One of the more memorable evaluations I ever received for my second-semester freshman music theory course contained the line, “Chords, chords, so many chords!” Much of music theory as it’s taught in school, particularly if your instructor teaches from certain textbooks, is based on chords. So when music isn’t heavily reliant upon chords (and, in many traditions, it often isn’t), the student who’s just been through the first year of music theory might mistakenly think there isn’t much to say about how it’s constructed.
Let’s challenge that notion with a look at Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which contains few chord changes in the traditional sense. We’ll push ourselves to see what we can come up with to say about the song, and we’ll discuss what doing so reveals about the limitations of looking at music the way we have throughout much of this website.
Like many great pop songs, “Single Ladies” is based upon seemingly simple, sing-songy melodies. Here’s one.
And here’s another.
I say “seemingly” above because these melodies sound a lot simpler than they actually are, as we can see when we notate their rhythms. The swung rhythms throughout the song, such as the bouncing long-short motives in the first example, create a layer of complexity that isn’t obvious at first listen.
Still, there’s something to be said for the straightforward, sing-song quality of these melodies — there’s a reason some commentators noted their similarity to “schoolyard double-dutch chants,” and there’s a reason this exists. Notice the paths of these melodies – the way the first begins on the fifth degree of E major and descends straightforwardly to the root of the scale, and the way the second dances around only the first three degrees of the scale. The trajectories of these melodies, coupled with the syncopated handclap percussion, indeed evoke a playground chant. The song’s somewhat taunting chorus (“If you liked it, then you should’ve put a ring on it”) also contributes to that impression, even though the lyrics deal with adult subject matter.
The first 35 seconds or so of the song don’t have chord changes in the usual sense. If we had to label these 35 seconds, we would probably just put an E chord over the entire passage, but even that is merely implied (by a repeating E subtly beeping in the background) and not stated. Beyonce does perhaps imply the presence of the I and V chords in E with her harmonization of the word “attention,” as the melody descends from G# (a note from the I chord) to F# (a note from the V chord), but even those harmonizations are not literally I and V chords.
When the first chorus enters, a squelching electronic sound fades into the foreground, seemingly independent of the vocal that guides the song. The sound serves as a warning shot – it’s telling us that although the melody may be straightforward, the accompaniment will not play nice.
The squelching sound also reveals an important principle about the song’s construction — “Single Ladies” will feature multiple musical layers that interact unpredictably. That music can be made this way is probably fairly obvious to many people who create music electronically, but I haven’t discussed that way of thinking about music very much elsewhere on this site.
A conventional music theory education would include plenty of discussion of counterpoint, which deals with interaction patterns between multiple semi-independent musical lines. I haven’t addressed counterpoint on this site, either, because it’s arguably of limited use in pop music. It wouldn’t even be very helpful to understanding what’s going on in “Single Ladies.” But it does suggest a way of thinking about music that’s quite different from the approach I’ve taken here at Popgrammar, which essentially has been to think about chords as the foundations upon which songs are built. “Single Ladies” simply isn’t constructed around chords.
The chorus repeats beginning at about 0:50, which is when the really strange things start happening.
The melody makes perfect sense given what we’ve already seen – it bounces along in the key of E major. But what is the C natural in the accompaniment? It appears rather suddenly and seems to point to the key of E minor, rather than E major. It’s not uncommon for songs to toggle back and forth between a major key and its parallel minor (as we discussed in the chapter on borrowed chords). But this song doesn’t do that, since the E major melody seems oblivious to the strange thing that’s happening underneath it. (Try singing the melody while playing the bottom line – it should feel strange.) One analysis of “Single Ladies” describes this as an example of “polymodality” – we are in two E modes (major and minor) at the same time.
The vocal harmonies — richer than before now that we’re in the chorus — also sing the C natural. You can hear it most prominently on “it” in “Don’t be mad when you see that he want it” at 0:58. The C in the vocal harmony creates a tritone against the F# in the melody, contributing to a sense of tension that doesn’t let up until the chorus ends and the layer with the C natural stops.
The mere presence of a few C naturals might not be enough to convince you of that we’re essentially in E major and E minor simultaneously, but look at what happens in the bridge (2:00).
We’re clearly in E natural minor here, and as if to make that clear, Beyonce spins around a prolonged B7 chord near the end of the bridge, using the V7 chord of E minor to pivot back to the “All the single ladies” chant in E major. The E minor feel that the accompaniment in the chorus suggests, then, is made explicit in the bridge. “Single Ladies” is subtly animated by the presence of a sort of secondary mode competing with the main mode of the song, and on the bridge, Beyonce finally really lets that secondary mode out to play.
Next chapter: 23. Mariah Carey, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”