(Be warned, this video is frightening, but 12 million YouTube plays can’t be wrong…Despite not being an official video or featuring the actual band members.)
There are a few key elements to the composition of “Kids” which give it a pop maturity. The instrumentation of the tune plus the likely limitations of the performers themselves have informed the compositional parameters of the song.
One of the predominant elements of the song is that each instrument is monophonic—virtually no instrumental track plays two notes at the same time (with exceptions being the synth pad, which is barely audible, and the occasional two-note stab on the “answer” synth). Why? It may be a result of limitations: some vintage synthesizers like the MiniMoog actually limit the number of notes you can play simultaneously. Or it could be a product of musicians who don’t have the classical training to handle multiple notes at once, forcing them to use the hunt-and-peck method for their notes. Incidentally, these methods of melody creation often result in individual lines that stand on their own merit—that’s why there were so many memorable synthesizer hooks in ’80s songs such as those by The Cure and New Order.
Also, the fact that no instrument is playing multiple notes at once means that each voice is relegated to its own register. This means that there is plenty of room for each voice to stand out on its own without too much noodling. Imagine the song if there was an accompanying hand playing the harmonies on the melody synth and then maybe a rhythm guitar playing power chords over that. Already the composition becomes more dense and muddled with all the note doublings. The isolation of voices makes each note more distinct and creates an air of openness and space.
Though virtually all of this song’s elements are monophonic (i.e. no chords or dyads), I’ll start with the implied chord progression and work backwards from there.
In the key of A major:
F# minor, D major, A major, E major 1st inversion
Shorthand: F#-, D, A, E/G#
*Functional Analysis (Traditional): vi, IV, I, V6
*Functional Analysis (Jazz / Pop): VI-, IV, I, V/3 (Though less widespread, I will be using Jazz symbols to analyze music because I feel it more accurately reflects and expresses the way in which we hear modern music.)
The composition starts off with a synth ostinato pattern (do, re, mi, sol, la, ti, la, sol, mi, re) clearly outlining the key of A major. One of the most striking things about the composition is the surprise when the bass comes in on F# instead of the I chord. Because of the A in the melody (from the ostinato), this bar becomes VI-, which is a root functioning chord and the strongest, most common substitute for a I chord as per both traditional and jazz theory.
The bassline then continues from F# to D to A to G# with a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar. Since one needs only a root and a third to imply a chord, we can safely say that the ostinato pattern on top of the synth bass outlines a VI-, IV, I, V/3 progression, especially since these thirds land on strong beats (beats 1 and 3).
During the fourth phrase of the chorus, two things change: (1) the ostinato changes [do, re, mi, re, do, re, do, la, do] which provides the 5th on the IV chord and an octave on the I chord and (2) this is followed by a quick melodic “answer” melody over the E/G#. I hear riffs like this in hit songs all the time–I like to call them “mini-hooks” because they are memorable, tie the song together, but are too quick to have the singalong factor of a real hook.
Because the song starts on F# minor, one could argue that the key of this song is actually the relative minor key of F# minor, but I contend that our ears hear “Kids” as A major for two reasons:
- The ostinato pattern is very clearly an A major riff when heard isolated. The song begins with this pattern.
- The lead vocal consists almost entirely of do, mi, and sol: the notes of the A major triad. It doesn’t get much stronger than that, folks.
The result is a kind of melancholy atmosphere created by starting a major key song on the VI minor chord. In general, I find that songs which start on anything other than the root chord automatically sound more well-written. (Not to say that a great song cannot start on a I chord–such a suggestion would be ludicrous.)
Another arguing point could be that the fourth chord is actually VIIº chord: G# diminished. After all, there is no E during this part of the phrase. This is one of those cases where you just have to use your ears: trying putting an E in the bass of this section, then try a D (which would be the diminished 5th of a G# diminished chord). The latter quite obviously does not work, except during the bridge, except during the bridge there is an E in the melody, erasing all doubt that it is, in fact, an E/G# chord:
The bridge starts on the IV chord a moves up the scale triadically using a whole note bassline and an arpeggiated synth to outline the harmony. The bass skips the III- on its way to IV and finally makes a tritone leap from D to G#, using this dissonance to grab the listener’s attention and signaling the end of this section. The result is as follows: D, E, F#-, G#º, A, B-, D, E/G#. The bass then hangs on an A octave for 16 bars (runs a bit long for my taste), cuts to playground noises for 4 and returns for one last triumphant chorus.
With a composition this harmonically straight forward, it could have ended up sounding more like an etude than a pop song. One thing that helps keep the interest is the leap from C# to E over the F# in bar 1. This is non-traditional because the leap is then followed by another step up to F# (also known as a leaping tone). In classical theory, leaps to non-chord tones should be resolved by step and in the opposite direction (for example, the E could have gone down to a D). Another mildly hip compositional device is that the major third in bar 3 is an anticipation.
While there is no doubt in my mind that MGMT had little or no concept of music theory when they wrote “Kids,” it can still be useful to understand part of why the song is so catchy. And although dividing up the notes of a chord progression among instruments and starting on a VI- chord is not an exact recipe for a hit song, consider this one of the many songwriting devices available to you.
*Note: For those of you non-music theory geeks following along at home, these Roman numerals represent the degree of a scale upon which a chord is based. For example, the IV chord in this song is a D chord, because D is the fourth note in the key of A. This is important because it allows you to analyze music in different keys relative to one another.