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Mirko's Musings
Morning, Noon & Night:
(The similarities between the classical and the pop\rock phrase)
By Mirko Ruckels
1999 Mirko Ruckels. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

Hello songwriters,

In this article, I intend to talk about some of the similarities between so-called 'classical' music (actually called the "common practice period" -very generally the period between 1600-1900) and modern pop\rock. Most songwriters that I know seem to have a strange attitude towards 'classical' music. They seem to think that this music has nothing to do with rock, and that rock music has nothing to do it. Well, the harmonic and melodic ideas that we use as pop, rock, country, (insert your style here) writers are exactly the same as those Bach, Mozart and Beethoven used. The language of western music (I'm not talking about Jimmie Rodgers either) is based on triadic harmony and the diatonic scale, using tonic, predominant, dominant, tonic movement for the most part.

Are you going "huh?" yet?

Before we go on, let me explain what I just said in that last sentence- chords that you use everyday in writing songs are usually built up of thirds (unless you want to be Chick Corea). So, for example, a C major chord is made up of the notes C,E,G. Notice that the distance between the C and E is a major third, and the distance between the E and the G is a minor third. Bravo, you catch on quick. Stacked thirds. This is the basis of western harmony- understand it and you will prosper. Now, a typical classical phrase (between 2-8 bars long) usually moves through four sections-

1. Tonic (this is where the key is established) The I chord. (ie. C in the key of C)

2. Predominant (this is where you move away from the tonic) the ii, iii, IV, vi and vii chords (dmin, emin, F maj, amin in the key of C).

3. Dominant (this is from where you should return to the tonic- the dominant begs to be resolved towards the tonic). The V (sometimes vii) chords.

4. Tonic. Aaahh, resolution. This is where everything comes back home. Humans crave resolution. In every part of your life, you are trying to move yourself into a mode of resolution.

Here's a colourful little example if you're still puzzled-

You wake up in bed in the morning (tonic), get up and do your daily stuff, like work at a crap job, have a beer at lunchtime (predominant), then you get home, have dinner, start feeling tired and stroppy in the evening, and start feeling the URGE going to bed (dominant). Suddenly, or not so suddenly, you end up back in bed, comfy and asleep (tonic). You've completed the cycle, and you'll do it for the rest of your life. This is what music does. It imitates life- just ask Freud (but don't ask him to go to bed with you- that could get a bit weird).

The interesting thing is, if it wasn't for the predominant function (the daily activities, job, conflict), you wouldn't get tired, instead you would become really really bored, and the dominant (just before sleepytime) and final tonic (zzzz..) would be really unsatisfactory. Have you noticed how well you sleep after a hard day down in the salt mines? The conflict in the predominant begs to be moved onto the dominant, which can then be resolved back to what it originally was. It's what drives you and the music on.

Conflict in music is created through dissonance (the landlord, mortgage, relationships). Dissonance is achieved when the use of thirds is interrupted. eg. instead of using C, E, G in a C chord, you could add in an F instead of an E, creating a C sus 4, which will create a dissonance that needs to be resolved. This is what can make a phrase exciting. The dissonances available are minor 2nds, major seconds, perfect 4ths, augmented 4ths, minor 7ths and major 7ths.

Now, if you start using dissonances all over the joint, your music will lack focus, goal, and will most likely sound like a person gargling on their own blood, or worse, someone else's blood. You have to really understand the construction of the classical phrase in order to understand how to use dissonance effectively.

Let's look at a song that most of us will probably know. This Beatles' song exhibits the same structures that originated in classical music.

"You've got to hide your love away" (Lennon-McCartney)


1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3 1   2   3


(The phrase in this song consist of the above pattern ~with~ its repeat- if you didn't repeat it, it would only be half a phrase)

Ok, we're in the key of G for this song. So that means our tonic is the G chord, our pre-dominants are either amin (ii), bmin (iii), C (IV) and emin (iv) and f# diminished (vii) and our dominant is D (V). But notice how Lennon doesn't use all of these, he uses what he thinks sounds good (...what we all should do).

The song starts in the tonic (G) and from here it rises. Melodically, for the first line "here I stand, head in hands, turn my face to the wall", the melody rises from the note G to A, C and then steps down back to G (it's just gotten out of bed) then it moves to the A on "to the wall" This note is a dissonance- it sounds incomplete and begs the cycle to repeat, which it does. The first phrase is the antecedent phrase, and the repeat is the consequent phrase. Only after both have been sounded is the first phrase complete. This literally lead our ears to the chorus.

Before we move to the chorus however, let's look at the chords of the verse now (harmony). We see the use of predominant harmony (C ) and dominant harmony (D) to propel the progression forward. The F chord is a modal borrowing (just stealing the vii chord basically) from the minor scale, which gives a mixolydian flavour to the progression. These predominant chords provide the conflict of the phrase.

Just before the chorus, the songs sits on the dominant (D) for a good four bars, and then is sucked into the chorus, which is in G. The dominant relationship of D to G is exemplified perfectly in this song. This V-I relationship is used in most pop songs.

The chorus has the I,IV,V (G,C,D) chorus progression (yes, like wild thing and louie Louie). This progression is a condensation of the tonic, predominant, dominant idea in three successive chords. That's why it works so well. Musicians often deride the I-IV-V progression because it seems so simple. Well if Beethoven and the Beatles used it, then you can use it too.

Melodically, the chorus hammers home the tonic- "Hey", the first word of the chorus hits the G4, and slides down the octave. You can't make the tonic much more obvious than that. It ascends a major scale, mixolydian in mode and is just, oh I can't contain myself- BRILLIANT!! It mirrors the classical structure so clearly, that if you told him, I'm sure Lennon would have thought "oh, well I better change it then, I don't want to sound like some old fart..." Luckily, he didn't. The fusion of both Classical concepts and folk music language (Bob Dylan -Lennon's admitted influence for the song) are clear in this song. And you all though Paul was the one with the classical tendencies eh?

The rest of the song is the same two pattern (verse and chorus) repeated. Each section has the tonic, predominant, dominant and tonic structure in its own way. Analyze some other songs, or some of your own songs and see how they use the same principles. Make sure you know what key you are in when analyzing sections, or you might get a bit confused. I'll do an article on harmonic analysis in a later article.

The funny thing is that most of you probably use some or even all of the principles I have mentioned to some extent. And your best songs will probably feature the idea of tonic, pre-dom, dom, tonic movement in one way or another, but learning to understand why this stuff works is really important. You might be able to fix some of your not-so-good songs using some of these ideas. Increasing your knowledge of your craft should always be at the top of your list. This way you can achieve control and ultimately mastery of what you do.

OK, off to bed with you.


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