Introducing Musical Meaning through Popular Music
When analyzing challenging texted art music, all too often the act of labeling a concept (for example, “common-tone modulation”) can mislead students into thinking that the label is the end of the story. Several factors, such as difficulty in identifying concepts that are new to them, possibly foreign text, and esoteric poetry, contribute to students’ reluctance to form interpretations of meaning. Discussing musical meaning first with music that is more familiar, such as popular music, will help them appreciate deeper meanings in texted art music.
This paper considers the generation of meaning from two sources: voice-leading factors and the key scheme. The songs chosen represent topics—non-resolution of tendency tones, the reciprocal process, meaning in the key scheme, and common-tone mediant modulations—typically taught near the end of an undergraduate music theory sequence. The non-resolution of tendency tones plays a large role in the creation of musical meaning. The Beatles’s “Please Please Me” exploits the avoidance of leading tone to tonic voice leading to produce different meanings. Blondie’s “Dreaming” introduces the reciprocal process. The Rays’s “Silhouettes” presents a pop-song modulation, while Ray Charles’s “That Lucky Old Sun” contains a common-tone modulation; both modulations are closely associated with the lyrics. Examples from art music, especially Schubert’s Sehnsucht, D. 310, are considered as well. Once the students apply the concept of musical meaning to more stylistically familiar music, they become more receptive to the analysis of meaning in the perhaps less familiar art music repertoire.
I begin with an anecdote describing an activity that has not worked in my classroom. Mid-to-late in the third semester of music theory (chromatic harmony and form), the class has just spent 40 minutes toughing out a Roman-numeral analysis of Schubert’s Sehnsucht, D. 310 (Examples 8a and 8b, below). They’ve identified the D-flat minor chord in measure 5 as an example of modal mixture (a topic they learned two weeks ago); they’ve teased out the enharmonically reinterpreted leading tone seventh chord pivot in measure 9 (a topic they learned one week ago); they’ve recognized the common-tone/chromatic mediant modulation from A-flat major to C-flat major in measures 11–12 (a topic from the last class); and they’ve learned how to use the German augmented sixth in measure 17 as a position-finding chord that points toward C minor, even though C minor never materializes (a new topic!). On top of all that, they navigate the enharmonically spelled keys in this Lied: B major is the same key as C-flat, and they both function as bIII in the key of A-flat major! Now, with their heads reeling, you ask, what could the significance of the key of bIII be to the meaning of the song? I usually get a combination of very confused looks and glazed eyes.
Introducing meaning in texted music through these magnificent art songs seems like a logical thing to do. Indeed, many commonly used textbooks either pepper their chapters on chromatic techniques with examples from art songs, or else devote entire chapters to them. Introducing meaning in this way, however, can be problematic for two somewhat contradictory reasons. Sometimes the student works very hard to come up with the “label” of the technique in question, and therefore the student thinks that the label is the point of the analysis. Such labeling, however, is merely the first descriptive step on the way to a meaningful analysis.1 Rogers, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, 74–5 Alternatively, the very notion that the technique has a “label” can mislead the student into thinking that the moment in the music is standard, and as a result not worthy of further interpretation. The latter problem especially is exacerbated if the student is less familiar with the Lied repertory: the language is foreign, the poem esoteric, the chromatic concepts are new and complicated, even the sound of the music could be unfamiliar.
Many educators identify making connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar as a successful strategy. Ivan Jimenez identifies several such studies in his article “Maximizing the Benefits of Using Familiar Music in Undergraduate Music Theory.”2Jimenez, “Maximizing the Benefits of Using Familiar Music,” 1. His article focuses on solving specific pedagogical problems (identifying augmented seconds and beginning counterpoint) through association with familiar folk and classical music examples. In her teaching, Melissa Hoag draws on examples from repertoire that her students are currently performing as well as familiar examples from popular music and jazz; to Hoag, “incorporating repertoire that has immediate relevance to students’ musical experiences greatly helps the importance and applicability of theory and aural skills come alive for students.”3Hoag, “Seven Strategies for Enabling Student Success,” 12. Ken Stephenson cites the use of popular music in the theory classroom as a way to “make theory class more relevant,” “increase a class’s enthusiasm,” and “provide inroads to certain topics because of the students’ familiarity with the music.”4Stephenson, “Popular Music in the AP Music Theory Classroom.” Similarly to the works discussed above, this article approaches pedagogical issues through association with popular music; while the students might not be familiar with the specific songs chosen, the more familiar style of popular music makes them more accessible.
