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:
Montenegro – Euro 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.
Iceland – Never 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.
Greece – Aphrodisiac
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.
Latvia – Beautiful 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.
Albania – Suus
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.
Romania – Zaleilah
Major key verse (in fact, it’s the classic I-V-vi-IV four-chord progression). Tonic chord at the top of the chorus.
Switzerland – Unbreakable
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.
Finland – Nar 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.
Israel – Time
Major key verse, working its way to the dominant. A major key chorus, with the tonic firmly at the top.
San Marino – The Social Network Song
Minor key verse, ends on the dominant. Minor key chorus, with the tonic at the start. Also dreadful.
Cyprus – La 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!
Denmark – Should’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.
Russia – Party 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.
Hungary – Sound 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.
Austria – Woki Mit Deim Popo
Minor key verse, with “rapped” vocals, ending on the bVII. Minor key chorus, with the tonic at the top. Horrendous.
Moldova – Lautar
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.
Ireland – Waterline
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.