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Does Music Theory Still Matter?

Last year, Rihanna’s hit single “Work” started an argument here at Soundfly. We come from an array of different musical backgrounds, styles, training, and instruments, and the question that kicked us off was:

What key is “Work” actually in?

It’s got that super repetitive synth bass line that returns to C# every time, giving the impression we’re in C# Dorian mode, but the key signature is B major, or G# natural minor. The melody floats around a C# note a lot, but it still sounds unresolved, except in a few moments where it lands on G#. There are even a couple moments that sound a little more major and could lead one to hear the B as an unplayed tonic (or “home base”).

Quick aside: the “Dorian” mode is a scale starting on the second degree of the major scale, but with all the same notes. And if this all sounds like Wingdings to you, you can learn a ton about scales and modes for free in our Music Theory for Producers course series. But for now, here’s a quick primer on what it means to “play in key,”

So what’s the deal with “Work?”

By all accounts, this is a very simple, repetitive song — how can experts with decades of music experience and credentials from some of the top music schools in the country disagree on the fundamentals of it?

This is a pattern we wrestle with a lot when trying to analyze modern music. As musicians, so much of our music theory training consists of learning rules that were developed to describe classical European music. But modern music operates very differently in a lot of ways — from a greater focus on loops, to more rhythmic complexity and syncopation, to less harmonic complexity, and other key differences.

As our collaborator Ethan Hein has pointed out, a lot of these differences may come in part from the Afrodiasporic roots of so much of modern popular music (especially hip-hop and R&B, but also rock and many other genres). Hein and others argue that music education in the United States fails to take modern popular music into account enough, and that the way we think about and teach theory needs an update. The most salient pieces of music theory for modern music, like rhythm which is often mostly ignored in classic music theory courses, could be taught in new ways in order to account for these differences.

This disconnect between the way so much of modern music functions, and the rules we’re taught in school not to break, might explain some of the more ferocious online debates around music theory analysis of popular pieces. (Exhibit A: check out the comments in Owen Pallett’s analysis of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” or any Facebook post about music theory.)

So… do we still need it? 

Does that mean music theory is useless? Should we all be throwing away our orchestration textbooks and reaching for the closest DAW to layer loops on top of each other with no regard for notes, scales, chords, or other theoretical concepts?

No way! (At least to the part about throwing theory out the window.) At its best, music theory gives us a number of ways to describe the music we hear, unwrap the decisions the artist made, translate those lessons into our own music, and communicate them to collaborators or other musicians. Theory allows us to quickly achieve the effects we’re going for, or push ourselves to unexpected, interesting places with our music, and play with the expectations of the listener as well.

Inspired by his recent analysis of Beach House’s new single, “Dark Spring,” I asked Flypaper author and songwriter Patrick McGuire why he thinks music theory is important for musicians, and he outlined three major reasons:

  • It explains why certain things work and sound pleasing (or don’t).
  • It’s a language that allows us to communicate ideas accurately with other musicians.
  • It allows us to understand how to create the emotional sonic color palettes we’re going for.

That said, we don’t all need to run out and read the entire Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. As musicians, there’s certainly nothing wrong with focusing on the parts of music theory that you need the most, while politely ignoring the rules of, say, first species counterpoint, if that’s not the type of music you’re most interested in. Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s a lot to be gained creatively by studying concepts outside of your genre and usual approach. But if it’s putting you to sleep and not sinking in, then skip it and move on. As creators, we can treat music theory more flexibly than is often taught.

Soundfly has two harmony courses created for modern music makers: Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony. In them, we go deep into this idea of applying theory concepts to modern music and for modern musicians, not a 19th century composer. (No offense to you 19th century composers out there reading this.) If music theory is a spectrum from banging random keys on a keyboard to a full-blown Schenkerian analysis of orchestral arrangements, all we’re trying to do is get you far enough along to have control over how you represent the emotions you’re shooting for in your music.

A few more examples of why music theory is awesome

One of the best cases for why music theory can be helpful for music makers is made by the songs that use really interesting harmonic concepts to break out of generic clichés. We’ve covered a lot of these songs on Flypaper, from Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” (which has a triplet-ish feel that sounds arguably like 12/8 time) to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (which uses sus chords, a Picardy third, and a bunch of other harmonic surprises). Even Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” has some interesting theory stuff happening, never actually using a chord.

The first example that pops into my mind personally is Radiohead’s “All I Need,” which uses the Lydian mode — the scale you get when you start on the fourth note of the major scale (such as F to F in the key of C major, so with a B natural). Thom Yorke really emphasizes that raised fourth scale degree in the melody, giving it an otherworldly sound. It can be so much fun to play with other modes and emphasize the specific notes that make them sound different and weird.

Our free Theory for Producers courses have countless other examples, from Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” (Phrygian mode) to Björk’s “Army of Me” (Locrian mode).