Applying notions of musical meaning to unfamiliar music can be intimidating for students. For this reason, as well as the reasons given by the teacher-scholars discussed above, I introduce musical meaning with popular music styles that are more familiar to the students before applying the concept of meaning to the art song repertory. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the generation of meaning from voice-leading factors and the key scheme in several popular songs, including the Beatles’s “Please Please Me,” Blondie’s “Dreaming,” the Rays’s “Silhouettes,” and Ray Charles’s version of Beasley Smith’s “That Lucky Old Sun.” Through these songs, students will be introduced to the meaning implicit in several compositional devices: the (non)resolution of tendency tones, the reciprocal process, the key scheme, and common-tone mediant modulations.
These topics are all transferable to the study of meaning in nineteenth-century music. The discussion of each device below begins with an example from a familiar popular style, then provides several examples from art music of the nineteenth century that use the same or a similar device that can elicit an interpretation of meaning. The instructor should take care to point out both the parallels and the differences in the use of the device between the popular style examples and the art music examples so that the students will understand that the device, and its potential to create meaning, transcends the style. By first discovering these devices that create meaning in familiar styles, students are more likely to recognize the devices in the less familiar style of nineteenth-century art music and become more comfortable forming their own interpretation of the meaning of the music.
Meaning and Tendency Tones
According to Walter Everett, “the Beatles’s early music displays a substantial variety of dissonance treatment and a rich exploitation of scale-degree functions...usually in an unambiguous setting of an idea in the poetic text.”5Everett, “Voice Leading and Harmony as Expressive Devices,” 20. “Please Please Me,” the title song of the Beatles’s 1963 debut album, could be a study in the exploitation of the leading tone.6Schiano, “Theory Seminar: Music of the Beatles.” The avoidance of the tonic pitch, especially of the leading tone ascending to the tonic over a tonic harmony, musically embodies the frustration of the singer, whose girl will not “please” him. Example 1a shows the lyrics.
Words and Music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney
[Verse 1] Last night I said these words to my girl,
I know you never even try, girl.
[Chorus] Come on, Come on, Come on, Come on,
Please, please me, wo yeah, like I please you.
[Verse 2] You don’t need me to show the way, love,
Why do I always have to say, love.
[Bridge] I don’t want to sound complaining,
But you know there’s always rain in my heart.
I do all the pleasing with you,
it’s so hard to reason with you,
wo yeah, why do you make me blue?
[Verse 3] Last night I said these words to my girl,
I know you never even try, girl.
[Coda] Wo yeah, like I please you,
Wo yeah, like I please you.
After the students listen to the song without, then with, the score, they can locate all instances of the leading tone in the vocal line and describe its behavior. All the sections in the song—the introduction, verses, chorus, and bridge—avoid ascending to the tonic pitch over tonic harmony (Examples 1b and 1c; while I would not introduce the sketches in a third-semester undergraduate class, they are provided here for convenience). In the introduction, the harmonica and lead guitar line descend stepwise before arpeggiating from scale-degree to , leaving out the lower tonic. The vocal line in the verses echoes the stepwise line from the introduction and sets up the Kopfton on , leaving out the final skip to the mediant. The effect of the omission of the lower tonic in the introduction, and the mediant and tonic in the verses, can be demonstrated by having the students sing it both as written and with the lower tonic included (in the verses, the students can give the girl a name to fill out the lyrics: “...to my girl Eileen” where “Ei-leen” drops from to ). The complete arpeggiation sounds more closed and final than the written version.
The “Come on” section in the chorus complements the main line in the verse by ascending; the melody quests upwards and achieves the line –––(B–C#–D#–E). The melody achieves leading-tone to tonic motion, but the leading tone is not supported, and the final tonic scale degree occurs over the subdominant A major harmony. On the lyrics “Please please,” the vocal line “pleads” with an upward octave leap on the dominant pitch, and the line ends with another frustrated leading tone from to . Again, the effect of recomposing the music to end on to at the lyrics “like I please you” is much different, more satisfying, than the written version.
