Friday, 2 December 2016

Some insights into a song featuring Halsey

Closer - The Chainsmokers

This version has had over 18 million hits on YouTube and was a big  in America, although there have been allegations of plagiarism from a song by a band called The Fray.

One of songs more interesting features is a cyclical use of a chord sequence IV, V, VI, V. In its original key of A flat (Ab) the chords would be Db9, Eb, Fm7, Eb with other colourations also coming in such as added 6ths and 11ths.

Before we look at why this is curious, perhaps we better explain this notion of 6, 11 and so on.

A normal triadic chord contains 3 notes.

In the case of E flat (Eb) they would be Eb, G and Bb and we refer to these as notes 1, 3 and 5 of the chord. We don’t specify those numbers when talking about the chord, we take them as read. But we DO specify any other notes and consider them as colourations of the sound.

So a chord of Eb6 would consist of Eb, G, Bb and C. 

A chord of Db11 would have the colouration note of G. You may be asking “why is G eleven steps away from Db and not foot steps away? Why do we by-pass the 1st G above Db?”

The answer is that the closer to the bottom of the chord I place a colouration, the more disruptive it is of the chord’s sound. Typically therefore, chords of added 6ths, 9ths, 11ths, abound and you will hear far fewer 2nds and 4ths. 

Now when we say a piece of music is IN a key, we mean that whichever note that is will be called Note 1 and will be fundamental in some way to the song. Most commonly the song starts and finishes with that chord. In this song, that fundamental chord ( in this case Ab) is entirely missing from the chord sequence. We never hear that chord. It’s omission brings to the song a less-than-firm feeling. This is a deliberate effect creating a longing impression in the mind of the listener.

The song uses a lot of syncopation - normally on the 5th chord of Eb. Listen to 1’11” and your foot should start tapping a steady beat - there will be 95 of them in a minute. Now go back to the start and keeping that beat count

 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

and then see if you can add the word “and” in between the numbers

 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 etc.

Notice how the chords change here 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 

Placing a chord on 1  is normal. Placing a chord on &  is the syncopation. This rhythmic displacement is more effective if used sparingly, and the exceedingly liberal use of it in this song (it NEVER stops) diminishes its effect over time. 

Melodically, the song is pretty static and this can be clearly interested by e.g. chorus which is heard at 2’ 12”. The melody turns round on  3 repeated notes of Ab, Bb, and C in a rhythm which is unvaried. There are perhaps two reasons why the monotony of this does not damage the song. Firstly the syncopated chords act as a contrast and secondly that the harmonic function of those repeated notes changes as the chord does.

So in the First chord of Db, the note Bb = note 6 and C = note 7, (both colourations.)

In the Eb chord, the C = note 6 and Ab = note 4.

In F minor, the note Bb = note 4. 

When Halsey sings at 1’31”, her range is small and mostly stepwise. Eb, C, Bb, Ab…notes 5,3,2,1 in Ab with a step up to note 6 at 1’ 36” and finishes her first phase on the 4th degree (Bb) of an F minor chord at 1’ 39”. The diatonic simplicity makes this somewhat unremarkable…but, as with the chorus, the stresses non-harmonic notes help to create pathos. Remove the chords and lyrics and quite quickly use come to see that this melody needs that missing support. As a tune in its own right, it barely stands up. 

The electric guitar offers up perhaps the most melodically interesting moment of the song at 30” - a clearly and easily singable fragment  followed by another 45”, and finally the instrument inherits an idea from the vocal at 1’11” .

Textural effects are much employed here. Once a sound is in, it’s removal makes us more conscious of the space created. Listen to the removal of percussion and strummed guitar at 1’30” and compare it to the fuller sound of 1’ 25”. This is imaginative and intelligent use of sound resources. From 3’ 12 through to 3’ 30” there is a crescendo and increasing textural weight until 3’32” where the absence of instruments makes their re-entry at 3’ 33” more powerful. An early example at 1’ 10” offers a chance for a slap of guitar strings. 

Adjusting weight in a texture is a powerful method of jacking up tension and releasing it - and this song makes intelligent use of that technique. 

If you haven’t come from there, pop along to and check out the songs there.

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