Listening to Classic American Popular Songs

Listening to Classic American Popular Songs

by Gary Chapman

ISBN: 9780300083385

Publisher Yale University Press

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


The following brief review of some of the very basic technical material discussed in this book-melody, harmony, form, lyrics, rhythm-is meant to enhance the reader's understanding and, consequently, his or her enjoyment of the discussions of individual songs, particularly those who don't already possess some rudimentary musical knowledge beyond the ability to read music. I do recommend, however, that everyone read the sections on melody and lyrics.


When we hear and see in music notation the topography of a particular melody, we can refer to the ordinary scale as a convenient and useful arrangement of notes, since it provides a specific way of locating the musical-spatial position of a note in a given key. Associated with these positions, called scale degrees, are consecutive numbers representing each note of the scale, as shown in Ex. 1-1.

In addition to describing the position of a note within the scale by scale degree, traditional labels describe certain functions of notes in a key. For our purposes, only two such labels are necessary. Scale degree 1, called the tonic or keynote, functions as a centric pitch in the key, while scale degree 5 is called the dominant.

The distance between adjacent notes of the scale varies between the smallest distance, called the half step, and the next larger distance (two half steps), called the whole step. On a piano keyboard scale degree 1 (Ex. 1-1) is separated from scale degree 2 by another key, the black key (F# or G[flat]). The distance between the two scale degrees is therefore a whole step. The same relation holds between all the adjacent scale degrees except scale degrees 3 and 4 and scale degrees 7 and 8, where there is no intervening key. Accordingly, those distances are half steps. Thus, the major scale, such as that represented in Ex. 1-1, consists of the following series of whole steps and half steps: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. To use more precise terminology, the distance between any two notes, not just those that are adjacent, is called an interval. We will have occasion to use that term often in this book.

Before we introduce a few more terms and concepts, let us consider a portion of an actual melody, Stephen Foster's beautifully timeless encomium, "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair."

As we listen to this melody (Ex. 1-2) we are probably aware of the simple rhythms that emphasize certain notes by longer durations, in particular those indicated by asterisks on Ex. 1-2: scale degrees C, A, and F, in the first four bars, which receive the dotted half note, the half note, and the whole note. We are probably also sensitive to the melodic shapes, such as the setting of "brown hair," with its beautifully expressive ascending motion that contrasts with the basically descending motion of the preceding music. Even more prominent is the dramatic ascent from F to high F on "borne like a zephyr," which is a lovely example of word painting. In short, although an elementary grasp of scale degree terminology is useful, there is more to understanding and appreciating a melody than can be obtained simply by identifying its scale degree constituents.

Melodic Coordinates

Ex. 1-3 takes an important step toward acquiring a deeper grasp of the special characteristics of "Jeannie." It contains annotations that identify certain key moments in the first two phrases of the song. The first of these moments is simply the first note in the melody, called the headnote, in this case scale degree 6. The close association of this note and the note that follows it, scale degree 5, which acquires special emphasis because of its long duration, is immediately apparent as well.

In bar 3, because the low C is the lowest note in the entire melody, it is marked "nadir." The nadir pitch or note of a song is one of the melodic coordinates that are so important to many in American classic popular songs. And in bar 6, setting the first syllable of "zephyr" is another of the melodic coordinates, the highest note of the song, appropriately labelled "apex."

Singled out by the asterisk in bar 2 is B[flat], scale degree 4. This special note sets the first syllable of "Jeannie," perhaps the most important key word in the lyrics. Because it is surrounded by two occurrences of A, representing the adjacent scale degrees, we can regard B[flat] as a decoration of A. In this capacity it is a note of special status in the song, since it is the only such stepwise adjacency, circumscribed by the notes it decorates. In addition, since this portion of "Jeannie" omits scale degree 7 altogether and since scale degree 4, the decorative note, does not belong to the basic stock of pitches, the foundational scale of the music can be extracted and represented as shown in Ex. 1-4.