The bridge and coda continue to frustrate the leading tone. Example 1c shows the bridge, which is inserted between the Verse 2/Chorus and Verse 3. The antecedent ascends from to , then descends ––. The structure of this line promises a C#–D#–E ascent (––) in the next phrase; but instead, the leading tone descends to yet again and overshoots the tonic with another octave leap to the upper dominant. If the line ended D# to E on “reason with you,” the effect would be completely different. In the coda, the frustration of the leading tone to either the lower or the upper dominant repeats three times, and the song ends with an upper vocal line echoing the skip from to found in the introduction, that again does not descend to the tonic. With the tonic goal either frustrated or overshot each time, the progression of – seems to represent a taboo area that is what the singer wants, but is not getting.
In Please, Please Me, the nonresolution of the leading tone represents literal emotional and/or sexual frustration. By exploring this song, students will learn that composers manipulate tonal tendencies to create meaning, and in this texted example, to effect the meaning of the lyrics. This concept of meaning can then be extended to non-texted music, where the nonresolution of tendency tones may carry different, more nuanced meanings. For example, Edward T. Cone uses voice-leading factors to extract meaning from Schubert’s Moment Musical no. 6 (op. 94, D. 780, 1824) in his 1982 article “Schubert’s Promissory Note: An Exercise in Musical Hermeneutics.” In his analysis, Cone cites a locally unresolved secondary leading tone; the non-resolution of the leading tone begs for a resolution later in the piece and encourages a long-distance aural connection of the leading tone and its note of resolution. Cone eventually interprets the meaning of this “promissory note” as the “injection of a strange, unsettling element into an otherwise peaceful situation...the element has not been tamed; it bursts out with even greater force, revealing itself as basically inimical to its surroundings, which it proceeds to demolish.”7Cone, “Schubert’s Promissory Note,” 239–40. Additionally, Robert Hatten explores the bass motion of #––during the chord succession V/V–V–I6 in the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 4 in E-flat Major, op. 7/ii as an instance of “‘willed’ resignation...[that] may suggest the more refined concept of abnegation.”8Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven, 58–60. In this case, the frustration of the secondary leading tone progresses to a later transcendence.
For both the popular music example and the art music examples, the nonresolution of the leading tone is a device loaded with potential for interpreting meaning. The meaning ascribed to it is already ingrained in the words we use to describe it: the tendency of the leading tone is “unfulfilled,” or “frustrated.” In the art music examples, the tendency is initially unfulfilled, then later resolved. The eventual resolution of the hanging leading tone is then assigned more significance. In the popular song, however, the leading tone never resolves, so that the protagonist is left perpetually unfulfilled. In the next popular example, however, the leading tone does eventually resolve, underscoring the importance of the moment of resolution as in the art music examples above.
The Reciprocal Process
Blondie’s 1979 hit “Dreaming” offers an opportunity to introduce the reciprocal process as well as continue the exploration of manipulating tendency tones.9Justin London’s analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 song “One Step Up” also contains an instance of the reciprocal process as well as a clever interpretation of the bass line that reflects the lyrics of the refrain. “One Step Up,” 112. “Dreaming” avoids leading tone to tonic voice leading in the verse, saving it for the chorus. The lyrics (Example 2a) contrast the world of reality in the verses with the dream world of the chorus.
Example 2a: “Dreaming,” Chris Stein & Debbie Harry, Lyrics
You could tell I was no debutante
You asked me what's my pleasure, a movie or a measure
I'll have a cup of tea, And tell you all my
[Chorus] Dreaming, dreaming is free(etc.)
[Verse 2] I don't want to live on charity
Pleasure's real or is it fantasy?
Reel to reel is living rarity, people stop and stare at me
We just walk on by, we just keep on dreaming
[Bridge] Feet feet, walking a two mile
Meet meet, meet me at the turnstile
I never met him, I'll never forget him
Dream dream, even for a little while
Dream dream, filling up an idle hour
Fade away, radiate
[Verse 3] I sit by and watch the river flow
I sit by and watch the traffic go
Imagine something of your very own,Something you can have and hold
I'd build a road in gold, Just to have some
[Chorus] Dreaming, dreaming is free (etc.)
