the rules are the least impressive part with great fugues.  It’s the ability to extract surprise and freshness while remaining economical that I admire.  This one has a skinny first subject, but its counter-subject has promise.  The treatment is a bit relentless.  Excerpts from these first two movements here.

From Darkness, Light III: Prelude – pretty, and with a more satisfying harmonic rhythm than the first prelude.  It develops a little predictably, seems as if it’s really going somewhere, and then it stops.  Hear most of it here.

From Darkness, Light IV: Fugue – a much better subject, and it develops nicely, culminates well, dies away as it should.  You can lose yourself in this one, if that’s how you like to listen to fugues. A keeper.

From Darkness, Light V: Prelude – Howell has an odd way of not knowing when she’s onto something good.  And I say this without meaning that she’s non-human, and can’t judge individual sections of music in their relation to the whole.  I am sure she can, but for some reason she often chooses not to.  This piece plays on the contrast between its two sections, and fairly obviously at that.  Some subtlety in the tansitions would help.

From Darkness, Light VI: Fugue – Good subject, perfunctorily treated.

Land of Stone – Ms Howell, you will have noticed, has no gift for titles.  Scored for chamber orchestra, this is probably what people are expecting from a non-human composer.  It begins with single notes, drawn out by passing them among the instruments, Webern-style.  There are small outbursts of dissonance before the single notes resume, and the piece builds to a longer end-section, with individual instruments given their own lines.  The texture becomes more dense as the bass drum pumps away underneath.  In terms of orchestration, Howell is comfortable with the strings, has yet to master the woodwinds, and is uninspired in the percussion and brass departments.

Shadow Worlds I – Performance credited to Howell herself, on three Disklaviers.  This is a perpetuum mobile affair, with short flurries of notes in different registers, over a grinding bass run.  The implied harmonies vary, as do the dynamics, and the bass gives way to high-register trills.  Then it all collapses to the left, with the dampers off, and I am not sorry to see it go.

Shadow Worlds II – Brian Eno turns up. Single notes, arranged around the three different keyboards, struck and allowed to hang in the air.  Some shorter clusters, usually up high, all of it pleasantly atonal.  Is it a twelve tone row? Don’t think so.  Nice enough, but extraordinarily similar to an extraordinary number of other pieces.

Shadow Worlds III - Howell has yet to demonstrate any love for rhythmic games, but here a single chord stabs out on different keyboards and, as the rhythms begin to intersect, a funky kind of pattern builds.  The single chord begins to thin out into its component parts, until individual dots speak out from each keyboard, and the combined rhythm disappears bit by bit.  I like it.  I like it a lot, and if I’d heard it without knowing its human composer’s name, I would have immediately sought him/her out to find out what else he/she had written.

Shadow Worlds IV - Grand opening, modal motif, repeatedly coming back to its tonic, bang bang bang.  The three keyboards stick to one register each: low, middle, high.  It sounds like the Siege of Leningrad would sound if we didn’t already have a tune for that.

Based on this album I think Howell’s future, at first, is in film.  Her predecessor, EMI, was incredibly prolific and fast, but Howell has been more taciturn so far.  If she is capable of composing quickly, she’s already proven herself to be very reliable, and sometimes good.  From a purely mercenary point of view, I’d sign her tomorrow for a film score, and if I were an overworked film composer, I’d use her as an assistant, probably uncredited.  If she (or any others like her, and they will come) can learn orchestration, she can own the generic film music market, the corporate video market, the porn music market, the techno market …

From an artistic point of view, I’d like to see Howell let off the chain, and break more rules.  Could Cope insert a line or two of maverick-code?  Howell’s greatest compositional deficiency, I think, is her lack of skill in development.  When she masters that, she’ll get the emotional response from audiences that isn’t quite there yet.  She also has no sense of humour, but that won’t hurt her career.

Could Howell learn to improvise?  Could she learn the principles of inventing a great jazz solo, and whip one out in real time?  I’d love to hear that.

In fact, if I were the Artistic Director of a Festival, looking to make a splash, I’d be trying to commission a piece entirely by non-human creators.  Visual art with a Howell score.  A dance piece with choreography and music by non-humans.  The hard part would be getting the creators to work with each other, but that’s already the case with humans.

My Eurohangover

Having listened to every winner, thus far, of Eurovision, I might have left you wondering.

“Pete,” you might be wondering, “What was the worst winner you heard? And is there another you really liked?”

Nice of you to ask.  This 1989 winner, from Yugoslavia, will forever play over Hell’s tannoy.

And this 1962 number, from France, can turn up on my radio any time it likes.

The song I loathe, incidentally, follows every statistical recommendation for success at Eurovision (verse-chorus form, major key chorus, tonic chord at the start of the chorus, key change at the end).

The song I like is in a minor key throughout, does not begin its refrain on the tonic chord, has no key change, and is in AABA form. It is the only winner in Eurovision history to combine these qualities.

Make of that what you will.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,390 other followers