Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian
Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony
Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in.
This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who wait, the payoff is that much sweeter.
A Narrative Of An Average Listener Experiencing This Song For The First Time (click to enlarge:)
“Ready, Able” starts with a sparse and confusing instrumental passage, which you eventually realize is part of the verse. Like the claymation monsters of the video that appear both happy and sad, you can’t tell whether to be scared by the droning, tribal mysteriousness of the rhythm section, or amused by the playful, almost upbeat vocal melody. You’re relieved to hear a chord–the first one in the song–at 0:42. This is the start of a new, more palatable section: the refrain.* Here Grizzly Bear builds anticipation for something that never comes. Right as the music sounds like it’s about to reach the tonic, the whole damn thing cuts back to the verse like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger, cutting to black at the most crucial moment. (And you still have no idea what “Rosebud” means…)
- The verse draws its tension from rhythmic confusion, sparseness, and lack of harmony.
- The refrain creates tension with full, but unresolved harmony.
After the second refrain, you are led to a surprising, but also cohesive and highly gratifying climax at 1:53 (the C section) which starts on an A minor chord and continues to build throughout the second half. It’s gratifying not only because of the lush production and arrangement elements that kick in, but because it took 2 damn minutes to get to the I chord! As shown in the image above, the music video works in the opposite manner. It starts off a little odd and then morphs into something truly bizarre. To better understand what’s so off about the verses, let’s go right into a rhythmic play-by-play:
Two Time Signatures Simultaneously – Polymeter
Disclaimer: Phil pointed out to me that the verses of this song could be more succinctly written and understood as 12/8, rather than my more complicated explanation of calling it 3/4 and 4/4 (with the later sections in 6/8 half time). If you count the verses in 12/8, they begin to make a lot more sense. I instinctively heard this section in small beat groupings (possibly because of the odd rhythmic patterns and lack of a steady drum beat), however, so I’m keeping this section as is for the sake of posterity.
The verses consist of 24-beat phrases demarcated by a kick drum. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: the vocals don’t quite match up with the percussion and those harp glissandos seem to sneak up and jump out at you from behind the bushes when you least expect them to. What’s going on here?
What you’re hearing is called polymeter–the simultaneous use of 2 or more time signatures sharing a common pulse. The verses in “Ready, Able” juxtapose a 3/4 waltz (the vocals and harp) on top of 4/4 (percussion). In this case, the shared pulse is the duration of the quarter note. Only after 24 beats do both time signatures start their down beats at the same time.
24 is a good number for polymeter because it can be evenly divided by the most common beat groupings: 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence, these 24-beat phrases also transition nicely into the refrain in 6/8 at half tempo. Now let’s move on to polymeter’s evil twin sister: polyrhythm.
Two Types of Beat Divisions Simultaneously – Polyrhythm
Congratulations, you’re about to dive head first into the metaphorical deep end of music theory. Drummers and music nerds, get ready to geek out.
Polyrhythm is when two different kinds of beat divisions are used simultaneously (not to be confused with beat groupings–that’s polymeter). In Western music, beats are typically subdivided in half.** This type of division is called duple meter and looks like this:
One whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight 8th notes = sixteen 16th notes = thirty-two 32nd notes
But there are other types of divisions, the most common of which is a triplet: when two beats are divided into three beats. For example, three 8th note triplets take up the same amount of time as two regular 8th notes.
During the C section (1:53), the lead synth (a Synclavier?) has a tremolo effect that creates 16th note tripets over the regular 16th notes of the other instruments. Here’s a simplified notation of this rhythm (click to enlarge):
UPDATE: I think it’s safe to say that this is an Omnichord, not a Synclavier.
Welcome to Polyrhythmville. And what’s really trippy is we’re in 6/8. While 6/8 rhythms are grouped in sets of 3, each beat is still normally subdivided by multiples of two. But here the total number of 16ths per measure is 18–you don’t see that number often in music–and all this on top of 12 beats–a concept so mindblowing that only underline and italics at the same time could possibly come close to expressing the insanity. Half way through the D section, we hear this pattern again with a lofi hi hat sample. We’re beginning to see the number 3 take shape as a major theme in this song: beats grouped in 3s, beats divided by 3, and finally, 3-bar phrases:
Unusual Phrase Lengths
(See our explanation of bars, measures, & phrases for help with this section.)
In pop music, chord progressions and phrases typically last 1, 2, 4, or 8 measures. Deviating from this is a great way to shake up your songwriting without venturing into odd time signatures, which often means sacrificing accessibility. It’s hard for the average music listener to dance or rock to something in 5/4 or 7/8,*** but they will have no problem dancing to 5- or 7-bar phrases in 4/4.
That being said, when great songwriters use a device like this there’s a reason for it, whether they’re aware of that reason or feel its effect intuitively. “Ready, Able” uses 3-bar phrases throughout most of the second half, providing two advantages:
- Vibe: We’re expecting 4-bar phrases, so 3-bar phrases have a cyclical, hypnotic effect. It feels like the thought is not quite finished.