Just for the record-and then this exciting information can be stored for later use-the five notes represented as open noteheads in Ex. 1-4 make up the pentatonic scale, a basic formation in the classic American popular song repertoire, of which there are many, very many, instances.

Diatonic and Chromatic Melodic Notes

"Diatonic" describes the notes in the natural scale that are specified by the key signature. Thus, the one flat in the key signature for "Jeannie" rests upon the third line of the staff, occupied by letter-name B. Accordingly, every B in the song is to be lowered a half step, and this alteration does not require any additional symbols in the notation. Thus, the melody of "Jeannie" shown in Ex. 1-2 is completely diatonic, consisting of white keys on the keyboard plus B[flat].

On the other hand, the melody of "Melancholy Baby," described later in this chapter (Ex. 1-5), contains three signs not in the key signature: two sharp signs and a flat sign. Accordingly, the nondiatonic notes to which these symbols apply are called chromatic notes. The first two, F# and G[flat], are inserted between two diatonic notes, filling in the whole step between F and G. These connectors are called passing notes, or, more accurately, chromatic passing notes. The C# in bar 5 (on "up") stands between two notes of the same kind, D's, and serves as an adjacency to the Ds, just as did B[flat] in "Jeannie." Here, however, the adjacency is chromatic. For reasons that fortunately lie deeply buried in the past, sharps and flats other than those in the key signature are called "accidentals." (Of course there is nothing accidental about them; somebody put them there intentionally!)

In a light-hearted vein, Ex. 1-6 uses repetition of diatonic notes to avoid the chromatic notes specified by the accidentals in Ex. 1-5. The reader can judge the aesthetic quality of this emendation compared with the chromatic original. The three repeated notes on "-dle up and" are especially striking in their crudity.

Melodic Contour

Sensitivity to melodic contour is an essential part of listening to classic American popular song: whole steps, half steps, and leaps (or skips) that negotiate intervals larger than the half or whole step contribute to the expressive qualities of a song's melody, sometimes creating melodic contours that are complex. A contour, however, may also be short and sweet. For example, the leap at the beginning of Harold Arlen's "Over The Rainbow" that sets "Somewhere," with its upward and outward projection (Ex. 1-7), clearly expresses a celestial destination by its contour. It captured the ears and hearts of millions of Americans in 1939 and in succeeding generations as well.

Melodic Motives

A melodic motive is a figure, usually of short duration, which, after its initial statement, is repeated later in the melody, perhaps in its original shape or altered in some recognizable way. Ex. 1-8 displays a two-note motive that occurs in "Jeannie" and consists of the first two notes in the melody, D-C, which initially set "I dream." This motivic item, a fragment of the pentatonic scale (Ex. 1-4), returns, reversed, to set "brown" in bar 3, and reappears again in bars 6-7 where it sets "-yr on." When the motive continues, it unfolds the entire pentatonic scale, ending on the syllable "er" in "summer" at the end of bar 7.


Melody alone does not a song make, at least a classic American popular song. Without harmony, an essential ingredient is lacking. A few basics in this area will enable the reader to follow important parts of the discussions of individual songs in Part II. Let's begin with chords. Ex. 1-9 shows the notation for a famous pre-World War I melody, "My Melancholy Baby," which fairly drips with sentiment but which nevertheless has some very affective chord changes. These are notated in two ways on Ex. 1-9: above the upper or treble staff are chord symbols, such as A7 in bars 3 and 4, which are fully notated on the lower or bass staff. The chord symbols are standard shorthand for the fully notated chords and are used on the musical examples throughout the present volume for the convenience of the reader.

Major and Minor Chords

We draw a basic distinction between chords that are major and those that are minor. Note that these designations do not imply a qualitative difference. Minor chords are every bit as good as major chords, sometimes better. Abbreviations are used in connection with the chord symbols to indicate their major or minor affiliations: "min" stands for minor and "maj" for major. Makes sense, doesn't it? For instance, on Ex. 1-9 the chord symbol Dmin is prominently featured in the second four-bar phrase.

