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30 songs in (almost) 30 days: day 30

June 29, 2011

day 30 – your favorite song at this time last year: The New Pornographers, “Electric Version”

It’s the last day of 30 days of songs. I thought I was going to be happy to be here, relieved of the tyranny of a daily meme, but I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. And given all that’s going on around here at the moment, it definitely helped me focus.

I was telling fairlywell this weekend that I was surprised at how this meme turned out to be much more about memoir than about music. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Music is entwined in just about every aspect of my life. It’s usually on my mind in one way or another. This year though, I have become more aware of the way in which my listening habits are a barometer for the rest of my life. When my listening habits are stagnating, usually other things are too. When I took action this fall and started consciously shaking up my listening and trying a lot of new things, well, things started to happen. I don’t attribute that to music itself. I attribute it to the more adventurous mindset that seeks out new sounds. That mindset is more ambitious and striving.

This fall, I’ll be giving a conference paper on the way music has been used as a tool of social engineering. Change the music, you change the community. I’ve come to believe that the same is true of personal engineering projects as well. If music is a barometer of my life, then maybe it will be instructive to look at what I was listening at this time last year.

I’m not entirely sure I know what my favorite song was at this time last year. Past blog entries are not helping me out, nor are my iTunes stats. But I’m guessing it had to be either “The Ghost Inside” by Broken Bells:

[This is not the official version, but I like it a lot because it sounds less processed and it’s easier to hear that the singer James Mercer of The Shins, in collaboration with Danger Mouse (who, with the aforementioned Cee-Lo Green, makes up Gnarls Barkely—are you still with me?)]

or “Electric Version” by The New Pornographers:

Since I’ve already talked about The New Pornographers earlier in the 30 songs meme, I had planned on talking about Broken Bells, for variety’s sake. But then the “Electric Version” video came on as I tried to copy the embedding code and I couldn’t just shelve it.

I love this song for music theory geek reasons: It uses a circle of fifths progression and is the only rock song I can think of off the top of my head (although surely there are others) that repeatedly uses flat-seven. I’m guessing that probably makes little sense to many if not most of you. Let me try to explain it and explain why I think it sounds cool.

The short answer is that both of these techniques confuse the ear. The circle of fifths is a chart of keys that are closely related to each other. Here’s a picture:

In this chart, the distance between each circle segment is a fifth, hence the name. You count fifths by starting on the letter you start with as 1 and counting through the alphabet up to 5. Of course, since the musical alphabet only goes as far as G, so when you get to G, you have to continue back to the beginning with A. So a fifth above D goes like this: D-1, E-2, F-3, G-4, A-5. You could also count this by starting with 1 on a D on the piano keyboard and counting up the white keys until you get to 5 — that will be A. If you find D on the circle, you can see that the next clockwise letter is A.

If you start at a top of the circle and go clockwise, you can see that by progressing from segment to segment that you keep adding one sharp at a time to the key signature. When you get to the very bottom of the circle, you can see what we call “enharmonic” notation – this just means that those two key signatures are different ways of writing the same thing. Here’s why: there are seven pitches in a scale on which a key is based (scale is the arrangement of pitches in order, key is how those pitches are used to make harmonized music). When you hit seven of either flats or sharps, it’s actually simpler to write it another way (7 sharps is enharmonic with 5 flats; 7 flats is enharmonic with 5 sharps — enharmonic notation means there are two different ways of writing the same sound). The fewer sharps or flats, the easier it is to read, so this particular chart doesn’t list the 7 sharp/flat enharmonics. They are very rarely used because they are unnecessarily hard to read.

But the enharmonics make the chart work. Because you can write the same sound of key in either flats or sharps, the enharmonic notation lets you switch to the flat side, so when you keep going up the left side of the circle, the key signatures are in flats. By the time you get back to the top, you’ve gone through major keys starting on every pitch in the Western scale (or, if you want minor keys, you can go around the interior of the segments; but “Electric Version” doesn’t do that). In other words, you’ve hit every major sound world in tonal music by counting in 5s.

Why fifths? you might ask, if I haven’t already lost you. Is it because of the notation? Well, not exactly. It’s kind of a chicken and egg question about the notation and I won’t attempt to address that here. But the reason the circle of fifths is such a compelling progression is that in Western tonal music, we tend to define our keys by the relationship to the tonic – the main chord/primary pitch of a key and its fifth (also called the dominant). If I were to sit down on the piano and play tonic, dominant, tonic – or I-V-I, the first degree, the fifth and back to the first, and were to ask you which chord sounded like it was more important, the better stopping place, you’d say “I.” That’s because of years of training in listening that you didn’t even know you had – pretty much every song you’ve ever heard does this. The other reason that the circle of fifths works well as a progression is that each adjacent segment shares a pitch with the segment on either side of it. That means you can hold over one pitch while changing the other two. This gives some continuity and makes chord changes sound smooth and easy on the ear.

