Monday, August 29, 2016

Whooping it up, millennial style

Thanks to a commentator who tipped me off to this piece of musicology from the folks over at Slate: The Millennial Whoop: The Simple Melodic Sequence That’s Showing Up All Over Contemporary Pop. Sure, we've all heard it, but it's nice when someone points out what is going on. There is a rash of pop artists using the same wa-oh-wa-oh melodic hook. The interval is a descending minor third from the fifth to the third of a major chord. A good example is Katy Perry's "California Gurls" where we hear it first at the 52-53 second mark before it is restated in the chorus at the 1:05-1:09 mark.

(For some reason, Blogger won't embed the original video, but if you follow the link above, you can watch it there.)

The article explains why this pattern is so popular:
Humans crave patterns. The reason pop music is successful to begin with is because almost every song is immediately familiar before you get more than 10 seconds into a first listen. Between the formula of European classical scales and chord progressions that have gelled over hundreds of years and the driving heartbeat rhythms that stimulate our internal organs at the right decibels, listeners are immediately hooked in by familiar structure and themes that have likely been ringing in their ears since they were in the womb. And with the pervasive nature of pop music, where everything is a remix, a feedback loop has been created in which songs are successful because they are familiar, so in order to be successful, songs are created that play on our sense of familiarity.
So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.
The minor third is perhaps the most fundamental musical interval of all. We find it everywhere. Listen to a mother calling out for her wayward son to come home for dinner. It is likely that the interval is a descending minor third: "John-ny! John-ny!" The blues song "Spoonful" as performed by Cream is about as saturated with the minor third as you can get:

Unless you are listening to Philip Glass, where we find it permeating a lot of his output:

With a few major thirds, for variety!


Kathryn Keld said...

Battle of the Bands, Fall Fair circa 1968 ....Bryan Townsend, Ron Boffy (Wendy) and Dave Keld....anonymous girl, not me!

You've gone a long way Bryan!...Cheers, Dave

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, wow, wow! Hi Dave!! Did we have a drummer then? And what was the name of our band?

I've had some great long-distance reunions since I started blogging! My email is Why don't you drop me a line?