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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
Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro

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:)


A structural analysis of Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear.


“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…)

And now you’re brought right back into the verse. A push-and-pull dynamic is created with two different kinds of tension:

  • 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.


Grizzly Bear "Ready Able" Polyrhythms


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


Single-Chord Harmony
(See our guides to chord abbreviations, tensions, and modes for help with this section.)


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.

“Wait’ll You See My D… minor 7.”


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.


»

For further reinforcement of this harmony, there’s a background harmony with 3, 9, and 7, and the harp hits 7 on its way down to 13. Also listen for faint pizzicato strings plucking between C and G, with a few interjections of perfect fourth dyads (DG and BE) for some exotic flavor. It’s also worth noting that based on the way these notes are stressed dynamically, the string arrangement sounds displaced by one beat–that is, its down beat begins one beat after the drums and palm-muted guitar. This gives the strings a light, playful feeling but also makes them sound somewhat detached from the rest of the music.


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.)

Verse 1: C (single note only)
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

Verses: Cmaj9(13)
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

Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
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.


»

*While some sources refer to choruses and refrains interchangeably (Wikipedia included), but there is a difference. I’m calling this section a refrain because it sounds like an extension of the verse music, whereas choruses typically either repeat the verse music with more production elements, or introduce an entirely new idea altogether. This section is fairly long for a refrain, but more importantly the movement is not harmonically strong enough to be a chorus.


**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.


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31 Responses to ““Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis”

  1. Jayson says:

    Can I buy some pot from you?

  2. brent says:

    whoa!

    can’t say i understood even half of that, but i would like to. definitely some things for me to look into. and also kind of terrifies me that i never think about these kinds of things in my own songwriting. i seriously need to inject more theory into my process, i’ve got some learning to do!

    i believe the main synth is an omnichord through some pedals. which i don’t fully understand, my omnichord has certainly never sounded like that before.

    yet again, this is another song that i would love to hear your production and mixing & mastering analysis for. their bassist/multi-instrumentalist chris taylor does all of the production, and i think has done some really amazing things with sound on all of their output since he’s been with them.

  3. Keith says:

    @Brent-

    I did read that they all use omnichords live, but my ears are telling me they used something else on the recording.

    I think this one would be a good one to do a production analysis on as well. Maybe a whole set of posts for our Sonic Deconstruction series. It has an
    “updated classic” sound to it.

  4. brent says:

    i couldn’t agree more, and fully look forward to reading it.

    thank you for all the hard work you do on this blog, i am constantly learning!

  5. [...] Your Mix has a very comprehensive compositional analysis of Grizzly Bear’s “Ready, [...]

  6. brent says:

    Another band I’d be interested in reading a Production and Mixing & Mastering Analysis of is Animal Collective, particularly anything off of their new one. Sounds like Joe Meek’s I Hear A New World on one hand, all that wet echo and reverb with strange effects swirling in it, but then they got producer Ben Allen to bring out that bottom end like he has in plenty of hip hop classics. Wild stuff, and with what I would definitely consider an “updated classic” sound to it.

  7. Jeremy says:

    yeah dude, this is great. thanks for all the insight. its really a beautiful piece of music. i don’t understand how the drumming is 4/4 in the C section…can’t you say its 3/4 or 6/8 depending on which notes you count? or is it customary to say 4/4 with triplets or something? this always confuses me.

  8. Keith says:

    @Jeremy- I was only saying the drums are 4/4 during the verses (although there’s actually better reason to call the whole section 12/8). All of the other sections including the C section are 6/8.

  9. Latest news, reports and events >> Why divergent opinions matter so ... says:

    ..]one another great source on this issueis ,blog.fixyourmix.com,..]

  10. Torley says:

    I come here to LEARN and LEARN I DO! Appreciate your detailed analyses, it’s uber-geeky in the best of ways.

  11. Martin says:

    This is fantastic, I really enjoyed that analysis. I knew a few concepts, but it’s really interesting how Grizzly Bear used those things to great effect. Thanks a bunch, and keep up the good work. :)

  12. K says:

    Fantastic article. Grizzly Bear songs often seem to have so much more going on in them than other modern artists, but I’ve not delved into exactly why. This has helped explain what on earth is going on.