Anyway, a standard circle of fifths progression is one that goes one way or another around the circle stopping at each key on the way. In the case of “The Electric Version,” the progression doesn’t go in order, but is instead an ordered pattern around the right side of the circle. The opening chord progression starts on E, moves up one to B, then back 3 to D, then up 1 to A, then back 3 to C. At this point the progression changes in a way that lets it cycle back to the beginning of the pattern and repeat over and over through all the verses of the song, inserting A and B chords, which are repeats of chords already heard in the progression, before continuing with the progression to G. Here’s the whole progression, so you can see it:


But in any case, the circle of fifths progression plays on our notion of cadence and where music is “supposed to” stop. We tend to hear motion by fifth as a cadence, declaring a key (or at least a temporary stopping point). But when music moves continually by 5s, then it gets confusing. Your ear no longer can tell where it’s “supposed to” stop. It’s sort of the aural equivalent of blindfolded sky diving – you lose track of where you are, and you don’t know when you’re going to stop.

The other way we know what key we are in is by listening for the 7th degree of the scale, which should be a half step below the name of the key. We call this pitch the leading tone, because when you stop on it, you desperately want it to lead back to the 1st degree or tonic. The other way “Electric Version” undermines your sense of key is by flatting or lowering the 7th degree of the scale, meaning there is no longer a leading tone.

I want to hear this song in E Major, but without D#, it doesn’t quite sound like it. The jumpy vocal line doesn’t help either. And throw in that circle of fifths progression, and you don’t really know where you are until the very end when the choral vocal “bah-bahs” finally provide the leading tone. Although even in this case, it sounds almost unintentional, as if the vocalists were trying to sing flat 7 but, thanks to years of experience with leading tones, are having a hard time holding it down.

The next question I would ask would be, “why?” Why undermine the sense of harmony? Why knock the listener off balance in this particular way? It could be that The New Pornographers just thought it sounds cool, which it does. But are they trying to support some textual meaning as well? Here are the lyrics:

The sound of god is the screech of tires
Lights and magnets, bolts and wires
Strayed from the road, this very one
Still to come

The sound of tires is the sound of god
Electric version
The power and blood will pulse through your song

Just as long as it sounds lost
Streaming out of the magnet sun

Strung together like Christmas lights
Twelve whole seconds of hist’ry might
Lead you from where you went off the track
Welcome back

Our electric version calls
You alone to create the full
Spectrum of light
So what could go wrong?

Just as long as it sounds lost
Streaming out of the magnet sun

The card you’re dealt by the crowd goes wild
Make believe you are an only child
Here are the clothes
Please put them on

Still to come
A new parade of faith and sparks
The electric version harks
Back to the day when there was no wrong

Just as long as it sounds lost
Streaming out of the magnet sun

Like most New Pornographers lyrics, it borders on surrealism. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of Frankenstein story, but I don’t have a lot of evidence to back that up — it’s just my interpretation of the collection of images suggested by the lyrics. But the repeated line “just as long as it sounds lost” seems to me to be underscored by the way the song is harmonized. It does sound lost, although tethered to some central control. And that’s exactly why this song has had some staying power as a favorite for me.

Thanks for bearing with me for 30(+) days. If I’ve learned anything from the process, it’s that I still love to write about music and it’s been great to write about it in a mostly non-scholarly way. I plan to do more music blogging in the future, but I think I’ll be taking a break from memes for a little while. It seems like there are about to be plenty of things to write about.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 3:25 pm

    Wow. I feel like I’m back in college. Truth to tell, I knew all of this once upon a time, but I’ve forgotten all but little bits. I will re-read this sometime when I’m not having a 2 minute google reader break when I should be working. 🙂

  2. June 30, 2011 6:52 am

    This is the best explanation of the circle of fifths I’ve ever seen. I didn’t pick up on that in the song, but knowing makes it even better!

  3. June 30, 2011 9:35 am

    I love when you speak music theory. I am pathetically not fluent, but you make it sound so clear. Plus, I love the New Pornographers and Broken Bells. The latter is such a great collaboration.

  4. June 30, 2011 8:55 pm

    Thanks! Although I have a feeling my friend M, who is a music theorist by trade and who reads here occasionally, is going to take me to task for my sloppy work. There is a lot of conjecture here, but this is how I hear it. Anyone who wishes to argue with my interpretation is more than welcome.

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