A couple of things caught my ear in last night’s Eurovision final:
- So many songs in a minor key!
- So many songs in verse-chorus form, and the chorus did not begin on the tonic chord!
Fools, said I. Eurofools! Everyone knows the path to Eurosuccess is paved with songs that keep proceedings brightly major. And hit that tonic chord. Bar one, beat one of the chorus, Hit that Tonic Chord.
But am I right, or is this mere dogma? Time for some stats.
Of the 58 winners of Eurovision thus far (yes, I went away and listened to every one – there were four winners in 1969), 40 have been in a major key. Of those 40, 9 had minor key verses, and modulated into a major key for the chorus. In other words, they really wanted you to sing along, and finish, in a major key.
Of the 58 Eurovision winners thus far, 41 have been in a verse-chorus form, with a couple of variations (the 1977 winner from France, L’oiseau Et L’enfant, is pretty much all chorus). The remaining 17 songs have all been in some variation of the AABA form, making the A section the refrain that is repeated most often. Of these 58 choruses or refrains, a staggering 50 – fifty! – begin on the tonic chord. If they’re in a major key, the first chord is the tonic major. If they’re in a minor key, the first chord is the tonic minor.
So, if you write a song for Eurovision, and choose not to start on the tonic in your chorus, you are taking sides with 13.8% of the winners. Choose to start your chorus on the tonic, and you sound like 86.2% of the winners.
“But Peter,” you might say, “I want to be different.”
“Then Eurovision,” I reply, “is not your home.”
The first 11 winners were in AABA form, and then the verse-chorus form took over. The AABA form has only appeared 6 times in winning songs since 1967. There were no key changes for the final chorus in those first 11 years and then, with the advent of the verse-chorus form, they arrived, and arrived hard. After those first 11 years, the final chorus key change has featured 22 times in 47 winning songs. I think this ratio is higher than anywhere else in the music world, with the possible exception of cabaret conventions.
18 of these 22 songs begin their chorus on the tonic chord (it’s much easier to set up a key change when you’re heading for the tonic chord), and the remaining 4 are a testament to what a songwriter is prepared to do when the Eurowhore beckons.
What, then of the perfect Eurostorm? How many songs are in a major key, hit the tonic chord on the chorus or refrain, and then slap you with a key change? There are 16 perfect Eurostorm songs:
1967 Puppet on a String
1968 La, la, la
1969 Vivo cantando
1970 All Kinds of Everything
1971 Un banc, un abre, une rue
1981 Making Your Mind Up
1982 Ein Bisschen Frieden
1984 Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley
1987 Hold Me Now
1988 Ne partez pas sans moi
1989 Rock Me
1991 Faangad Av En Stormvind
1992 Why Me
1999 Take Me to Your Heaven
2000 Fly on the Wings of Love
I’ve spaced these songs in order to make the clusters apparent. One thing became terribly clear during my listening: Eurovision writers like to ape the winners of previous years. For example, Turkey and Ukraine won in 2003 and 2004 with songs that gave off a kind of Middle Eastern scent, and stayed firmly in their minor keys for the chorus. But Eurovision’s power was too strong, and in 2005 Greece won with a minor key faux-Middle East number that went into a major key for the chorus, just as a good Eurosong should.
That’s what I love about these findings: despite all the comments on YouTube about political machinations, and countries being rewarded for joining the European Union, and dark conspiracies about countries that deserve to host, I think it comes down to a few constants. I think it comes down to major keys, hitting the tonic chord on the chorus, and what won in the last couple of years.
Last night’s preference for minor keys therefore makes sense: the previous four winners were minor key songs, with no major key chorus amongst them. Last night’s winner, from Germany, followed this trend.
But all five of them, importantly, began on the tonic chord for the chorus. That means there’s no excuse for the UK, who finished last with a major key song that did not start on the tonic for the chorus. In particular, shame on Pete Waterman and Mike Stock, who really should have known better.