Friday, January 17, 2014

Free-for-all Friday: How to Appreciate Pop Music - Part 1, Key Changes

Welcome to another edition of Free-for-all Friday on Another Flavor!

I have been called many things. Pedant. Mansplainer. Sex bicycle. But I've never been called an educator. Not even when I was teaching other people things. Today I want to use my skills as a pedant and sex bicycle to teach about the appreciation of pop music. This may or may not be an ongoing series, so I thought I better put "Part 1" in the title.

Now, you might be thinking, "Don't most people already enjoy pop music? Isn't that why it is called pop music in the first place?" While it may be true that most people enjoy pop music after a fashion, they are doing it wrong. Dead wrong. You might think you are enjoying a song, but without the proper knowledge your enjoyment is a hollow shell. A solid foundation in music theory, rather than being a hindrance to enjoying music, is a boon. You'll start noticing things that you didn't notice before. You'll develop an appreciation for the art of songwriting and nuances of performance that will cause you to sneer at all the philistines surrounding you. Eventually you'll become unbearable and spend all your time listening to Borbetomagus:

All joking aside, I do think learning a little music theory enriches your life and enhances your appreciation for music. You can find a number of books out there by hacky, faux-western composers about how to enjoy classical music but I think there is a gap when it comes to pop music. Pop music operates on the same general principles as classical music, but in practice it ends up pretty different. My goal with this series is to talk about some common techniques used in pop music so you can start listening for them in any music you might be listening to.

As a note at the beginning, a lot of people are really down on music theory. They think it is a set of rules that stifles creativity. It isn't. The origin of music theory was looking at existing music and describing trends found in it. It's not like someone sat down and made up a bunch of rules that all composers then had to learn and follow. It was more like a bunch of composers all happened to do the same things because they sounded good and someone else noticed and wrote it down. It's a lot like science that way. Scientists don't create the laws of nature, they try to figure them out from observing nature.

As a writer of music, knowing music theory teaches you what other people have done when confronted with a musical problem. Or explains why certain music makes you feel a certain way. You can then use these tools to help you rather than having to start from scratch with every piece of music. A car maker doesn't have to discover the wheel independently and then try to invent the internal combustion engine. That is more work than any one human can do. Rather, they learn what other people have already learned from books and then try to add to that knowledge.

As a listener, knowing music theory enriches your experience as well. Hopefully today's post will show you that as you hear more about how songs are constructed.

Today, we'll be talking about key changes. Almost all pop music is tonal, which means it exists in a key. You may have heard of a song being in C major or F-sharp minor. That is the key. Each key has a tonic note which can be thought of as home base. Listen to this, Louie Louie by The Kingsmen:

The riff, "Bah bah bah. Bah bah. Bah bah bah. Bah bah," keeps repeating. The first three "bah bah bahs" are the tonic. The riff keeps returning to it. One trick is to think about what note sounds right for the song to end on - that is usually the tonic.

In a key change, the tonic of the song changes. For example listen to this song, Livin' On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, and pay close attention to what happens at about 3:25 when the chorus comes back around.

Did you hear that? The last set of choruses is higher than the previous ones. The key has changed. If you need to compare, click around in the video and listen to the first chorus side-by-side with the last one. The key change will be easy to hear.

This is the most common type of key change in pop music. Raising the key by a bit (in this case I believe it is by a minor third, but don't worry if you don't know what that means) is a way to add excitement to the end of the song. Usually the singer moves to the very top of his register which gives more emotion and lets him get screamier. Also, you usually hear the chorus at least 3 times in a pop song and this gives a little bit of variety.

This isn't the only way a key change can work in pop music. Sometimes a song will have the verse and chorus in a different key. Frequently this will mean moving from a minor key in the verse to a major key in the chorus.  I don't think I can explain major verses minor, but we usually think of major as being happier which makes sense for a chorus. I'll try to talk more in depth about types of keys in a future post. Just so you can hear an example of a song that changes from a minor key to the corresponding major key check out this video for Ana Ng by They Might Be Giants:

Do you hear the change?

For a different example, check out this video for Man! I Feel Like a Woman by Shania Twain (I wrote a whole post about this video before):

The verses of this are in a minor key and the chorus shifts it up a fifth and to a major key. What does that mean? First, listen to the chorus and hum what you think the tonic note is. Then, listen to the chorus and do the same. Notice that you are humming a different note. These two notes are a certain distance apart. The distance between two notes is called an interval. This particular interval is a fifth which is a very important interval in music. We've been talking about tonic notes. For every tonic there is a note considered the dominant. The dominant is sort of the opposite of the tonic, but it also is the chord/note that leads back to the tonic. We can spend more time talking about tonic-dominant relationships in the future, but this switch of a fifth is very common in all types of music.

As a side note, notice how this song moves very naturally from the key of the verse to the key of the chorus, but that it is a little unnatural in how it moves from the chorus back to the verse. Doesn't it seem abrupt? The way songs transition from key to key can be quite different, some changes are so smooth you hardly notice them and others are sudden jumps with no preparation. Shania Twain gives us both in one song, which is fun.

As a final example of key changes in pop music we'll take what we've learned and listen to an example of a song that's a little more sophisticated. Here it is, Up Up and Away by the 5th Dimension:

This song is all over the place and it is fantastic! Now that you've heard some examples, how many key changes do you hear? Approximately 5 million, right? But it also seems very natural. This is a great example of how key changes can enrich a song and how knowing about key changes can distract you from the fact that the lyrics to this song are really stupid.

I hope learning a little bit about key changes helps you enjoy pop music even more. If you enjoyed this, I plan to talk even more about the appreciation of pop music in future posts. Let me know what you are most interested in!

I'll see you next week with more music videos.


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