Ah, pop music. Ah, top 40 mainstream. Ah, big pop stars.
It’s easy to listen to pop music, right? A song with a tonic – subdominant – dominant – tonic progression (typical of all music) that uses the same 3 or 4 chords over and over; Lyrics that are usually easy to follow and remember; A form that stays around the Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus [reprise] skeleton. Surface level, it’s pretty easy to follow and sonically simple.
Ok, that seems to be about it. There doesn’t seem to be any unexplored layers that can truly be addressed when one actually does a musical analysis of a pop song. Or IS there (obviously I know that there are deeper layers to more selections than you’d think, I’m just proving a point so bear with me)?
Sure, there are layers that are present, but how do you identify those layers? How deep should you analyze the song to recognize the different sorts and amount of layers? Well, as deep as you want. The more you know .. well sometimes ignorance can bliss if you know what I’m sayin’. If you don’t it’s ok, if you do, high five if you agree (high five emoji).
To make my point clear and concise, pop music isn’t as simple as one would think. Proof? You got it.
Let’s take the current chart-topping hit from one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now: Ariana Grande.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with her catalog. Homegirl’s got some bops. Good on her PR.
Her hit songs also have one thing in common: they are super easy to follow and recognize. She does, however, have some gems that are quite different and not as easy to listen to — most of which are non-singles. For the sake of keeping categorical consistency, I’m going to focus on Ariana’s top 40 hits. That being said, let’s check out a simple analysis of her latest hit, “thank u, next”.
We’ll start with the fundamentals.
Hover over the terms italicized for a simplified explanation that even an 8-year-old could understand.
Key of song: D-flat major
Time signature: 4/4 time
Tempo: 110 beats per minute
“thank u, next” uses electronic synthesizers below Ariana’s vocal melody. There are two electronic basses, two synthesizer effects, percussion, and of course Ariana Grande.
Alright, now let’s get to the good stuff. It’s time to dive in and really rip this song apart.
*Below is the analyzed sheet music for “thank u, next”. Don’t worry if you don’t even know what’s going on, neither do I. It’s just a reference guide, especially for my music theory nerds.thank-u-next-sheet-music
The majority of “thank u, next” carries tension throughout.
Many factors cause this tension, but syncopation is the real culprit. We begin with the high synthesizer coming in on an eighth note, though a note that isn’t part of the chord, already causing tension by not providing a stable pitch and beat. This gets resolved in the second half of the first beat — a weak beat. While this does create a pretty, diatonic chord, the fact that it landed on a weak beat only perpetuates the tension.
Come time we get to measure 9, the first eighth note isn’t played and the first thing we hear is a solid diatonic chord. FINALLY. It’s finally easier to follow. Wait, wait, wait. Though this chord helps to provide a stronger sense of the rhythm, it still lands on the second half of the first beat (still a weak beat), prolonging the tension. The emphasis on the weaker beats in the high synthesizer is what’s acting as a syncopation. An easy way to make things more confusing than life already is. Confusing, yet interesting. As is life.
The high bass starts off on a strong beat. While this helps to establish a solidified rhythm, it joins in on the syncopation, playing the next note on the weaker part of beat 3. The tension is only intensified. Madness. So much TENSION!
Once the low bass comes in at measure 9, it plays directly on beat 1. The next note– you guessed it– is played on the weaker part of beat 2. Tension on top of tension. Yeesh.
We finally get a simple percussion beat in measure 5. The repeated rhythm is what really keeps us on track. It puts a strong emphasis on beats 1 and 4 while executing syncopation in beats 2 and 3. That’s the whole rhythm of the song. Focus the percussion part next time you play this song and I guarantee you’ll be able to follow it much easier.