In the verse, the singer speaks of an actual meeting, whose reality is brought home in the second line, “you could tell I was no debutante.” The verse is structured like a sentence, where the first two lines are a basic idea and its repetition; see Example 2b. Like the Beatles’s “Please Please Me,” the basic ideas of the verse descend, this time from scale-degree . In the fragmented continuation, the descent from to is teased, but denied twice by leaps away from scale-degree : on “pleasure” leaps up to (E to A), on “movie or a measure” leaps down to while the “measure” avoids the tonic area by leaping from up to (B to F#). The song achieves a descent to tonic melodically on “I’ll have a cup of tea,” a moment that is also a turning point in the lyrics (in each verse, the singer turns from observation to action). The tonic pitch isn’t given tonic support, however, until the chorus, where the leading tone progresses to the tonic over dominant to tonic harmony, right on the word “Dreaming.” The implication of the voice leading is that resolution occurs only in a dream, while reality is spent trying to get to that dream.
In his article “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form,” Christopher Doll identifies what he terms a “breakout chorus” as a “standard compositional option;” such a chorus “convey[s] an increase in intensity with respect to various parameters, including loudness, lyrical content, pitch level (both melodic and harmonic), rhythmic and textural activity, and timbral noise.”10 Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.” The chorus in “Dreaming” could be described as an “anti-breakout chorus,” since the pitch level via its resolution to the tonic decreases in intensity. Rather than the chorus, what breaks out in this song is the bridge section (“Feet, feet, walkin’ a two mile”). The entrance of the bridge stands out since it seemingly interrupts the chorus. Here the drums change into a more standard rock’n’roll pattern, while the vocal line is quicker, and its rhythm switches from emphasizing beat one to emphasizing beat two. In addition, C-naturals in this vocal line suggest a different tonal center: G rather than D. The sketch in Example 2c shows the bridge, with the Urlinie reconfigured in G major.
In the same article, Doll states that “If we are truly hearing a verse and a chorus [or in this case a verse and a bridge] as establishing different tonal centers, then the decision as to which of these pitch classes is hierarchically superordinate—as to which is the global center—cannot be reached a priori.” In the song “Dreaming,” which is the global center: D major, or G major? “Dreaming” could be considered an example of Guy Capuzzo’s “sectional tonality” with the verses and chorus in D and the bridge in G. In sectional tonality, two equal keys govern, but the first and last keys are the same.11Capuzzo, “Sectional Tonality...in Rock Music,” 159. Rather than beginning and ending in the same key, however, the bridge introduces an ambiguity that casts doubt on the tonality of the final verse and chorus. This ambiguity reflects the reciprocal process, whereby “the listener loses tonal grounding because of conflicting tonal implications that confuse the three harmonic functions (T, PD, and D).”12Laitz, The Complete Musician, 665. The students can experience the reciprocal process by singing the verse’s melody in “Dreaming” using moveable-do solfege in D major, then in G major.
This shift in tonal center is an expressive modulation referred to by Doll: “With analogous changes occurring in other musical parameters, the centric relocations themselves can easily be understood as expressing some sort of extramusical meaning, especially when read against the lyrics.”13Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.” From the lyrics, the singer in the bridge seems to be dreaming (rather than being awake and talking about dreaming, as in the verse). Interestingly, the vocal line in the bridge never progresses from its leading tone F# to its tonic G, which would parallel the chorus’s C# to D, but rather leaps to A (2) at the end of each statement. When the third verse enters, the bridge has invited us to hear it with a new tonic: G; the end of Example 2c shows the beginning of the verse through the lens of G major. Through the reciprocal process, what was motion from the tonic to the subdominant becomes motion from the dominant to the tonic (see the parenthetical Roman numeral analysis under Example 2b). When viewed in G major, the vocal line in the verse progresses from the leading tone F# to the tonic G frequently. The final chorus, then, with its arrival on C# to D, is even more unreal, since the C# takes the singer out of the realm of G major, back to D major. The ambiguity of the global tonic that results from the reciprocal process replicates the singer’s living in two different worlds, and perhaps her eagerness to confuse her dream world with her reality.
