Harmonic ambiguity & modal inflection
In contemporary pop
Melodic and harmonic semiosis in contemporary pop
Composed by Adele Adkins and Greg Kurstin, Hello displays a highly developed semiotic aesthetic, through which nuanced emotional messages are passed. This emotional subtext is sophisticated and signifies a departure from earlier conventions by the continued abstraction of its cultural references. Not only is the language of contemporary pop straying from earlier forms, it is establishing new lexicons of emotional signification, which draw on aural references interior to the genre to transmit and qualify emotional meaning. Attributes of this new language include:
1. The diminishing role of the V chord and conventional V-I cadence
2. The weakening presence of Major Diatonic Tonality or Ionian Mode
4. The increased importance of Tonic and Subdominant relationships
5. The increased use of modal inflection and modal cadential gesture
In this paper, I will explore ways in which the harmonic and melodic language of Hello creates an emotive subtext, imbuing the vocal narrative with heightened feeling, enhancing the sense of intimacy between artist and listener and ultimately acting as a filter through which the educated listener interprets the song and gauges its authenticity. In the process, I will attempt to rationalize these semiotic aspects of the music in relationship to global pop’s evolving aesthetic.
The convergence of lyrical, melodic and harmonic elements
The production of Hello is very stripped down. It doesn’t contain any of the sonic fireworks one might associate with innovative pop. Rather, it is built on the relationship between the vocal melody and a cyclical chord progression played in the lower register of the keyboard. In the absence of other defining timbral or rhythmic devices, this relationship becomes the defining characteristic of the song and the subtle emotive nuances created between these elements colour the entire listening experience. In fact, the straightforwardness of the production lends the song an un-gilded authenticity, which serves to reinforce our belief in the sincerity of its lyrical narrative.
The harmonic vocabulary of Hello is built on the relationship between four chords: Fm, Ab, Eb and Db. These are looped to create regions of fixed harmonic activity. Although these regions may be described as harmonically static, they are rarely explicit and often hover between potential tonal centers. Much of the song’s musical interest is generated through alterations to the sequence of these chords. By changing their metric placement in the loop, the composers change the resulting progression’s harmonic character by a means of implied modal inflection. The balanced periodicity and continuous recycling of the chords combine with changes in the modal implications of the vocal melody to create a rich harmonic ambiguity, or harmony of secondary colours.
The verses of Hello unfold over the first of three repeated four-chord progressions: Fm - Ab - Eb - Db. The music is modal in character and exists within the context of F Aeolian as: i - bIII - bVII - bVI. (Middleton 1990) The progression lacks a prominent cadential gesture. In fact, the addition of the Db chord in the second half of the last bar actually serves to weaken our sense of finality by introducing a second 3rd relation between the end of the sequence and its restatement. Adele’s melody further encourages a sense of harmonic ambiguity by remaining within he confines of F Minor Pentatonic. The level of harmonic ambiguity enjoyed here is, ‘only possible within a repetitive framework.’ (Moore, 1992 p.77)
The continued reiteration of the progression creates the stability upon which the internal dynamic of the chord changes plays out. Incidental colour-tones occurring in the melody are used in symmetry with the lyrics for expressive power. Adele’s vocal is sincere and confessional. The first line of the song, ‘Hello, it’s me’ is sung in her low register over four notes, (bb - c - ab - bb) each syllable of the phrase taking one note. This occurs over the entire two bar progression, allowing time for the words to resonate with the listener. An affective poetic dislocation takes place between lyrical motif and harmony. The word, ‘Hello’, sung in anticipation to the downbeat of Fm, rises from bb to c. It is cautious and questioning. The words ‘it’s me’ then rise from ab to bb. This return to bb reinforces the statement, lending it credence. Initially, this is confirmed in the harmony with the Eb chord, but as Eb descends to Db, the bb of the melody hovers in the silence to imply a major 6th over Db, imbuing the statement with an air of vulnerability. The lyric, ‘its me’ suddenly assumes the quality of one who is apart or alone. This coalescence between lyric, melody and harmony is likely an unconscious event. But it exposes the deep level of sensitivity that exists between the artist and her material. I would venture to propose that this is an attribute her listeners place a high value on.
