Smart Speakers, Dumb Music

Non-music-geeks may want to turn the page right here….

Yay: We all now have "smart" speakers, miracles that can play any song we desire, instantly upon verbal command. This would have been the stuff of hallucinogenic visions 30 years ago, when the notion even of remote-controlled skip and search seemed like science fiction. The technological complexity and mother-ship AI this manifests are truly staggering. You could undoubtedly launch a mission to Mars with a fraction of the MIPS represented by the acceptance of, and response to, a simple command like "Play the Hot 100."

Instead, what do you get? Instant-gratification playback -- admittedly, bandwidth- and level-limited, and point-sourced-but-heavily-reprocessed-to-simulate-stereo -- of something like the current number one hit, Drake's "God's Plan," whose musical interest stretches all the way from G to A-minor and back again, 3 minutes and 18 seconds of a ii-I vamp with a two-note ground bass.

Okay, I get it: minimalism. What was good for Terry Riley at Mills College in the 70's is good for Billboard in the 20-teens, right?

Let's try another: Number Two (with a bullet): Ed Sheeran's "Perfect." A sappy ballad whose verse harmony, I-iii-IV-V follows the template of dozens, nay scores, of 50's and 60's bubblegum and R&B slow-dances. (The chorus, vi-IV-V, still in the home key, is no more adventurous.)

But that's only three out of 100, so for a random check we'll move down to Number Ten, something called "Stir Fry" by someone calling themselves Migos. This is a one-note vamp (the note, daringly, is A natural, the "tuner" note) with a sprechstimme vocal covering the demanding range of a major third -- heavily Vocoder'd for that required robot sheen. (Yes, I know it's some flavor of rap, or post-rap, or RB-rap, or whatever it's known as this week.)

Now, let me slip on my old-guy mules and plaid bathrobe, knock out my pipe, and compare this to something like George Harrison's brilliant, 40-year-old oddity "Wah-Wah," a song that's been ear-worming me for more than a week since I happened to surf across one of those interminable PBS-fundraiser re-broadcasts of the Concert for George. Harrison's songwriting, from "Don't Bother Me" forward, has invariably featured a vinegary tang of unexpected chromaticism. Take another early title, "If I Needed Someone," where it's manifested by the mixolydian, drone-y I-to-flat-VII verse's descending D-C#-C-natural found in the inner voice of the vocal harmony, followed by a sharply contrasting, plainly diatonic ii-V-iv-V bridge.

Leaving aside its cryptic lyrics, "Wah-Wah" is even stronger proof that George heard through a highly idiosyncratic ear, with harmony that continues to challenge me decades on. The song is in E major, beginning with four bars of resonant E chord; the changes then proceed through G#, F#, f#(minor), and B7, all of which perhaps boils down to a standard ii-V cadence, but in a more elaborate version of III-VI-ii-V, a sequence familiar from a million banjo-strummed Tin-Pan Alley songs -- except with the iv chord skipped altogether, and the II chord only dropped into the minor after a full bar. Maybe -- at least, I think I could defend this interpretation.

But then things get strange. Instead of resolving from B7 (V) to E (I), Harrison moves to a D7 chord, whose only harmonic function in an E-major tonality, usually, is as a pivot chord (V-of-IV) to the subdominant, here an A chord -- to which it emphatically does not move. Instead, George slides the D7 up to an E7 in the third inversion (that is, keeping the note D, the seventh degree of E, in the bass), while also retaining the C-natural, to make an augmented-seventh chord that would seem to presage the expected modulation to A for a chorus or bridge in the subdominant key, a common device. (The contrast-section, chorus, bridge, "middle-eight" or whatever of popular songs -- and for that matter classical lieder as well -- is often centered upon the fourth degree (subdominant) of the home key, about as far away, harmonically, as you can get without actually changing keys.) The song eventually does break for a bridge of a IV-I, a subdominant A-to-E vamp with a somehow weirdly appropriate calypso feel -- but not here. Instead, George simply resolves the C down to B and moves the bass up from D to E to return to the strong E major chiming: da capo (from the beginning). It totally works, but what the hell?

I've been puzzling over what's happening here, and have developed a theory, probably incorrect, that the D7 chord functions, more or less as a "German sixth" chord, with the subsequent augmented-7 chord with E in the bass as a passing chord to its resolution back to E-major. (The German Sixth is one identity of an augmented-sixth, dominant-of-the-dominant harmony. Another guy who loved the German chord and indeed all the augmented-sixths like a rummy loves Old Grand-Dad? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.)

Anyway, that's my theory, and I'm sticking to it. Of course, Harrison contemplated none of this spurious theory stuff. He never read Piston, or Schoenberg, or Schenker: he simply moved his fingers around on the fretboard -- given its progression and harmonic positions, "Wah-Wah" was clearly written on guitar -- until they gave him something new that tickled his cochlea. And I, for one, am glad it wasn't five minutes of ii-I vamp.

John_Werner's picture

I'll just say you have a brilliance I lack. I love music and I can't identify the actual notes and keys. I can notice when the octave changes of course, but I digress. I suspect your points are well made indeed. I'll just add I was fortunate enough to begin my musical journey in the sixties and for a very young person I was exposed to a lot of great pop and rock for almost two decades. Something bad happened in the eighties though. Things began to go south in pop/rock perhaps except for alt country which did progress the blend of folk and west coast country rock. It wasn't enough though. The nineties and the crash of the music industry (including radio which still had wobbly legs) seemed to finish off the dream that the great music of an era could continue. At sixty I've decided it's no use other than to mine the vaults. Whatever the reason modern pop/rock/hip hop sucks and it goes beyond 3 chords which when used well were golden.