The reciprocal process is common in both texted and instrumental music from the nineteenth century. Often this process occurs near the end of the coda in instrumental works, as in Steven Laitz’s example of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude in C Minor, op. 10 no. 12 (1830–32).14Laitz, The Complete Musician, 664. In this piece, the final tonic is major and is approached via a plagal progression, creating the possibility of hearing the final C major chord as either a major tonic or a dominant to F. A similar process occurs at the end of Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G Minor, op. 119 no. 1 (1822; Example 3). In the coda, the G minor tonic chord transforms to G major but is approached with its minor subdominant (C minor).15Robert Bailey describes the iv–I progression as an instance of semitone voice leading; in the music of the nineteenth century, “linear considerations (with either diatonic or semitone voice leading, or both in alternation) more and more take precedence over harmonic ones.” He also claims the progression demonstrates “a principle of reciprocal function characteristic of the musical idiom of the later nineteenth century.” Bailey, “An Analytical Study of the Sketches and Drafts,” 117–19. The final two chords are a second-inversion C minor and G major, which can be heard as either iv–I in G or i–V in C. The ambiguity functions as harmonic preparation for the next Bagatelle in the series, which is in C major; the first chord of the second Bagatelle resolves the inner voices in the same range as the last chord of the first Bagatelle. Because this music is instrumental, any extramusical meaning to be gleaned from the ambiguity is more subjective, but this passage does project an uncertain or dreamlike quality. This subjectivity provides an opportunity for students to develop their own interpretation, armed with technical evidence from the music.
Text provides clues to more specific meanings of the reciprocal process. Like Beethoven’s Bagatelle, tonal ambiguity at the end of the seventh song, “Auf einer Burg,” in Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 39 (rev. 1850), prepares the tonality of the eighth song, “In der Fremde.”16Laitz uses “Auf einer Burg” as an example of the reciprocal process without commenting on its meaning through the text-music relationship. The Complete Musician, 665–6. The song is strophic, where each strophe contains two stanzas of poetry (see Example 4). While the song begins in E minor, the first strophe ends with an explicit tonicization of the subdominant A minor. The second, final strophe cuts off the resolution to A minor to end on a prolonged E major. This E major can be heard as either (or both) the major tonic of the tonality in which the song began, or as a dominant to the next song in A minor.17Such a tonal connection is common in Schumann’s song cycles. John Daverio writes, “Almost without exception, adjacent songs demonstrate a close tonal bond.... Occasionally an inconclusive ending...increases our sense for the necessity of a continuation.” Robert Schumann, 215. The ambiguity relates closely to the poem. The quiet, peaceful forest scene of the first three stanzas contrasts with the image of a cheerful, faraway wedding party in the fourth stanza. The final line introduces a twist:18Such twists occur elsewhere in the cycle as well. The song “Im Walde” “uses disturbing juxtapositions and contrasts to highlight the theme of alienation and deception;” the juxtaposition of a wedding with a hunt causes the question, “Is the wedding a celebration of a loving union, or is it the culmination of a scene of seduction?” Ferris, Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis, 218. the poem reveals that “the lovely bride weeps.”19Although the sequence “Auf einer Burg” into “In der Fremde” seems inevitable due to motivic and harmonic connections, Patrick McCreless offers an intriguing analysis of the cycle with the songs rearranged according to their order of composition. That order puts “Auf einer Burg” as the final song, which pairs with the first song “Waldesgespräch,” in E major. “Song Order,” 24–5. Why does the bride weep? The ambiguity of the reciprocal process introduces the question of whether the bride weeps from joy or despair.
Example 4: “Auf einer Burg,” poem by Joseph Freiher von Eichendorff, translation by Celia Sgroi
Eingeschlafen auf der Lauer
Oben ist der alte Ritter;
Drüber gehen Regenschauer,
Und der Wald rauscht durch das Gitter,
Fallen asleep on his watch
Up there is the old knight;
Rain showers pass by
And the forest murmurs through the bars.
Und versteinert Brust und Krause,
Sitzt er viele hundert Jahre
Oben in der stillen Klause.
Turned to stone are coat and collar,
He has been sitting many hundred years
Up there in his silent refuge.
Alle sind ins Tal gezogen,
Waldesvögel einsam singen
In den leeren Fensterbogen.
Everyone has gone to the valley,
Forest birds sing solitary
In the empty window arches.
Auf dem Rhein im Sonnenscheine,
Musikanten spielen munter,
Und die schöne Braut, se weinet.
Upon the Rhine in sunshine,
Musicians play cheerfully
And the lovely bride weeps.