While the unstable rhythms of the instrumental synths cause tension, they actually play off of Ariana’s vocal rhythm. Ariana comes in on beat 3 in measure 4. Beat 3 is unique this time around, however. She actually starts beat 3 with a triplet. It’s enough that she started on a weak beat, but adding the triplet on top of all these varying rhythms means more tension. Oh but there’s even MORE tension. Within the triplet, Ariana still comes in on the weaker beat of the triplet (beat 2 of the triplet!!) THIS IS MAD. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO OUR SENSE OF RHYTHM, ARIANA? Just punch me now.
Of all the lines that start on the weak beat, Ariana’s execution of this is much more significant. When landing on the strong beat, it clearly emphasizes words that help encapsulate what the song is about (next, thank, laugh, aisle). Cray-cray — I know.
“thank u, next” is in D-flat major with no tonicizations or modulations.
Within the key, the melody is in Ionian mode. Ariana is responsible for carrying that melody throughout the entire song. While doing so, she explores her lower range, singing between a low Ab3 to a high Eb5. (homegirl’s lower range is just as good — maybe even better — as her higher range).
In a majority of top 40 songs, most of the instruments act as a “filler” in order to make the song sound “fuller” harmonically. They’re meant to compliment the vocalist’s line while not giving much spotlight to the instrumentalists. It’s top 40 music in a greedy music industry. They only need that one moneymaker in the spotlight. Don’t shoot the messenger.
There is one instrumental line, however, that’s different.
Listen to the harmonic synthesizer. Do you notice a pattern? Listen closer. Ok, we know the pattern. Keep listening on and you’ll hear that same pattern, or motif, return throughout the song. If you think about it, can’t that be a melody? Doesn’t it sound like it could be? I’ll tell right now that it is a melody. Ariana sort of goes with the melody, but ends up veering away from it. Nonetheless, the melody still plays out, working nicely with Ariana’s voice. That, my friends, is what’s referred to as a countermelody. It’s complimentary to the main melody. The harmonic synth is a countermelody. HIGH FIVE.
Just as you can utilize an instrument as a melody, you can utilize voices as harmonies.
Or in this case, a voice. HOW ONLY ONE VOICE WITH MULTIPLE HARMONIES? I know, it’s amazing. Ariana has never been afraid to layer her voice to create harmonizations. It resembles much of the technique Imogen Heap used in their material. She makes it sound really cool and juicy. She takes it a step further and actually creates harmonies that completely change the chordal quality, and thus the chordal progression. Light but powerful.
Let’s break down the in-depth choral harmonization of the song. Buckle your seatbelts, this is going to be mindboggling. I’ll make sure we’re on the same page, capiche?
European Western (Classical) Harmonic Analysis:
If you get lost, that’s ok. I only do this to give you a glimpse of how connected classical music is to pop music. This is mainly for my fellow theorist nerds. But please do glance at it just to show how connected “unsophisticated” music is to “refined” and “proper” music. Indulge as I prove that you can do a roman numeral analysis for a pop song and know that it can be just as intricate as the likes of Brahms and other composers from the Rennisance to Romantic period (another topic for another time).
A typical pop song chord progression is I-V-vi-IV (there are a few more to Google). Well, this is not a typical pop song.
Ariana begins the song with a IV13 chord. Ok now, what does that even mean? Another concept, are you ready? Typically chords have 3 notes stacked on top of each other. That produces a nice diatonic sound. When you start adding more notes on top of that, you start creating an even fuller sound; this has the possibility of turning out either pleasant or… bad. In this case, it’s pleasant and makes the beginning sound “jazzy”. You know how “jazzy” sounds. Exotic with luscious notes. Lucious. Sexy. Anyhow, don’t worry about the 13; whenever you see the numbers 7, 9, 11, and 13, listen to them to hear how “jazzy” it sounds. The more numbers, the “jazzier” or “badder”.
The chord then goes to a V of vi with an added FLAT 13th and B-DOUBLE FLAT as the bass note? That’s crazy. And not at all associated with traditional western music theory.
So, figure out a better way to analyze that my fellow theorists and get back to me.
