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Who Needs Triads? The Magic of Intervals in Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”

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“Less is more! Einstein proved it! Less is more! Einstein proved it!” my old boss, Dave, used to say on repeat. This was at the pizzeria I worked at growing up, and I always figured he was just a toppings cheapskate… But now I realize it was all a front for his secret career writing hit songs for pop artists…

My question is: Could Dave and his “less is more” scientific pizza approach have secretly been behind Justin Bieber’s 2015 hit “Love Yourself”? Let’s make the case:

First, the “Less”

In the above video, the song’s verse lasts from 0:10-0:48 (the late start comes after a philosophical definition of love, which, as of this writing, has been heard close to a billion times on Youtube alone!) And in this verse, all we’ve got going on is the Biebs himself, plus one single solitary guitar, playing thirds (well, tenths if you include the octave, but for our purposes, let’s call them thirds.) So, what are “thirds?”

To answer this, first we have to know what an “interval” is. In music, an interval is any two notes grouped together. This is in contrast to a “chord,” which most would argue is made up of three or more distinct notes. And yeah, two notes are obviously less than three. Right?

Here are what the song’s diatonic “thirds” look like on the staff (minus the octave distance):

Thirds in Love Yourself

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Interval Cheat Sheet: Songs to Help You Remember Common Intervals”

Next, the “More”

So, if a two-note interval is less than a three-note chord, how can it also be more than a chord? Here’s how: By the time you’re able to read this article, your human brain will have heard a lot of music, and the majority of all of that music will have used a lot of chords. You’ve heard so many chords, in fact, that whenever you hear mere intervals, it’s likely that your brain will fill in what it perceives to be the missing information necessary to make whatever chord you’re used to hearing. Just like if I write “Mama said knock” or “Stop, in the name,” your brain probably “heard,” “Mama said knock you out” and “Stop, in the name of love.”

But here’s the thing — there’s no way to describe these presumed fill-ins as “correct” because how can something be right or wrong if it’s not actually there? More than that, someone else’s brain could be “hearing” other implied or presumed chords that also match the two notes. Someone else might well have “heard” “Mama said knock on the door” or “Stop, in the name of Earl.”

For an example of how this phenomenon operates in “Love Yourself,” let’s look at the second guitar interval in the verse, notes D# and F#. These notes are commonly heard as they are in the V chord (B) of our song’s key (E major.) But they’re also members of the viio chord (D#o), and the V7 chord (B7), as shown below:

Implied chords for 3rds in Love Yourself

Whether anyone’s brain is actually “hearing” any of these chords or not is beside the point. The point is that many will hear one, or many, or none of them. And, because of the Schrödinger’s cat principle, the sheer existence of all of these outcomes can equal a sum total of more notes “heard” than when the listener hears a 3-note chord and is satisfied with hearing it as it is — as enough information, no fill-ins needed. If this line of reasoning is correct, less can indeed be more!

This same “brain fill-in” effect is possible when we hear the fifth intervals that dominate the pre-chorus, (video 0:49-1:08) which, in order of appearance, look something like this:

Fifths in Love Yourself

And this time, the likelihood is that our brains will “hear” a phantom note in between the first and fifth. Or, back to our previous simile, what happens if I write: “Stop… name of love” or “Mama said… you out”? Now what did you “hear”?

Okay, just like we did for thirds, let’s take the second fifth interval in the pre-chorus, the A5. Outlined below, I’m suggesting that one’s brain could process this sound as: only the original interval, a “phantom” A major, an A minor, or even an Asus2.

Implied chords for 5ths in Love Yourself

Arguably, most people would “hear” an A major implied, because that’s the chord that fits the scale Bieber is using (or also perhaps because of overtones, but that’s a whole other bag of science we don’t need to go into right now). A minor, Asus2, and perhaps even a few other chords wouldn’t be out of place either, especially in a brain connected to an experienced ear. In other words, there’s no reason some shouldn’t have “heard” “Mama said take you out to the ballgame in the name of Earl.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Pop Music Theory Analysis: Why Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ Is Surprisingly Hip”

Moving on, in the chorus, (1:09-1:26) the guitarist puts it all together, using both thirds and fifths, as well as some actual three-note chords. And later, in the bridge, a double-trumpet cameo takes our preference for “intervals over chords” to the next level.

Okay, just a couple more intervals before we go. First, at 0:57 in the video, we hear a perfect fourth, which is also an inverted fifth, and can carry the same connotations as an actual fifth. This inversion looks like this:

P4 to P5 in Love Yourself

Also, at 1:24, we hear a major second interval, just notes A and B, and — especially because the guitar actually does play an E elsewhere — we now are in danger of “hearing” an Esus4 or Asus2, or even a B7/A. And here is what all that looks like on the staff:

A and B suses or 7

Alright, so maybe my theory about Dave-the-theoretical-pizza-scientist co-writing a Bieber hit was a little far-fetched. (In fact, Ed Sheeran wrote the guitar part; and he has a track record of playing intervals instead of chords in songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “The Man”).

And also, perhaps this whole phantom “heard chords” theory might also be a little bit too out there for you to swallow. Sometimes, an interval is just an interval. Still, I hope I’ve at least introduced you to the possibility that sometimes, when only two notes hit your ear…

“Less is more! Einstein proved it!”

And if you still don’t believe this “brain fill-in theory,” why don’t you just go love yourself.

Don’t stop here!

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Dean Olivet

Dean Olivet received a Music BA in Duluth, MN, but he’s more proud of his French Horn Trophy, Jug Band Trophy, and his plaque that reads "Best Musical Act at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival." He has fun putting out recordings of his music, but these days he finds making videos about other people's music to be just as fun. He keeps a record of his guitar curriculum online for a quick reference when he spaces out and can’t think of anything to teach his students.