There is a very audible difference between the two types of chords. To illustrate, Ex. 1-10 displays a C major chord-so called because C is the lowest note in the bass-which is adjacent to a C minor chord. They differ by only one note: E in the major chord changes to E[flat] in the minor chord. However, the difference between the musical effect of a major sonority and that of a minor sonority is remarkable, and in the classic American popular song we find that the expressive purposes to which this contrast is put are just as extraordinary-and, moreover, diversified. For example, although one usually thinks of minor as eliciting a feeling of sorrow, or perhaps at least despondency, there are many counter-instances in the repertoire of American popular song. Irving Berlin's joyous "Blue Skies" (1927) begins on a minor harmony, to cite but one instance.

As usual, lyrics provide clues to expressive interpretation. We can hear the effect of a minor chord in "My Melancholy Baby" (Ex. 1-9) when, in bar 3, the D minor chord sets the line "Cuddle up and don't be blue." Here the minor sonority clearly helps depict "blueness," and generations of Americans have intuitively understood that connection.

Major and Minor Keys

Just as we have major and minor chords we have major and minor keys, familiar to all from works such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major and learned identifications by music critics and classical disc jockeys. For reasons that exceed my powers of explanation, most classic American popular songs are in major keys. Although it begins on a minor sonority, Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," ends in a major key. The same is true for many other songs. For example, Cole Porter's beautiful love song, "Easy To Love," begins with an A minor chord as though it would continue in the key of A minor, but the actual key turns out to be G major. Songs that sustain a minor key throughout are therefore cause for special attention (and perhaps even alarm).

For our purposes, "key" is synonymous with "tonality" and designates the primary scale and tonic triad to which all the harmonic and melodic events in the song ultimately relate.

Seventh Chords

Because they color and enhance the expressive harmony of virtually every song in the repertoire of classic American popular music, seventh chords deserve serious but limited attention. We will deal only with the basic kinds of seventh chord, leaving the more exotic species for later study-in another book.

Dominant Seventh Chord

Seventh chords come in five types: dominant seventh, minor seventh, diminished seventh, half-diminished seventh, and major seventh. Let us consider each type, beginning with the dominant seventh. This chord may be approached, warily, as an arrangement of intervals. Ex. 1-11a shows how we might construct such a chord, beginning with the dominant scale degree G in the key of C (at 1 on Ex. 1-11a). To this note we then add a note a seventh above it, traversing the seven scalar notes beginning on G to arrive on F (G-A-B-C-D-E-F). Notice the neat correspondence of the span of seven scalar notes and the interval of the seventh. Does this seem accidental? I hasten to say that it is not.

Now (at 2 on Ex. 1-11a) we have in place the crucial interval of a seventh (from G to F) that will begin to identify the completed chord as a representative of the dominant seventh type. Note that I emphasize "type" here, since dominant sevenths need not begin on the dominant note in the key, but may attach themselves to other scale degrees, as does the A7 in bars 3 and 4 of Ex. 1-9. This A7 is a chord of the dominant seventh type, although it is not the dominant seventh in the key of C. In fact, the dominant seventh chord in C is the one we are in the process of constructing right now.

To continue, with the interval of the seventh, G-F, firmly in place, as shown in Ex. 1-11a at 2, we need only add two additional notes to complete the arrangement of intervals that will qualify this chord to present itself anywhere in the world as an authentic, bona fide, and certified specimen of the dominant seventh type. Thus, at 3 in Ex. 1-11a we add a note, B, to create the interval of a third above the lowest note, G, sometimes called the "root" of the chord, perhaps reflecting the humble agrarian origins of many Americans. And at 4 in Ex. 1-11a, a final note, D, creates the interval of a fifth above the bass, completing the collection of intervals that forms the dominant seventh chord. Again, remember that this type of chord may occur in contexts where it does not function as the dominant seventh chord in the key of a particular song, that is, as a chord constructed upon the scalar dominant note and placed in a context that verifies its dominant function.


Excerpted from "Listening to Classic American Popular Songs" by Gary Chapman. Copyright © 2001 by Gary Chapman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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