Next, we move to vi and then I, ending on a…plagal cadence?! Why would there be a random Amen cadence in a pop song?? Blasphemy. What’s more is that the vi resolve to a tonic 7th inversion with the seventh on the bottom!!
I also noticed that the bass note of the first chord is G-flat. Now when you go all the way to the I 4/2 chord, do you notice how there is a C-flat in that 4/2 inversion? It seems as if another key is lingering, and I choose G-flat major. Hear me out. I’m not saying that this part of the song is in any way tonicized or modulates to G-flat. Just the way it’s progressed (minus the B double flat, I’d just consider it modal mixture) is reminiscent of G-flat, specifically with the use of that C-flat. C-flat is in the key of G-flat. What if the song is trying to imply that there are elements of G-flat major, especially considering the fact that all the chords — with the exception of the vi — are inverted? This makes it hard to allow the actual key to settle since G-flat is acting as the bass (bottom) note in almost every chord (again b-double flat can be modal mixture of the iii in G-major). As the song progresses, more added tones (7, 9, 11, 13) are used to change the quality of the chord to make it sound “jazzier”. Not only do the instrumentalists add these, but Ariana does as well, significantly changing the chord quality (find the blue notes circled and you’ll see what I mean). It’s interesting to see how “thank u, next” utilizes certain techniques performed centuries ago.
Jazz & Harmonic Pop Analysis:
Ok, this is the simple part. “thank u, next” uses a lot of the same techniques used in jazz. While there can be rigid rules to jazz performances, it typically doesn’t shy away from implementing improvisation. Added tones can also be used to give “umph” to a song and make it sound “jazzy” and interesting to listen to. Because of this, more liberties are given to invert however you want, obviously within the confines of the key… or maybe not. You do you.
As for a chord analysis: we’ll keep it simple for the sake of time.
Gmaj – Fmaj7 – B-flat min, Dmaj7
It’s as simple as that.
Check out this video to get more context. Keep in mind that it’s a half step lower because apparently no one likes to play it in the real key. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The countermelody in the high synthesizer is buoyant with a bright, yet light sound. It’s similar to the light timbre of Ariana’s voice, again complimentary to her voice. The synthesizer starts out blurry and muffled, almost trying to replicate warmth, but finds more focus and clarity as the song moves forward while not distracting from the main medley.
The harmonic synthesizer also comes in at beat 1, acting as, you guessed it: harmony. Its use of whole notes helps to define the key more clearly. It also helps to highlight the surface sound quality by including the exact inversions of the chord. While the sound is muffled and not as prominent, it is necessary so that the overall chordal progression and how it maintains the key don’t get lost.
The high bass is the clearest of the other instruments, with the exception of Ariana’s voice. That said, it also has a muffled sound. However, it’s high pitch quality through the confines of the muffled sound help make the line subtle.
Once the low bass is introduced, it maintains a brassy and heavy quality that helps to establish the core quality of each chord. Its heavy vibrations, similar to hip-hop beats, is very danceable; you just can’t resist moving your head, body, and hips; whichever part of your body excites you. Come on now, let’s stay focused.
The percussion is light with no “true” tone so it doesn’t distract from the music itself; just a tool to keep the tempo consistent.
Ariana has a light and somewhat thin voice. What’s nice about her technique is that while she does have a light voice, she fills up her headspace on the higher notes, creating a fuller sound making you think she’s singing her face off. Oh, by the way, Ariana Grande is a trained Broadway singer; just so you know. Anyways, the advantage of her lighter voice is the ability she has to layer her voice as many times as she wants (which she does all the time; listen to Imogen Heap and the harmonies are what Ariana Grande is pretty much doing). It’s great because she’s able to produce a sweet vocal blend — partly due to studio production, though no post-production can produce a pure and blended sound than the actual voice itself. Ariana doesn’t stray away from this technique in “thank u, next”, really utilizing it throughout the chorus and parts of the pre-chorus.
As I stated before, the way Ariana uses her vocal harmonies can really affect the quality and sound of the chords produced.