Harmonic ambiguity and modes of secondary colour
The importance of Db as a structural harmonic element becomes evident in the lift to the chorus. At the lift, the progression is altered to become: Fm - Eb - C - Db. This may be understood as a rewrite of the verse progression. (Steedman 1984) Adele’s melody rises to an eb over the C and then descends, db - c - bb - ab over the Db. The introduction of db into the vocal coincides with a subtle shift in modal colour towards Ab Ionian mode. This is more evident in the second statement of the progression, when the C chord is omitted and we land on Db for the entire second bar: Fm - Eb - Db - Db. There is a strong sense of suspension, and this break in the established harmonic rhythm certainly implies a cadence. In the Classical idiom, Db might descend to Fm/C, forming a i6/4 chord and then descend again to C Major, the V chord, before resolving resolve to Fm. But of course this never happens and the Db resolves directly to Fm. Any forward motion through the Dominant is by-passed entirely. Instead, Db can be understood as moment of secondary harmonic colour, an allusion to the Ionian mode, which is not yet fully realized. This interpretation is supported by the vocal melody, which descends in a stepwise motion to the tonic of Ab, (c - bb - ab) reinforcing the feeling of a temporary cadence to the IV chord of Ab Ionian. Db represents a temporary subdominant of Ab Ionian, which then resolves in a deceptive cadence to the VI chord Fm.
There is certainly precedence for this kind of harmonic ambiguity in earlier popular music. Perhaps the most iconic is, A Day in the Life by the Beatles. A similar set of conditions occurs in the verse sections of this song, where there is a pervading ambiguity of harmonic center between Ionian and Aeolian modes. This is caused by divergences in modal suggestion between the melodic contour of the vocal, which implies E Aeolian, and the harmonic progression, which implies G Ionian. (Pollack) This song is also characterized by a marked absence of dominant harmony.
The ambiguity between modal centers increases in the chorus of Hello, where friction between melody and harmony leads to a blurring of the harmonic center. With the arrival of the chorus, the harmonic rhythm returns to a cyclical progression. This employs the exact same chords as the verse, but their sequence is altered slightly: Fm - Db - Ab - Eb and can be understood within the context of Ab Ionian as a: vi - IV - I - V progression. This progression carries allot more forward momentum, but once again there is no real point of repose and the tempo of harmonic change means that the melody can be filtered through multiple modal perspectives.
The vocal melody of the chorus is organised into two sections. The first half remains firmly in F Minor Pentatonic, as Adele climbs from f to bb in classic blues pentatonic style with the words, ‘Hello from the outside’. Once again, there is a beautiful semiotic symmetry between harmony, melody and lyric, as the word ‘outside’ is sung on a bb over the Db chord, a major 6th extension, lying just ‘outside’ the pervading harmony. The vocal line makes full use of Adele’s powerful contralto and there is a hint of vexation in her voice. The second half of the chorus is much more conciliatory, however, as she softens her tone, leaping across the bridge of her voice between a high eb, ab and c, before climbing down from the ab in stepwise motion a low eb. The first appearance of g in the vocal melody signals a further shift in modal inflection. There is a strong poetic alignment between lyric, vocal timbre and modal colour. As the melody transitions towards Ab Ionian, the lyric attempts to reconcile, ‘To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart.’ This is the first real appearance of a major tonality, but even here it is incomplete. As the vocal descends from ab to eb, melody and harmony converge momentarily in a half cadence on Eb, the V chord of Ab. A full resolution to the tonic Ab is subverted via a deceptive cadence at the return of Fm. The lean towards major in the second half of the chorus is illusory. The leading tone, g, plays a functional role in the harmony, but in the vocal it appears merely as a passing tone on the way to the tonic of Eb, and as we return to the verse, the presence of Ionian sinks once more into F Aeolian, as Adele climbs back down the F Minor Pentatonic scale. The presence of Ionian is unmistakable, however; it acts upon the ear like a secondary harmonic colour, influencing our interpretation of the lyric by subtly altering the emotional subtext of song in a very sophisticated manner.