- Lyrics: If the D section had 4-bar phrases, there would be a big empty space when the lyrics finish, or they would have had to write more lyrics and extend the melody. By using 3-bar phrases, Grizzly Bear is able to keep interest high while retaining their original lyrical and melodic idea.
But there’s a problem. In addition to being super weird and hip, these odd phrases are leaving people hanging. There seems to be no destination. Solution? A 4-bar phrase at the end of each section. Consider your thirst for finality quenched. There’s also an extra bar at the end of the refrain (normally 4-bar phrases) to make room for a IV-7 (D minor 7) which has a strong pull to I- in this case.
- Verse 1: Polymeter … 24-beat phrases
- Vocals/harp: 3/4 (waltz) … 8-bar phrases
- Drums/muted guitar/etc.: 4/4 … 6-bar phrases
- Refrain 1: 6/8 half time … 4 bars+4 bars+1 bar
- Verse 2: (same as Verse 1 except the first 24-beat phrase is cut short by 1 beat).
- Refrain 2: (same as refrain 1)
- C section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
- D section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
- C section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars
- D section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
- Outro: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+4 bars
- “Bullet With A Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins – 6-bar phrases during the choruses.
- Radiohead‘s “Idioteque” – 5-bar phrases.
- “Just Like You Imagined” by Nine Inch Nails (aka “that song from the 300 trailer”) – bar of 4/4+bar of 12/8.
- The phrase of OutKast‘s mega-hit “Hey Ya” reads like this (in quarter notes): 4+4+4+2+4+4
If you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the trend of rap songs without music. To the music snobs and hipsters frowning upon that concept, I am pleased to inform you that Grizzly Bear essentially does the same thing during the first verse of this song–there is no progression, only a vocal melody, lost in an enchanted forest of polymeter and the occasional harp gliss. But of course, context is everything. I doubt we’ll be seeing Ying Yang Twins comparisons any time soon.
During the second verse, Grizzly Bear seems to have added a very faint guitar or bass on the note C. It seems that the key is now C major, the relative major from A minor. With the vocal melody notes included, the overall harmony of this section seems to be a single, but very colorful chord normally reserved for Jazz: Cmaj9(13) (C, E, G, B, D, A). In other words, every note in the key except F, which would be tension 11. 11 is usually considered an “avoid note” on a major 7 chord.
But listen again. There’s a drum tuned to F#, which would be the tritone of the C major. In the absence of a natural F, I’m prepared to say that we’re not in the relative major at all, we’re in C Lydian and the chord is Cmaj7 (9 #11 13), which includes every single note of the key signature. Lydian mode can be described as foreign and magical-sounding and the second verse of “Ready, Able” is no exception. This mode is often used by film composers for dream sequences. What’s even more bizarre is that the #11 drum is the lowest note in the section, making it sound especially dissonant. I wouldn’t call the chord an inversion though, because the drum comes on very weak beats.
Other than C and tension #11, the lead vocal provides every other note in this chord. Don’t get me wrong: not all melody notes should be considered part of a song’s essential harmony, but in this case the tensions (9 & 13) come on down beats at the beginning of the 8-bar vocal phrases, the strongest beats possible during this section.
As stated earlier, the refrains create tension by never landing on I-. It’s also worth noting that the vocal melody single-handedly changes the chord progression with a major 6 interval on F, creating a second inversion D minor chord.
The C and D sections use one of my favorite progressions: I-, V-, IV- (see also: “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent). As I talked about in my Kanye analysis, the V minor usually sounds peculiar in a pop context, but it sounds at home in “Ready, Able.”
I was unable to find good guitar tab or piano transcriptions for this song online, so this will get you started if you’re a Grizzly Bear fan and want to cover this for YouTube:
“Ready, Able” Chords – Simplified For Rhythm Guitar & Piano
(See our chord abbreviation guide for help with this section.)
Refrain: F, Fmaj7, to E- (plus D-7 during last measure)
Verse 2: Cmaj7(no5)
C section: A-, E-, D- (pianists: start on A-/E)
D section: A-, E-7, D-7
“Ready, Able” Chords – Full Harmony
Refrain: F, D-/F, Fmaj7, D-/F, to E-7 (plus D-7 during last measure)
C Section: A-, E-add11, D-
D section: A-9, E-7, D-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)
“Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis
Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
C Section: I-, V-add11, IV-
D section: I-9, V-7, IV-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)
This concludes my analysis. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an ultra music nerd like me and for that I salute you. I might be imagining or missing some of tensions, so if you hear anything different or disagree with my analysis, feel free to leave a comment.
**With the very notable exception of swing and shuffle grooves.
***In some cultures, dancing to odd meters is commonplace (Indian and Greek music, for example).
BONUS: In case you were wondering how much meth I had to smoke to write something this long, there’s method to the madness of those harp glisses:
- During the instrumental portions of the verses, they come on beat 2 of the 5th and 7th measures of the phrase.
- During the vocal portions of the verses, they come on beat 3 of the 3rd and 7th measures of the phrase.