Owen Pallett is a musician whose work falls somewhere between art rock, modern classical, and pop. He’s been writing and releasing music on his own since 2005, and has been a regular collaborator and touring member of Arcade Fire since the band began. Last year he was nominated for an Academy Award for the score of Spike Jonze’s Her, which he created with Arcade Fire member Will Butler.
In addition to being a staggeringly talented violinist, composer, and vocalist, Pallett has a rare knack for explaining pop music in terms of music theory without being dull or dismissive. I asked him to explain what’s going on in a few recent pop hits, plus a track from his excellent new album In Conflict, and this is what he had to say.
1. Beyoncé feat. Jay Z, “Drunk In Love”
“‘I’ve been drinking’ is my favorite admission in a lyric. The musical experience should not be about vague notions like ‘flying to the moon and back’ or ‘I need you and / I love you.’ Love songs need some alcohol content in order to be effective.
Do you notice the sparseness of the rhythmic material on this first verse? Nothing hitting hard except the kicks and snaps. It emphasizes Beyoncé’s excellent elocution, her voice is the real rhythm section. It sounds like she’s spitting verse more than singing. It’ll make that offbeat ‘surfbort’ breakdown later seem all the more hilarious and “drunk.” It even makes Jay Z’s spitting, as tight as it is, sound comparatively lazy.
Somebody could do their thesis, if they haven’t already, on Bey’s amazing sense of rhythm, both in songwriting and delivery. Listen to how elastic these melodies are, alternating between cosmically syncopated shit and rat-a-tat precision. Listen to how her note durations contract as the melodies descend like she’s stumbling around looking for the wine opener. Listen to how lazily behind the beat she gets on ‘We be all night.’ Transcribing these rhythms to score would be impossible.
An interesting thing about my three most-played songs from Beyoncé (‘***Flawless,’ ‘Partition,’ and this) is that from a production standpoint, they’re strophic. ‘***Flawless’ is two-and-a-half songs and a monologue, “Partition” is two songs slapped together. The hooks on ‘Drunk In Love’ hit you immediately, but the song itself, even on my twentieth listen, still seems mercurial, too big and sprawling for my brain.”
2. Haim, “If I Could Change Your Mind”
“How could anybody see Haim as anything other than completely new and exciting? To my ears they are totally brand new and alien. It’s like they took Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors, with all her instrumental and vocal talents, cloned her twice and signed the results to a major label.
The most notable thing I’ve noticed about Haim is this unique melodic thing. Their voices loooooove the 4th note (‘fa’) of the scale. They love to hit it, hold it and suspend it way longer than anyone else. The movement from the 4th note of the scale to the 3rd note — often deployed as a 4-3 suspension, Google for more — it’s full-fat, full-sugar. The richest dessert in tonal harmony.
Stick with me through a couple of examples. The words that fall on the 4th-note are capitalized. ‘Falling’: “Don’t stop NO I’LL NEVER GIVE UP / AND I’LL NEVER LOOK BACK/ JUST hold your head up.” ‘The Wire’: ‘but I fumBLED IT / WHEN IT came down to the wire.’ Both songs have no 4s in their melodies until these coups de grâçe. They’d hit those 4-3 suspensions and my soul would soar, then a second later my heart would sink with the realization that these girls are better songwriters than I am ;_;
Other than that, what is special about Haim? They just like to avoid the downbeat. They tend to do this clever R&B trick where they put their downbeats on the ‘a’ of 4, that is, a 16th-note anticipation just before the downbeat. It makes their songs fall forward. The chorus of ‘Forever’ is the best example of that. It follows the same rhythmic template as [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Wanna Be Starting Something.’”
3. Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea, “Problem”
We’re looking at a frisson of two very common progressions: the IV-V-I chord progression, and the bVI-bVII-I chord progression. To describe these progressions, I’m going to stick with C as my root. (‘Problem’ actually uses B as its root, but to avoid some difficult enharmonic choices, I went with C.)
If you’re gonna write a sugar-sweet ‘pop’ song in a major key, then it makes most sense to follow F-major, G-major with C-major (IV-V-I), as Ariana and Iggy do here on the first half of their chord sequence.