Subdominant sequences & Mixolydian modal inflection
Understood within the context of Ab Ionian, the harmonic progression of the chorus may be described as: vi - IV - I - V. It is a very common pop cliché, and known in certain Internet circles as the ‘Sensitive Female Chord Progression’. (Manzo 2016) This progression is, in turn, very closely related to the: I - V - vi - IV progression, a darling of contemporary pop, made most famous perhaps in the song With or Without You by U2.
There can be no doubt of the potential for a song as culturally significant as With or Without You to unconsciously colour the listener’s experience of music built on the same basic harmonic foundations. Only the reaction of the listener is unpredictable. An inspired retelling of the progression could evoke similar depths of sentiment as those associated with U2’s iconic hit, just as a superficial realization could easily provoke cynicism in an educated listener. In fact, Hello’s greatest accomplishment may lie in creating a meaningful musical passage from a progression that is so successful it has already become a pop cliché. It manages this by transitioning into and out of the progression through its relative minor. This changes the complexion of the music, lending it renewed vitality, while still trading on the listener’s strong unconscious associations with its iconic predecessor.
Two principal features distinguish all of these progressions. They subvert the conventional Dominant to Tonic resolution through a deceptive cadence and they utilize a chain of subdominant relations as their primary harmonic driver. I would argue that both of these features serve to weaken the presence of the Ionian mode: the first through a metric displacement of the Tonic and the second through modal inflection. Combined with Adele’s dramatic shift in vocal register, it is the harmonic movement in the chorus of Hello that infuses her blues tinged vocal with real power and momentum. This motion in fourths is very much a feature of modern rock, as inherited from bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who. But it has recently become the defacto power progression in contemporary pop and it is derived from the Mixolydian mode.
Sympathy for the Devil, released by The Rolling Stones in 1968, is one of the most seminal expressions of Mixolydian mode in Rock music. The progression is often conceived as: I - bVII - IV - I, which is a classic Mixolydian progression. But if one thinks about it in terms of the bVII chord’s relationship to the following harmony, it can also be explained as a chain of applied secondary subdominants. Viewed in this way, the bVII becomes IV of IV, and the progression reads: I - (IV of IV) - IV - I.
Another iconic use of the Mixolydian mode in rock can be found in David Bowie’s Heroes. The harmonic design of Heroes represents a tonicisation of the V chord. Bowie achieves this largely through metric assertion. (Everett 2004) He places the V chord at the most important metric points of the musical phrase and approaches it through a sequence of plagal cadences. If we analyze the progression through the lens of D Mixolydian, the implied tonic, the functional harmony looks like this:
[ I - - - IV - - - I - - - IV - - - ] [ bVII - IV - I - - - v - ii - I - - - ]
All of the defining features of Mixolydian are present: the minor v and bVII chords, the extended chain of subdominant relations, bVII - IV - I - v - ii. If we view the same progression through the lens of its related Ionian mode in G, however, the functional harmony looks like this:
[ V - - - I - - - V - - - I - - - ] [ IV - I - V - - - ii - vi - V - - - ]
Portions of this progression look suspiciously like a well-mannered Tonal cadential phrase played in retrograde: I - V - ii - vi. This makes perfect sense. In the Mixolydian mode, the defining elements of the Major scale, the semitone between the leading tone and the tonic, (7-1) are harmonically displaced to the 3rd and 4th degrees of the scale. In the absence of a leading tone, the defining harmonic resolution is reversed and becomes a 4 - 3 plagal cadence. Understood within these terms, the chain of subdominant relations that distinguish the chorus progression of Hello, IV - I - V or Db - Ab - Eb are an allusion to Mixolydian harmony, and represent a momentary tonicisation of the V chord. The contour of Adele’s melody at the close of the chorus would seem to confirm this reading. It is strongly cadential, descending in stepwise motion, (ab - g - f - eb) from the tonic of Ab to the tonic of Eb.
