Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Don't blame me, I didn't name it! Boston.com had an article about something they called the "sensitive female chord progression": Striking a Chord. Here is how they describe it:
...what is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, exactly? It's simple enough for the music theory-inclined: vi-IV-I-V. No good? Well, for a song in the key of A minor, it would be Am-F-C-G. Still confused? Here's an easy way to see if a song uses the chord progression: Just sing Osborne's lyrics, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?" over the suspect four chords. If it fits, you've just spotted one in the wild. Once you're attuned to it, you'll hear it everywhere.
I have the feeling that the writer called up a musical friend to get the technical vocabulary--he almost got it right! The vi-IV-I-V is good, and that does stand for A minor, F major, G major and C major, but that's in the key of C major, not A minor. Here is how that looks and sounds:

video

Later in the article they quote one music teacher's take on it:
Jack Perricone, chair of Berklee College's songwriting department, thinks the mixture of chords gives the progression emotional heft. "It starts on a sense of maybe disquiet," he says. "In a sense, it's three-quarters major and one-quarter, but a very important quarter, being minor.
"And I think that has to do with credibility, what people experience in life. . . . I mean, that's not a bad mixture, one-quarter sadness or darkness and three-quarters light."
Now I'm imagining myself on the hiring panel at Berklee and we are interviewing candidates for the theory position. I ask every candidate "do minor chords mean sadness and major chords happiness?" And if they say yes, I say "next!" One thing is clear: the four-chord progression, whether it is this one or a similar one, is pretty much a cliché, which tends to support my belief that much popular music is industrialized formulas for evoking conventional emotional reactions.

If you want to be creative, try some three-chord progressions like I-VII-IV-I. That's the progression for the long coda to "Hey Jude":

video

Happy, sad? You got me, though the mood is more ecstatic than depressed. My theory is that music isn't really an expression of ordinary everyday emotions, but rather musical moods. Music is an "aesthetic object" not the acoustic equivalent of a pep squad or a therapy session. Here is another three-chord progression and I won't do a simple piano version because it wouldn't sound very good. The progression is VII-i-VII-VI or G major, A minor, G major, F major. As you have already guessed, that is the whole harmonic content of the song "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan:


That is, I believe, the original version from the album John Wesley Harding, but just the instrumental backing tracks. Dylan's people are pretty good at keeping his songs off YouTube. Anyway, happy? Sad? One third sad? Again, you got me. That song has a very particular and unique mood that I don't have any words for: driving forward with a certain amount of distance?

What all these progressions have in common is the avoidance of any clear cadential progression from V to I. That is pretty much what any of us do these days when writing tonal music. Perhaps we should call what we do "vague tonal music blended with modal music for extra vagueness."

Let's end with that great television performance of "Hey Jude" that is preceded by a little clip showing the Beatles could have been a pretty good tearoom gig band if they had wanted to:



UPDATE: There is a bit of a problem I neglected to mention. With a lot of these pop chord progressions, the tonality is rather ambiguous. For example, in the Dylan song, you could think of it as being in A minor and that is how it is usually conceived, but in the absence of any cadence a theorist might want to say that the tonality is not confirmed. Certainly if it were a piece from the Classical Era. You can't tell from the key signature, because since these songs are fundamentally the performances of them, the score has no authenticity other than being a transcription of a performance. I suppose that we tilt towards A minor rather than, say, G major, because the F major chord means we can't use F#s. In any case, we hear A minor as the tonic chord even without an actual cadence. I've been talking about A minor as that is always how I envisioned the song. But Bob Dylan actually plays it in C# minor with a capo so that the chord fingerings look like A minor. And Jimi Hendrix plays it with the guitar tuned down a semi-tone so that it comes out in C minor, but he plays it without a capo.

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