A lot of this not only has to do with the timbre of her voice, but that of the instruments, or synths in this case. Remember the Wall of Sound? This is a prime example of a song that uses and abuses the Wall of Sound technique.
Finally, the inflection of monosyllabic word “yee” sounds to be spoken with a high, subtle squeak. Looking into, however, one can argue that the high-pitch tone of the “yee” is an Eb7 with a subtle stress and soft dynamic. What does it do to the song? Nothing really, it’s just an Ariana thing.
This song is completely and utterly polyphonic.
All the stressed beats in each line are defined at different places in different ways — both tonal- and rhymic-wise. The main vocal melody and the high synthesizer, as well as the high and low bass, emphasize 2 or more motives throughout the song. The percussion and harmonic synthesizers have one repeated motif that establishes the rhythmic grounding. All the instruments, however, create this polyphony around the vocal line to maintain rhythmic stability driven by the vocalist.
Overall, the song is strophic: A-A’-A-A’-A”-A-A’-A”.
There is the first verse (A) followed by the first chorus (A’). The same thing happens again (A), except the chorus expands and plays new material (A”). Then the same thing happens again including the new material (A”). It’s as simple as that. I will remind you about the rhythmic structure and how important it is when a phrase (a section of a lyric) starts on a weak beat, providing word play to highlight the importance of the lyrics, both sectionally and as a whole.
The song is a pop song. No questions asked.
Remember the Wall of Sound in the “what makes a christmas song good?” Here’s a reminder.
The crunch of the chords and the density of the song itself is an indicator of a “pop” sound. Thus, calling it a pop song.
Where we get to the lower bass and its heaviness and depth, we’ll go to hip-hop.
The true meaning behind hip-hop and this aesthetical technique contribute to hard experiences surrounding the artist. While this steams from the harsh living conditions of people of color, I think this transcends into worldly experiences as well (the woman’s gone through a lot, let her have this one”).
Finally, Ariana and her vocal technique grab directly from R&B.
She embodies that through her smooth and mellow voice with the ability to execute seamless riffs, similar to that of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey — both heavily influenced and involved in the R&B genre.
ALL PARTS REPEAT AT LEAST ONE MOTIF THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE SONG.
Check out the sheet music and find the patterns. When you point it out, see how much it repeats. Repeating motif: an ostinato.
You would think there was absolutely no dynamic. Wrong. It’s all in the production.
Throughout the song, I’ve noticed a lot of the lines sound distorted at some point in time. For instance, the melodic synthesizer is distorted, sounding a little blurry at a relaxed tonal range. On measure 9, the melodic synth becomes brighter and pointed, inevitably raising the dynamic. This happens throughout the song and it has a varied distortion range.
Another way dynamic change is implemented in the song is through doubling, which you’ll find in Ariana’s vocals.
When she sings “Sean” “a match” and “Ricky” you can hear her voice doubled, emphasizing the words while raising her dynamic — it’s probably a little less obvious so the sound doesn’t become distorted in an ugly way.
, ladies, and gentlemen. It’s an actual technique implemented in production and engineering. The more you know.
The lyrics obviously give away what the song means. How does the music do it?
Refer to this and then come back to me.
Alright. Let’s break this down.
The key of the song is in D-flat Major (C# is the same as D-flat, so keep that in mind). “A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.” Let’s reflect on the situation. A lot has happened to Ariana Grande. She’s had unique tragedies occur within her lifespan thus far.
Remember when I said the song always gravitated towards G-flat Major (F# the same as G-flat)?
“Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.”
Even though life may be hard and sorrow consumes Ariana, there is still a sense of success and triumph as she has gained wisdom and a better perspective and confidence. Don’t we all want that? Time to come out with a smash.
Welp, they were wrong. You CAN analyze an Ariana Grande song. Before making judgments about any sort of song, take the chance to actually see and hear beyond the surface level and do your own research. You never know if a song might surprise you — in a good AND a bad way. Just keepin’ it real.