    Brilliant – more please!

  13. Foentiony says:

    Unadulterated words, some authentic words dude. Made my day!!

  14. mdrew says:

    This is a very interesting and informative analysis of the song, but I’ve got to disagree with your take on the video.
    There really is no change in the look or tone of the video at any point.
    It’s practically a straightforward narrative.
    More images are added as the song progresses,
    but there’s no shift to the “Holy Shit” level.

  15. Bonzai says:

    This song is one of my favorites by far but after reading all of this i don’t think im ever gonna be a musician. The shit they put in this song is insane like the whole chord thing were they were changing the sound of the chord with their voices. Fucking insane by far my favorite song to listen to when im blazed out of my mind

  16. marion says:

    Hi guys,
    I am very impressed by this analysis even if I am not playing any music at all. I am just wondering if the sample starting at 1min46 does does not remind you anything back in black music or even more classical, I am very wondering if I have heard that before or if i am just turning nuts.
    Marion

  17. FixYourMix says:

    @Marion- I don’t recognize it, let me know if you hear something. While we’re on the subject, though, multiple people including me have noticed the similarities between Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” and “Still D.R.E”… just some food for thought.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjecYugTbIQ

  18. [...] that they just blur into one. I don’t want to get all Fix Your Mix on you (go to this utterly amazing article on “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear to see how this compositional analysis lark should be [...]

  19. Jharms says:

    Great bit of analysis! I haven’t seen anyone try to analyze this sort of music before. I’ve got to say, the functional analysis section looks pretty interesting with your I 9(13) chords and such. But great work. As a music nerd, I salute YOU and hope you have more!

  20. Colin says:

    this is great, i understood a lot of it, but im a drummer so i understood the polyrhythm part perfectly, that being said, i think you were a bit too excited about that polyrhythm, all it really is is a 3 on 2, just subdivided a bit further

  21. I think ‘Two Weeks’ sounds like ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ from the musical Annie.

  22. Michael says:

    Keith, this was a fantastic article. I love nothing more than finding some good music theory like this.
    Do you have any recommendations for books either on or a little above this level of theory?

  23. Keith says:

    Hey Michael, thanks, I’m glad you got something out of it. Unfortunately no, I’ve used many music theory books in my day but none have jumped out as particularly special. I’m sure there out there. The best I can offer you is that I’m working on more of these, so subscribe to our email list if you’re so inclined!

  24. Keith says:

    @TV HEART ATTACK: Grizzly Bear has admitted that this song was influenced by a rap song but they won’t say which one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Jay-Z’s version of Hard Knock Life. I always thought it sounded like “Still DRE” by Dr. Dre.

  25. Sheffelope says:

    I really liked this series and I hope it continues some day.

  26. Sean says:

    You should analyze something from the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, like “Temecula Sunrise”. Crazy mathematical pop songs, melodies and tempo changes all over the place.

  27. Brian says:

    Homeboy,

    I don’t know why you think there are two different meters happening at 1:53 – they’re called triplets and you don’t need a new time signature to play them. It’s in 12/8, yes, but the percussion isn’t ever in 4/4. It’s the same drum beat for the whole track… That “everything else” rhythm never happens

  28. Paul says:

    Thank you so much for doing this and the others before it. Please do more! I’m learning so much!

  29. pikku says:

    Thanks, great article.

    Would you be able to do the same for their latest release, sleeping ute?

  30. Keith says:

    @Pikku: I think I have to pick songs that both inspire me and illustrate something I haven’t already talked about, so I’m not sure that I would pick another Grizzly Bear song, but I’ve gotten more requests for more of their songs than anything else. It’s really just a matter of making time for it, which I will eventually, but who knows when. Thanks for reading! -Keith

  31. califauna says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for these analyses. Very insightful.

    Why have you labelled the F chord as VI and not IV (the subdominant of C). I guess you are assuming the I chord is A minor, but why not C=I, F=IV? I have copied this from that part:

    ——————————————-
    “Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis

    Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
    Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
    —————————————-

    Also, I can here a pulsating (or possibly steady, Im not sure) C note through the intro and both verses.

    And maybe that F# drum sound is being made by a steel pan drum?

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