But if you’re gonna write a ‘rock’ song with modal implications, then it makes most sense to follow F-major, G-major with A-major (bVI-bVII-I), as Iggy and Ariana do here on the second half of their chord sequence.
This effectively makes the song feel like it could be in two possible keys, that it could be major or modal, it could be pop or rock, it could be R&B or rap, it could be Ariana or it could be Iggy.
Complicating things further: Ariana’s verse melodies clearly establish the song as being in the poppy C-major. But the “one less problem without you” rap sections focus on the possibility of it being in A.
Note too that a C-major triad and an A-major triad share one common pitch: the E. This means the relationship between these two chords is often described as a chromatic mediant. That E is important to emphasize in the melody as it joins these two possible realities together. Ariana surely sings in and around that E here, just as Andre did on ‘I know fo’ sho…’ on ‘Hey Ya!,’ which also played with this same duality. It’s important to emphasize the commonality between the two keys if you want this trick to work.”
4. Usher, “Good Kisser”
“Usher winning the lazy-delivery Olympics, backing vocals stacked tall like pancakes. This is a vocal production landmark.
[There’s a] ‘circle-of-fifths’ chord progression on the choruses. Circle-of-fifths: if you follow every chord by stepping down a fifth, you can go on forever. For example: C F Bb Eb Ab Db. Super common progression, goes back to Bach. Lots of possible variations and substitutions.
Usher and his songwriting team use a circle-of-fifths progression as a destabilizing agent. On the verses, everything is about the tonic-note G — the bass loop is on G, Usher sings in and around G, even the agogo is tuned to a G. No chords are implied but the G. Once the chorus hits, the insistence of the G is subverted. Chords: Gm9 C7 Fm9 Bb7. Those chords create this insistent sinking feeling, implying the beginning of a longer descending sequence that never comes. The G becomes somewhat out of place over this chord progression, slightly complicating the Fm and the Bb chords.
“Circle-of-fifths” chord progressions are a dime-a-dozen, and this specific method is super-common in R&B. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stevie Wonder invented this move, it is exactly his style. ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ almost does it but I’m sure there’s a better example.”
5. DJ Snake and Lil Jon, “Turn Down for What”
“The big elephant when trying to ‘explain’ pop music with Western music theory, is that there are entire genres where that kind of commentary is next to impossible.
My ‘producer’s ears’ are mostly struck by the amount of reverb on this track, some nice sounding RMX16-y fizzles. Am I mistaken in saying that reverb is underused in rap? To my ears, rap tracks are usually mixed dry so they hit hard and sit close to your ears. The reverb here places the track in a space, in the same way ’90s big-beat producers created artificial hangars and rave tents with reverb and/or crowd noise. Hear how those reverb treatments are constantly changing? One plug-in on the “w-w-w-w-wüt” synth part and another on the jingle bells? Suddenly cutting in and cutting back out again? That’s a cool trick, it’s also pretty time-intensive — this is a fastidious producer! That, or his ProTools assistant deserves some credit.
Other than that, I love this kind of track, where all the focus is on the hook. The first time I heard a dubstep-plus-rapping thing like this was Wiley’s ‘Take That,’ which will always have a place on my New Year’s Eve playlist.”
6. Owen Pallett, “The Riverbed”
“Well, I like drum beats that never change. I like droning, repeated open fifths, a lot. This song’s first and second verse stick with that fifth, I sing nothing else. The bass doesn’t leave the E-flat root. Like almost all my songs, this is a looped song, and as the violins layer themselves up, chords start to take shape.
Then, finally, on ‘The world will forget all the good they have done,’ the vocal diverges upward into the ‘real melody’ and the bass diverges downward into the ‘real bass line.’ So both ‘real’ melody and bass line are only heard during the third verse, the optimistic verse (and the whole point of the record): ‘Try to admit that you might have it wrong / Can you admit that you might have it wrong?’
The insistent fifths signify monomaniac obsession, and the final breakaway is a cracking of that obsession, with the possibility of doubt.
The fourth verse, the instrumental verse, is a shout-out to The Mountain Goats, who are the masters of this device.”