Viewed in this light, the harmonic motion that plays out in the chorus of Hello, may be understood as a kind of usurpation of Major tonality by the Mixolydian mode. This Mixolydian coup d’état is being echoed throughout contemporary popular music. In fact, subdominant relations have become so much a part of our sonic landscape, it is easy to forget that they are actually a profound subversion of the Classical tendency to move by descending 5th towards a perfect cadence, and a retrograde of one of the most established tropes in early popular music based on this aesthetic and commonly known as the Circle of Fifths: iii - VI - ii - V - I. By inverting this graceful chain of resolutions in on its itself, the purveyors of Classic Rock, through their assimilation of blues language, have set into motion one of the greatest deconstructions of established musical ethos ever perpetrated.
Although this progression is stylistically re-contextualized in Hello, I believe it continues to exert a latent ‘Rock’ connotation on the musical narrative: ‘I am talking to you; I am serious and you had better listen to me.’ For someone who shares this listening history, it provides the track with an emotional edge that is not necessarily reflected in other aspects of the production. It is a modal metaphor expressed through the introduction of Mixolydian cadential movement and a muted interior cultural reference working at a deep semiotic level of the music’s structure.
At the end of the second chorus, a final shift of modality occurs during a brief instrumental vamp, when the same four chords of the verse and chorus are rearranged once more into a new sequence: Fm - Db - Eb - Ab. The final two chords of the sequence are inverted from the chorus and a perfect authentic cadential gesture to Ab Ionian makes a sudden and conspicuous entrance into the song: vi - IV - V - I. The shift in modal colour is striking. In fact, it almost feels out of place within the established harmonic context. Tellingly, Adele does not even sing over the passage. It exists in stark contrast to the main body of the song, and is almost nostalgic in tone, like a childhood memory from a time when life was simpler and easier to understand.
Ionian mode & the contemporary ear
Hello is a cleverly designed work of pop, but there is nothing unique about its compositional material. It is one of several cyclical harmonic schemes currently in use and part of a larger evolving aesthetic that comes directly out of a conscious or unconscious recycling of previously successful musical tropes. The most interesting thing about the song is its intelligent use of harmonic ambiguity and this is reflected in the music of other successful artists.
The tonal language of Hello is fiercely economical. The entire piece exists within a diatonic F Natural Minor scale, but it uses this harmonic palette in a very sophisticated way to express subtle and complex shades of emotion. These areas of modal inflection exists in-between what might be described as Tonality’s primary harmonic colours. I use this metaphor to describe Western Tonality because it is such an overarching influence on our perception of consonance, much of what we understand as novel or exotic is governed by the inherited primacy of the Major scale. If harmony can be described through the metaphor of colour, Hello inhabits a world of secondary colour. There are no grand cadential gestures, no drive towards the tonic, hardly any primary harmonic colours at all. As our relationship with modality in music becomes more fluid, however, the principle of harmonic secondary colour may come to be understood as any temporary displacement of a pervading tonal center through the coincident manipulation of harmonic rhythm and melodic contour.
The amount of modal interplay in Hello suggests a qualitative shift in the tastes of contemporary listeners towards new paradigms of consonance and dissonance. Like many of the most interesting songs being produced today, Hello exudes two core qualities: modal nuance and emotional intelligence. On a surface level, the musical complexity of contemporary pop is not quantifiably different from its earlier incarnations, but perhaps its capacity to manipulate harmonic and melodic relationships in conveying emotional nuance is growing in sophistication. And this may suggest a developing emotional intelligence in its listenership. Could the highly nuanced semantic language of Hello actually be a reflection of changes in the social awareness of the culture that gave rise to it? Pop’s internationalism allows its listeners to shed geographical, historical and ideological backgrounds and reinvent themselves in light of the artists they endorse. It creates open shared spaces, in which established cultural morays no longer define its participants. Is it possible that the moral and ethical ambiguities of modern culture are finding expression in the nuanced harmonic language of contemporary pop?
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