The most effective pop-song modulations are those that work together with the lyrics to make the meaning of “intensification” more specific. The lyrics of The Rays’s 1957 hit “Silhouettes” are shown in Example 5. In the narrative of the song, a man sees two silhouettes in a window, whom he thinks are his lover and another man in an embrace of infidelity.
Example 5: “Silhouettes,” Frank C. Slay, Jr. & Bob Crew, lyrics
All the shades were pulled and drawn, Way down tight
From within, a dim light cast Two silhouettes on the shade
Oh, what a lovely couple they made
[Verse 2] Put his arms around your waist, Held you tight
Kisses I could almost taste, In the night
Wondered why I'm not the guy Whose silhouette's on the shade
I couldn't hide the tears in my eyes
[Chorus] Silhouettes (silhouettes) etc.
[Verse 3] Lost control and rang your bell, I was sore
Let me in or else I'll beat Down your door
When two strangers who had been Two silhouettes on the shade
Said to my shock You’re on the wrong block
[Verse 4] Rushed down to your house with wings On my feet
Loved you like I never loved You my sweet
Vowed that you and I would be Two silhouettes on the shade
All of our days Two silhouettes on the shade
[Chorus] Silhouettes (silhouettes) etc.
When the singer realizes he’s in the wrong place and the silhouette was made by two strangers, the doo-wop chorus extends the space between verses 3 and 4 while the realization of his lover’s faithfulness sinks in. The chorus effects a modulation from G to A-flat, raising the key a minor second. Immediately afterward, the protagonist rushes to the correct house, “with wings on [his] feet.” The new higher key symbolizes his new state of joy, that is quite distantly related to the lower key, when he was “sore” upset and angry that his lover is unfaithful. The somewhat awkward modulation also reflects his shock and embarrassment at the mistake.
Playing a different version of the song for the students helps emphasize the point that the modulation participates in the narrative of the song. As were many songs from the doo-wop era, this song was recorded by several artists, including Herman’s Hermits in 1965. Their version moves the modulation; after the first two verses and chorus, they insert an instrumental verse and return to the introduction. The modulation occurs very abruptly (without the “clutch,” so to speak) after this instrumental bridge, before the protagonist “Lost control and rang [the] bell.” Knowing The Rays’s version, the static key level between the third and fourth verses during the “realization” moment is disappointing.
By examining the pop-song modulation, students will learn the concept that meaning can arise from the key scheme. While the ascending stepwise modulation is not as common in the art music literature, many nineteenth-century pieces feature modulation by a third. The 1949 song “That Lucky Old Sun,” with music by Beasley Smith and lyrics by Haven Gillespie, provides an example that is more easily transferable to art music. The song includes a pop-song modulation that ascends by minor third; it is also an excellent example of modulation by common tone. Like “Silhouettes,” “That Lucky Old Sun” has several versions available for comparison. This song was first popularized by Frankie Laine in 1949, and it has been covered by such artistic heavyweights as Louis Armstrong (1949), Frank Sinatra (1949), LaVern Baker (1955), Sam Cooke (1957), Aretha Franklin (1962), and on through Jerry Garcia (1991; Jerry’s version of the song is thirteen minutes long!). Some of these artists (Frankie Laine) include the pop-song modulation, while others (Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke) do not. The version that I’ll focus on here is by Ray Charles (1963). Example 6a shows its lyrics.
Example 6a: “That Lucky Old Sun,” Beasley Smith & Haven Gillespie, lyrics
And I work like the devil for my pay
I know that lucky old sun has nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day
[A] I fuss with my woman, and I toil with my kids
I sweat ‘til I'm wrinkled and gray
I know that lucky old sun has nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day
[B] Dear Lord above, don’t you see I'm pinin,'I got tears all in my eyes?
Why don’t you send down that cloud with the, the silver linin,' Lift me up to Paradise,
[A] Show me that river, Why don’t you take me across
And wash all my troubles away?
I know that lucky old sun, now, he’s got nothin' to do
But just roll around Heaven all day.
[B] Good Lord above, can't you know I'm pinin,'Tears all in my eyes?
Send down that cloud with the silver linin,' Lift me to Paradise
[A'] Oh, show me that river, and take me across
Wash all my troubles away
And I know the lucky old sun, now, he’s got nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day.
