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Archive for the ‘Compositional Analysis’ Category

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

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 14 - 200932 COMMENTS

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.

“Amazing” by Kanye West: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 20 - 20096 COMMENTS

Key Signature: C minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: V minor chord, starting the chorus on a chord other than the root

Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, solfege syllables, and voice leading. If you don’t understand a term underlined with dots (like this), move your mouse over it for the definition.

The other day I was messing around with “Amazing” by Kanye West on guitar and noticed that it uses an often neglected chord in modern pop music, the V minor. Before we get into why the V minor is unusual (and what Kanye has in common with Coolio), here’s the chord progression:

Verse: C minor (2x), G minor, C minor
Chorus: Ab major, C minor, G minor, C minor

Or in Roman numeral analysis form:

Verse: I minor (2x), V minor, I minor
Chorus: bVI major, I minor, V minor, I minor

In “Amazing,” G minor is the diatonic V chord–the triad built on the fifth note of the scale. But V chords in today’s minor key pop songs almost always have either a major third (making it a V major chord borrowed from the parallel major) or no third at all. The diatonic V minor chord is rarely used.

Origins of the V Major Chord in a Minor Key Context

Most American pop stems from jazz or blues harmony, but if there’s one songwriting device that has carried over from classical, it’s borrowing the V major chord from the parallel major key in the context of a minor progression.* In these situations, there is a non-diatonic note: the V chord’s major third, which will always be the leading tone of the key. This note has a very strong tendency to resolve up to the root note by a half step. The result is better voice leading back to the root than a V minor chord would provide. Since a V chord resolving to I (or more specifically, ti going to do within that resolution) is considered the strongest tendency in any key, the voice leading is (apparently) so important here that composers have been using this non-diatonic chord for ages.

But Kanye doesn’t swing that way.

If you’ve ever studied classical music, you know that the concept of proper voice leading is meant to make things sound “smooth.” But smooth can often turn into boring, particularly in the context of non-orchestral music. By using the V minor chord, Kanye adds some much needed harmonic interest to a relatively sparse arrangement.

So rare is the V minor chord in pop** that hearing it played on a single instrument (piano in this case) sounds a bit unusual, even medieval. The expectation of that leading tone over the V is so strong that, even for me, it was difficult to sing the minor 3rd instead of a major 3rd.

Combined with a dragging groove of an upright piano, it ends up sounding more like something to be played in the background of a saloon shoot out scene from a Western/Cowboy flick than a hit single for a mainstream rapper.  In fact, if you remove the characteristic elements from this chorus–play V major instead of V minor and change the first I minor to IV minor (more on this below)–you’ve got Gangsta’s Paradise, choir and all:

Chorus Root Chord Placement

As I talked about in my analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, starting a progression on something other than the root automatically sounds more intelligently written. While pre-choruses and bridges often start on other chords (in order to build tension for the inevitable release into the section that follows), choruses almost always start on the root chord. When one doesn’t, it almost always ends there. “Amazing” is no exception and falls into the latter category.

But what’s interesting is that the chorus also has another root chord: the second one of the progression.  So to expand on what I said in the previous paragraph, here are your root chord placement options for choruses with four chords or less, listed in order from most to least common:

  • Option 1: Starting on the root chord. This option solidly establishes the key from the outset, allowing the chords that follow to create new flavors and define the overall emotional content of the chorus in relation to the root. By far the most common option.
  • Option 2: Ending on the root chord. In these cases, the beginning chords lift the listener up, create tension, and eventually resolve to the root–using the harmony to create dynamics. This is a fairly common option, but also very powerful and can be a good way to shake up your songwriting or cure writer’s block. Examples include “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and “Go With The Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age.
  • Option 3: Using the root as chord #3 out of 4. This technique tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a three chord progression, then adds a fourth chord which says “nope, it’s still going, the thought/feeling isn’t done yet.” Can create a cyclical feeling. This option is not totally unheard of but it’s rare. MGMT’s “Kids” is one example.
  • Option 4: Using the root as chord #2 out of 4. By far the rarest option and probably for good reason. I have no idea how to characterize what this option does emotionally, but in the case of “Amazing” it’s a defining characteristic.
  • Option 5: No root chord at all. I can’t think of any pop choruses that do this, so if you can, leave it in the comments!

(Note: Although the above is applicable to most choruses, obviously the emotional results may change with different combinations of these options or a greater number of chords. And by the way, you won’t find this list in a text book.)

So not only does the chorus start on a chord other than the root (in this case the bVI major), but the progression goes back to the root on the second of four chords, which is highly unusual. The result is a unique, signature chord progression (in pop you only have to be unique within about 10 years).

Well folks, that about wraps things up. As with all of my analyses I expect some good counter points (ha…) and a healthy dose of “this song sucks” / “this song still sucks” comments. But before we part ways I want to answer a question that Phil posed in his latest blog post:

“When was the last time you at home got a record, sat down, and listened to it? Really listened to it. Didn’t put it on while you clicked through Facebook or checked the local news. Just listened?”

My answer to his question is 808s and Heartbreak. And when “Amazing” came on for the first time, I had no idea Young Jeezy was going to come in because he wasn’t listed in the song title. I’ll be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about Jeezy since day one, but when I first heard his voice come in over this strange track with the reverse reverb, I thought it was the hardest shit I’d ever heard.*** I got chills. And the fact that I wasn’t expecting it made it 10 times more powerful, supporting Phil’s theory that the less we know and see about the music before we listen, the better.

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Bonus Video Version) - Amazing (feat. Young Jeezy)Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on iTunes.
Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on Amazon MP3.

Read more posts from my Compositional Analysis series.

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*Actually, classical music**** tends to use a V7, which is based on a V major with a minor 7th on it, forming a tritone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord and creating an even stronger pull to I. Though we typically think of classical music as triadic, this is the one 7th chord that classical composers used regularly.

The V7 chord is dominant-functioning, which in layman’s terms means our ears hear it as having a very strong pull to another chord, in this case back to the I major. This movement is called dominant resolution. The V chord builds tension while the root chord releases it. Since we have this strong expectation of resolution from listeners, the voice leading used for this transition is considered to be particularly important.

**The only other recent V minor example I can think of offhand is “Clocks” by Coldplay, although in this case the V minor is used to help establish the song’s Dorian tonality. The opening piano arpeggio can be analyzed as follows: I/3, V-/5, IV/5 or in other words: I major (1st inversion), V minor (2nd inversion), IV major (2nd inversion).

***This transition is shortened on the YouTube version.

****Yes, I’m using the term “classical” in a colloquial manner here; I’m not referring to the Classical period. This is terrible… even my asterisks have asterisks.

“Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.

Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony

What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.

The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To  better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).


D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.


Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.

The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing

Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
  2. Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.


*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.

**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.

Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3

Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.

“Single Ladies” by Beyonce: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On April - 8 - 200946 COMMENTS

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.”

(Click here to open the music video in a new window.)

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)

Chord chart
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).

Beyoncé - I Am... Sasha Fierce (Deluxe Version) - Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)Buy Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” on iTunes

*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.

A Compositional Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 31 - 20097 COMMENTS

(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:

  1. The ostinato pattern is very clearly an A major riff when heard isolated. The song begins with this pattern.
  2. 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.

Check out Weezer’s cover of this song via one of my favorite blogs

MGMT - Oracular Spectacular - KidsBuy “Kids” on iTunes.

MGMT - Oracular SpectacularBuy the album on iTunes.

*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.


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