Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Can Never Go Home

Most songs (impro or otherwise) tend to revolve around a root chord, their home chord. A song in the key of C might start with a C major chord, meander around to other places, but keep checking in back to C major. But not always. You can create a certain tension in a song by avoiding that home chord.

I've become addicted to Katy Perry's song Teenage Dream lately. (Hear that? It's the sound of any musical credibility I had, smashing to the ground. Stick with me, ok?) On the first listen I found something about it fascinated me, but I wasn't sure what. The lyrics are all about a new beginning with a partner, and all the fantasy and excitement of a potential shared life. The music is in Bb, and features the usual assortment of 4ths, 5ths and minor 6ths. But it never, not once, hits that root chord.

To me, avoiding that root chord introduces a lot of tension. That tension builds and never releases. I find this is completely consistent with lyrics that dream about a wonderful future. The progression in the song sings of happy potential, without ever touching down in reality.

This reminded me of a song we did in Worst Side Story. Extraordinary Day was one of the great lovers' duets from that show. In the preceding scene, the couple is dreaming about their white-picket-fence life they'll have together. That song had a pretty similar device where the music completely avoided the root chord. Hopefully it set up the right sort of feeling of anticipation. It did eventually come back to that root, right as the song finished.

I'm fascinated by how specific chord progressions or tricks can inspire specific feelings and emotions. I relentlessly hammer a hero-chord-progression for a recurring character in one show, and now it is his theme. There is a dissonant chord called the Devil's Chord that invokes fear and oppression, and I've discovered it in a theme for another recurring character, arguably the darkest character in that show.

I suspect there's a whole school of musical theory around stuff like this, and I'm only just glimpsing it. My formally trained musician friends are at this point laughing at my childlike intellect. (Or they're still laughing at the Katy Perry song. Not sure which.)

Photo by Cornelia Kopp. Written by .


Robbie said...

Another song that never or barely hits the root chord is Sophie Ellis Bextor's "Murder on the Dancefloor". The only place it really comes in is the line "If you think you're getting away..."

More musical credibility smashes to the ground.

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