The narrative of the song contrasts the protagonist’s difficult life of toil with that of the sun, which is portrayed as a carefree entity that endures in paradise regardless of the suffering in the world below. The song has a binary design: AA BA BA'. Structured similarly to The Beatles’s “Please Please Me,” the first two lines of each A section feature different lyrics each time (except for the A', which restates the lyrics of the third A), while the second two lines function as a refrain with the text “That lucky old sun, has nothin’ to do, but roll around heaven all day.” The melodic contour generally ascends from the E-flat tonic scale degree in the first two lines, while the lyrics describe toil, and descends back to tonic during the refrain. The refrain, associated with the sun in paradise, also introduces the blue note G-flat as an upper neighbor ornament to F in the lower octave.
The lyrics in the B section shift from description to a prayer. The melodic line begins with a skip from scale-degree (G) to the upper tonic, then descends to the lower tonic. The second statement (“Why don’t you send that cloud with the silver linin’”) begins the same, but as shown in Example 6b, on “Lift me up to Paradise?” the melody returns to the upper tonic and extends to scale degree ; this is the highest non-ornamental pitch in the song so far, and the culmination on the second scale degree reinforces the restive pleading of the singer. When the A section returns at “Show me that river” back on the lower tonic, the implication is that the singer has returned to the life of toil from the beginning of the song; he has not been saved. At the same time, however, we have seen how his salvation can be achieved: paradise has been glimpsed as an ascension into the upper octave. The choir’s link from the end of B back to A, an ascending scale from scale degree to the upper tonic on the text “Lift me up to Paradise,” solidifies this symbolism. The end of the prayerful B section becomes a structure of promise.
After the third A section on “Show me that river...,” the singer drops out, as though too weary to continue, leaving the choir to begin the prayer in the B section. The singer enters for the second statement, repeating the ascent to F; see Example 6c. This time, however, the F becomes a common tone between the dominant of the first key E-flat major and the dominant of a new key. The transformation of F leads the singer to transcend the old key, to reach beyond and resolve on G-flat, the new tonic. At this climactic moment, the G-flat–F dyad present in the opening refrain reverses itself; what was a blue-note G-flat ornamenting the F is now transformed into the culminating tonic. The implication is that he now sees the river that he’s been asking for; he sees the salvation waiting for him. Here is the fulfillment of the structure of promise.
Ray Charles adds some details after the transcendent modulation that are rich with interpretive potential. While the climax of the song is undoubtedly the ascension to G-flat, he reaches beyond to A-flat and even A-natural on the subsequent “I know...that lucky old sun, now.” The seemingly innocuous addition of “now” has meaning, as though he has seen that salvation awaits after the transcendence to G-flat: “I know...now.” His perception of the sun, whose wait is over, is different; while he still must toil today, he knows that someday he will be like the sun. His improvised “now you say it” to the choir is also telling. Before the transcendence, the choir was not acknowledged by the singer; rather, they filled in for his weariness during the second B section. His addressing them after the transcendence changes their relationship, as though they are a congregation, and he a preacher.
Common-tone modulations abound in nineteenth-century music. One example occurs in the Lied “Widmung,” the first song in Robert Schumann’s song cycle Myrthen, op. 25, written as a wedding gift to Clara. Example 7a shows its text and translation.
Example 7a: “Widmung,” poem by Friedrich Rückert, translated by Emily Ezust
Du meine Wonn’, o du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darin ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab!
You my bliss, o you my pain,
You the world in which I live;
You my heaven, in which I float,
O you my grave, into which
I eternally cast my grief.
Du bist vom Himmel, mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein gutter Geist, mein beßres Ich!
You are bestowed upon me from heaven.
That you love me gives me my worth;
Your gaze transfigures me;
You raise me lovingly above myself,
My good spirit, my better self!
“Widmung” is set in ternary form, where the A section sets the first stanza in A-flat major, and B section sets the second stanza a major third lower in E major (enharmonically bVI). Joining the A and B sections is a common-tone modulation where the tonic A-flat major transforms into the mediant of E major (3; see Example 7b).
