Every once in a while, I will stumble across a song that crashes onto the couch of my mind and stays there for days like an out-of-town house-guest. I first heard the song above just a few days ago on Monday and it’s been fading in and out of my mental soundtrack ever since. As I’ve previously discussed, sometimes what makes a song standout is a single, subtle twist on an old familiar convention. This song contains several. Here are a couple:
Thematic Production: When the song begins, you might not expect it to venture beyond the borders of the pop-ballad formula. There’s a guitar, some percussion, and a singer, all strummin’, drummin’, and hummin’ up a great tune. Around 1:05, some violins dance their way into the mix and begin to recolor the song. This is now the chorus (“Where you gonna go, where you gonna go?”) and the instrumentation is busier than before with additional percussion and other subtleties added to the track. Then, at 1:36, following a sweeping vocal glissando (the cool thing she does at the end of the word “again“) we’re suddenly in the midst of a soaring, ethnically-themed ballad that immerses the listener into the “Tokyo” imagery.
Melody: Part of how the song conveys this theme to the listener is the melody that is being sung by the vocals and played by the strings. They are playing around a series of five notes (with a few exceptions) that sound good pretty much anywhere at any time during the song. Many melodies are based on this scale and although it is common in countless folk tunes all over the world, it sounds characteristically Oriental if played in a certain manner. Technically speaking, the song is in the key of F#, so the melody is being played with the F# major pentatonic scale. Here’s a quick visual:
Typical F# major scale: F# G# A# B C# D# E F#
Solfege (“do – a deer, a female deer…”): Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do
F# major pentatonic scale: F# G# A# – C# D# – F#
Solfege: Do Re Mi – Sol La – Do
If you are near a keyboard, you can easily play it: Notice how all of the black-keys are in repeating pairs of two and three. For every group of three black keys, the F# is the first one on the left. Play only the black notes anywhere on the keyboard, and you are playing the notes of the F# pentatonic scale (F#, G#, A#, C#, D#). If you want to play along with the song, you’re guaranteed to sound pretty good if you stick to these notes.
It is this smart use of the pentatonic scale that richly blends a new vibe into the track, uniquely distinguishing it from a standard, American pop radio song.
Meter: A songs meter describes part of the general format of the song. It determines how many beats (or ‘counts’) are in each measure (a repeating chunk of music). Regardless of genre, but especially in pop music, most songs tend to have four beats per measure. That means you could repeatedly and steadily count “1 – 2 -3 – 4” to the beat of the music. If you’ve ever seen a live performance, you may have noticed that the drummer (usually) will click their sticks and count these numbers out loud right before the band starts playing. By doing this, the drummer is counting each beat (the meter) so the band can get a sense of how fast (the tempo) they are about to play the song.
This song breaks that convention in a pretty major yet subtle way: It has seven beats per measure. Seven?!? Yes, seven. But the way it is played out in this song feels so natural that its almost unnoticeable at first.
To hear these beats, focus on the drums. They begin playing at the 0:10 mark, right when LP starts singing (on beat 1 of that particular measure). Notice that they are played in groups of two. They are playing on beats one, three, four, and seven of each measure throughout the song. See if you can count along. You may also notice that the general rhythm of the guitar and some other instruments follow this pattern (rewind to the beginning of the song and hear how the guitar is playing this rhythm even before the drums come in).
Songs with four beats per measure are usually pretty easy to dance or clap along with because four is a very even, rounded number. You would think that a song with seven beats would feel a little “wobbly.” But not so here. There could be many reasons for this. I think the largest contributor is the singing. As listeners, our ears tend to be drawn to the vocalist in the band. The instruments play repeating sequences of music that ease into the background but the vocalist is singing words with specific definitions and those words change throughout the song, bringing them to the forefront of our attention. LP sings this song with a fairly relaxed vibe. Nothing about the singing communicates, “I’m singing over seven beats per measure and this is really difficult; I might lose count!” Coupled with the minimalistic rhythm of the drums, pounding out only every few beats, this musically mathematical anomaly is cleverly disguised.
Check out some of the songs that have recently found their way into your “favorites” playlist. Maybe you’ll find some hidden gems within them too!