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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.

kids-progression

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.

5 Pop Songs With No Music (TrendWatch)

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 20 - 20097 COMMENTS

Pop minimalism is one of the most interesting and distinct music trends of this decade. Particularly over the last four years, much of rap and Top 40 dance music has had no chord progression at all, only a repeating riff (“ostinato”) and/or a single note bass line.


The following club anthems are extreme examples of pop minimalism. They all are comprised almost entirely of rhythmic components, but all of them have at least some melodic content somewhere, including tuned 808s which usually will not be audible except in a night club or car stereo.


5) “Wait (Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins (NSFW video)



When top producers make music today, they are imagining how a crowd will react to it in a night club environment, but even more specifically they’re thinking about strip clubs. Getting your single in rotation at strip clubs is a right of passage in the rap world and “Wait” is a perfect example of a song written explicitly for that purpose.


Aside from lyrical content, there is something raw (and therefore sexual) about sparse rap arrangements. The deep drum sounds in “Wait” are a mix between kicks, 808s, and toms. They are tuned, but each hit slides downward in pitch (sometimes erroneously referred to by drum techs as “the doppler effect”), so it would be futile to try to establish a key signature for this song. The only other element which is not entirely percussive is an “oooo” yell.


The deep drums likely inspired the tuned kicks in the next song, which uses an identical rhythm figure.


Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #3
Billboard Hot 100: #15


4) “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg (feat. Pharrell)


Snoop Dogg


Click here to watch the video.


While Snoop’s chorus vocals have pitch to them, they are not discernible notes per se. It is more reminiscent of a tonal language (such as Chinese) than a scale. Other non-melodic elements include tuned kicks, an “ooo” vocal line and a synth progression which plays intermittently.


Just a hunch, but I have a feeling the snare pattern which ends each verse phrase inspired the producer of my #3 pick.



Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #1


3) “A Milli” by Lil Wayne



One of the most astounding things about this song is that in spite of all the fuss we make over choruses in this industry, “A Milli” simply doesn’t have a chorus. In fact, I would argue that the real “hook” of this song is the dotted-8th note snare pattern. Highly unusual. You can hear this snare pattern in what seems like every hip-hop song released since Tha Carter III, perhaps most notably Beyonce’s “Diva.”


“A Milli” outlines the trend exactly as I described it: a single note 808 bassline and a (very, very repetitive) ostinato pattern. The effect is almost trance-like, casting a hypnotic spell which translates well on the dance floor.


Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #6


2) “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani


Gwen Stefani
Click here to watch the video.


This mega-hit is a a prime example of hip-hop influencing Top 40. It is also one of the few songs in recent memory to crossover into hip-hop rather than from it.


Co-written by Pharrell, “Hollaback Girl” became an instant sensation. The verse and refrain have no melodic content at all except for Stefani’s vocal melody. While the chorus (“that’s my shit”) does have some harmonic content, it’s certainly nothing to write home about aside from being a reprieve from the musiclessness of the rest of the tune.


Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” the most viewed Youtube video of all time, echoes this pop song’s music-free sentiment during its introduction.


Billboard Top 40: #1
Billboard Pop 100: #1
Billboard Hot 100: #1
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #8


1) “Lip Gloss” by Lil Mama

Lil Mama


Click here to view the video.


Above all the other songs on this list, the sparseness of this song blows me away. As if she had this blog post in mind, in the video version of “Lip Gloss,” Lil Mama raps a verse where she chants “no music!”


It makes perfect sense when you’re in a club, but hearing “Lip Gloss” for the first time on Youtube was nothing short of surreal. It seemed like some kind of post-apocalyptic anthem, the kind of thing you’d imagine kids listening to in a George Orwell novel. The youthful energy with which Lil Mama raps is contrasted by the stark, cold isolation of the drums. For me, though, she officially goes over the top when she raps the slogan “L’Oreal, yep, cause I’m worth it”.


All this being said, I love the song. This debut single from the only mainstream female rapper out right now says a lot about the limitations (or lack thereof) of pop music. Not even the kicks are tuned. All we get is a (rather weak) melodic bridge thrown in near the end for good measure.


(Also, call me crazy, but I think the movie Drumline paved the way for this song more than any of the other songs on this list.)


Billboard Hot 100: #10
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #16


Pop minimalism seems to be on its way out with the emergence of Auto-Tune vocal hooks and rap moving in a more pop direction in general, but its influence will likely remain for decades to come and eventually reemerge in another form.


Submit your own examples and thoughts in the comments section.

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