Thanks to all of you over at Reddit for voting up this article. If you are a self-taught musician, you may find it helpful to check out my Solfege To Intervals Translation Chart to follow the melodic analysis.
This week, I’m going to break down the music theory behind one of the most unusual pop songs to come out in years: Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
Tempo: 87 BPM*
Key Signature(s): E major, E minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: No back beat, Polytonality (technically polymodality**), Resolution using a Minor 6 chord, Starting a melody on sol
Several months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about whether or not this single would flop. Pop music has certainly gotten interesting over the past 5 years, but this song was, well, too interesting. To put it bluntly: “Single Ladies” is just downright bizarre. And yet as time went on, I began to see that it has what I call the Spice Girls Factor–designed to make groups of adolescent girls dance around in their bedrooms, sing into hairbrushes, and post videos of the whole ordeal on YouTube for their friends to watch.
To start, let’s take a look at the groove. In pop music, there is almost always some kind of clap, snap, or snare on beats 2 and 4, also known as a back beat (read my post on back beat options here). “Single Ladies” breaks the mold, especially for a pop song, with claps on every 8th note, which gives the song an uptempo-feel. In fact, to me these claps give the song more of a “1 feel” rather than strictly 4/4, which would mean every quarter note is an equally strong beat. Normally only beats 1 and, to a lesser extent, 3, are considered strong beats. Strong and weak beats become important when understanding how melodies and chord changes affect perceived key signature or tonality. This “1 feel” theory is reinforced by the dancing in the music video, in which the choreography consists largely of Beyoncé jolting around on every beat.
But it doesn’t stop there.
There is a snare drum in this song, and like virtually all hip-hop out right now, it’s not used as back beat. However, where normally hip-hop draws the line at syncopated southern-style fills or dotted 8th note patterns a la “A Milli“, there is a snare hit on the last 8th note of each measure (AKA the “and” of beat 4). This, combined with the 8th note claps, plays a big role in giving “Single Ladies” its memorable feel.
Now let’s move on to the harmony. During the song’s call-and-response section (“All the single ladies, all the single ladies”), she sings solfege syllable*** sol (as in do re mi fa sol) then riffs on mi, re, and do. Sol is a very common beginning note for a pop melody, adding strength (rather than color) to the harmony. Also note that she skips fa, which is common practice for melodies sung over a root chord because it forms a weak interval, a perfect fourth.
As I talked about in last week’s analysis, in traditional harmony and counterpoint, we only need a major or minor third interval to imply a chord. Beyoncé does exactly that during the verses: solidly establishing the key of E major by singing only an E and a G# with the occasional F#. The only “music” during the verses is a pitched noise, though the notes are indistinguishable, keeping in line with the current pop minimalism trend (see: 5 Pop Songs With No Music).
Pretty basic stuff so far. Now here’s where things get really interesting:
During the chorus, a bass synth comes in and goes from B to C, which is the bVI chord borrowed from the key of E minor. I will be talking a lot about borrowing chords from related keys and tonalities (aka modal interchange) in future Compositional Analysis posts, but what makes “Single Ladies” downright bizarre is that the melody doesn’t reflect this change in harmony at all, so what we’ve got is music in E minor and a melody in E major. This is called polytonality**, a technique normally reserved for highly esoteric jazz and classical music.
The result is a striking juxtaposition: a nursery rhyme-esque melody with a powerful, sinister bassline beaneath it, creating a bitter, almost shocking melancholy which underscores the “strong woman” image for which Beyoncé has become an archetype. The melody is distinctly feminine and “cute” while the bassline is aggressive and forceful (usually thought of as masculine traits). It is probably no coincidence that the bassline enters with the line, “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Here, the woman asserts her control over a man.
All this being said, she could not have pulled this song off were it not for a sparse arrangement, an exceptionally catchy beat, and the clout of being a well-established, top female artist, not to mention a role model for a generation of young, ambitious women.
Some music scholars might take issue with my assessment, in fact some don’t believe in polytonality at all, saying our ear cannot perceive two tonalities at once. With an arrangement this sparse, though, their case holds little weight.
But just for the hell of it, I’m going to do a standard harmonic analysis of this tune anyway, as if it were all in one key. Things often get vague when it comes to analyzing modern pop music because the harmonies are so fragmented. You rarely hear a full triad or seventh chord in rap and dance-oriented R&B these days (though I believe this trend is about to change) and “Single Ladies” is no exception. The result is often some funky looking chords with half the notes missing. Perhaps these bizarre changes serve to support my theory that we are hearing two different things simultaneously rather than this harmony:
Hypothetical functional analysis
1st Measure: V (no3), IV-/b3, III+ (no #5)/3, bVI (no3)
2nd Measure: V (no3), IV (no3), IVmaj7 (no3), IV-6 (no3)
1st Measure: B (no3), A-/C, G#+/3 (no+5), C (no3)
2nd Measure: B (no3), A (no3), Amaj7 (no3), A-6 (no3)
Chords in laymen’s terms
1st Measure: B with no third, A minor first inversion, G# augmented first inversion with no (augmented) 5th, C with no third.
2nd Measure: B with no third, A with no third, Amaj7 with no third, A minor 6 with no third.
Here, the two chords to watch are III+/3 and IV-6. The third chord in the progression does sound like a III augmented in that it is especially dissonant, but it’s also not functioning in a way that augmented triads are supposed to function (such as leading to the IV chord). And unlike major and minor triads, you are technically supposed to have the fifth when it comes to augmented or diminished chords. Augmented and diminished fifths cannot be implied. This again leads me back to polytonality because we only have two notes from the chord.****
The very last chord in the chorus sounds like it’s implying an A minor 6 chord (minor triad with a major sixth–A C E F#), though only the sixth is present. I say this is minor six rather than a II-/3 because I hear a strong pull back to the I, something a IV-6 has and a II- does not.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this analysis. I realize that this song is not for everyone, but it’s very important for songwriters to think about songs like Single Ladies, the songs that stretch the boundaries and yet are still wildly successful. It can speak volumes about how people connect with music, the future potential of music, and the realm of what is “commercially viable” (if you care about that sort of thing).
*While I have the tempo listed at 87 BPM, you could certainly argue that “Single Ladies” is in the upper 160-200 BPM range, making the claps quarter notes and the kick drum pattern repeating every 2 bars. For the sake of discussion, though, I chose to analyze this song at a typical hip hop tempo. This makes the snare and kick drum patterns one instead of two bar phrases.
**As many readers have pointed out, it’s actually more accurate to call this polymodality because the ‘tonal center’ is still E even though the scale is different from E minor to E major.
***Maybe it’s because I’m a guitarist and singer, but I like to think of melodies in terms of solfege syllables because they are instantly transferrable from one key to the next.
****The third chord could also technically be a III/3 chord, but in every music course I’ve ever taken, teachers have advised against analyzing something as a major III chord, let alone an inversion of it. Such a chord does not exist in any mode, so it could not be borrowed. The only other real possibility would be if it had a flatted seventh, making it a V7/VI- chord, but there is no indication that this is the case nor is that possibility even within the scope of this post.