A more recent example from this week is this super glitchy, beautiful new track by James Blake called “Don’t Miss It”. The song floats in and out of different keys, and includes some beautiful dissonances and production effects. The initial piano part starts with a big E major piano chord, followed by an A minor sixth chord — an unusual progression that’s uplifting, but with a subtle darkness to it that’s almost sinister. The E major scale doesn’t include a C natural, which is one of the most prominent notes in the A minor chord, so we’re already in interesting territory right out of the gate.

But it’s the bridge (around 1:00) that caught our attention for its disorienting effect. It has a Lydian modal feel to it, reminiscent of an early 20th century Debussy piece, which is compounded by a slightly stilted rhythm and a wobbly tape-warble, leaving the listener off balance and not sure what to expect. It’s songs like this, that use theory as a launching point to really surprising places, that make us want to keep learning forever.

Putting theory into action

At Soundfly, we believe one of the best ways to learn theory is to put it into action. We encourage musicians to use constraints to force themselves to experiment with different ideas and concepts. What would happen if you tried to write a pop song that used modal interchange? What if the melody of your verse never hits the tonic? What if you modulate the key midway through your song?

You may not write a hit right away, but once you start to add those theory notches to your tool belt, you’ll have them with you to use whenever you want going forward.

At its worst, theory can feel like rules designed to keep you in the lines. But at its best, it’s an evolving language that ties together disparate worlds and tries to describe the indescribable. While finding that common ground is not always easy, it’s part of what makes learning music so irresistible and rewarding.

If you’ve been avoiding theory, this is the week to get off the sidelines. We challenge you to pick one new theory concept and try to use it in a new short piece of music or groove. Email us at [email protected] or tag us on Twitter @learntosoundfly to share with us what you come up with!

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.

  • Ethan Hein

    Preach Ian!

    • Ian

      Hahaha, thank you! Was just about to send this to you…

  • Raymond Bryan Horton

    I only listened to a few bars of the Rihanna song, but it
    clearly has a tonic of F sharp.

    • Martin Fowler

      Tell us more, @raymondbryanhorton:disqus … What leads you to that conclusion?

      • Raymond Bryan Horton

        F sharp is the most satisfying destination, sounds like home.

    • Ian

      Welcome to the argument @raymondbryanhorton:disqus ! I don’t personally hear the F# as tonic. Just playing around with the song on the piano, the F# sounds more like a big V chord to me — it’s very unresolved and “suspended”… I can’t end on it without wanting to go somewhere else, whether to B, G# or back to C# (which is what it does).

      I’m still torn between G#, which sounds quite resolved but isn’t really used that much in the actual song, and C#, which sounds less resolved, but maybe that’s just the nature of using the Dorian scale as home base. It clearly hangs out on that C# note a lot, and the bass uses it in the most prominent position (on arguably the strongest beat of the song). For what it’s worth, the Internet hive mind most commonly seems to think it’s in G#…

      • Raymond Bryan Horton

        I’ll try to get a few minutes to listen to the whole song in a day or two and get back to you. I don’t listen to Rihanna on any regular basis.

  • Ethan Hein

    My fellow NYU music ed doc student Sunny Choi has a wonderful term for this kind of tune – “vibe key.” This is the key or mode of the overall atmosphere, which in this case is C# Dorian. The “real” key might be something else entirely, depending on the functional harmony or lack thereof, the metrical placement of the chords, and so on. Or there might be no unambiguous key center at all, and the “vibe key” is the best description of what’s happening.

    Consider “Caravan” by Duke Ellington. The A section is six bars of C7b9 and two bars of Fm. Technically this is a very long V-i cadence in F minor. But that C7b9 chord persists for so long that it feels like it’s really the center of harmonic gravity. You could say that the vibe key of “Caravan” is Db diminished, and that the key only changes to F minor at the end of the section.

    Philip Tagg argues that the whole concept of key is meaningless in this kind of music, that we shouldn’t even be thinking in terms of functional harmony in loop-based music. Instead, we should think of the entire loop as being the “key.” He gives the example of an endless loop of Gm7 and C7, like in “The Great Gig In The Sky.” Is this ii-V in F, or i-IV in G Dorian, or v-I7 in C Mixolydian? Tagg would say, none of the above. It’s in the “key” of Gm7/C7. Tagg’s concept comes closest to how I approach this kind of progression when I’m playing it. Read more: http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2017/philip-taggs-everyday-tonality/

    • Ian

      I love this idea so much. In the article, I wrote: “But at its best, it’s an evolving language that ties together disparate worlds and tries to describe the indescribable.” I think this is such a good example of that evolution in progress, the conversation between past (the functional idea of “key”) and future (the “vibe” element in repetitive loops)… and the opportunities it creates for us to think differently about things. Thank you!