Like “That Lucky old Sun,” the modulation in “Widmung” is associated with a reference to death that will bring peace; it occurs after a reference to the grave. In contrast to “That Lucky old Sun,” however, where the modulation ascends a minor third to transcend the toilsome world, this modulation descends a major third to represent settling into a peaceful state. The image of settling is supported by other musical factors as well as the modulation: the vocal melody becomes more linear than the disjunct melody in the A section, it uses longer note values, the perceived meter changes from rapid simple to slower compound, and the accompaniment changes from an arpeggiation in the inner voice to repeated chords in the right hand.23 Rufus Hallmark interprets the accompaniment of the B section as presenting “a prototypical Schumann mood of sincerity, warmth, and tenderness.” “Robert Schumann,” 108. In both songs, the common tone symbolizes a transformation. In Schumann’s song, the protagonist’s love transforms into a peaceful death; in “That Lucky old Sun,” the life of toil transforms into a reward in heaven.
An underlying meaning of both the pop-song modulation and the modulation of a third via a common tone is the idea of transformation. For a standard pop-song modulation, the intensity of the protagonist’s feeling transforms a lower key center to a higher one. For both “That Lucky Old Sun” and Schumann’s “Widmung,” the protagonist’s life is transformed after death, to either a heavenly reward or a peaceful eternity. While not all mediant modulations involve the contrast between life and heaven, the modulation in Schubert’s Sehnsucht could also be viewed in this way.
Application of Concepts of Meaning to Schubert’s Sehnsucht
Once the students have had experience postulating about meaning that arises through voice-leading and modulation with a more familiar style of music, exploring the meaning of nineteenth-century art music will seem less daunting. Admittedly, Schubert’s Sehnsucht is particularly difficult for sophomores to analyze, let alone interpret. Once the task of labeling is finished, however, exploring the meaning is very rewarding. The poem is a monologue that describes the suffering of separation from a loved one (Mignon from her father, but it’s likely many students won’t be familiar with this story). Example 8a shows a translation of the poem; Example 8b is an annotated score of the Lied.
Example 8a: “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,” poem by Goethe, translated by Lawrence Snyder
Weiss, was ich leide!
Allein und abgetrennt
Von aller Freude,
Blick ins ans Firmament
Nach jener Seite.
Alone and cut off
From all joy,
I look into the firmament
In that direction.
Ist in der Weite.
Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiss, was ich leide!
Is far away.
I am reeling,
My entrails are burning.
Only one who knows longing
Knows what I suffer!
In an unambiguous example of text painting, the tonic A-flat major mode begins to erode in measure 4 right on the word “leide,” or “suffer;” here the major third C passes through C-flat to B-flat at the half cadence. The C-flat impacts the next measure, which introduces F-flat for a modally-mixed minor subdominant chord, on the word “Allein” or “alone.” The C-flat itself foreshadows the next key, C-flat major (bIII), respelled as B major for convenience. After a return to the tonic key of A-flat in measure 9, the music employs a common-tone modulation to move back to C-flat in measure 12. The music suddenly feels warm in this major mode; the text “he who knows and loves me is far away” sets up the association of the distantly-related C-flat key as where the loved one is, literally and figuratively far away.
This key relationship (I–bIII) is the same as in “That Lucky Old Sun.” In both pieces, the higher key represents transcendence into heaven. In the Schubert song, the reference that C-flat represents heaven, the far-away place, is clear from the text “I look into the Firmament,” set in measures 8–9. Both songs also transform a critical pitch or dyad. In “That Lucky old Sun,” the dyad F–G-flat functions as the supertonic and upper neighbor in the toilsome world of E-flat major; it transforms into the leading tone and tonic once the transcendent modulation to G-flat occurs. In Sehnsucht, the F-flat on “liebt,” or “loves,” in measure 13 recalls the previous F-flat on “Allein” in measure 5. In the context of A-flat, the pitch is chromatic and tragic, while in C-flat (where the loved one is), the pitch is diatonic and joyful. The passage in C-flat (mm. 12–16), however, culminates in the first perfect authentic cadence (and the only one until the end) in measure 16, lending a sense of finality to the thought that the one who loves her is far away, forever. Here the music adds meaning to the text.
After a suggestion of C minor, the song returns to the tragic A-flat key, and the opening melody returns in measure 20. This phrase is almost identical to the first phrase of the song. Then, the emphatic forte repetition of the text abruptly modulates to C-flat (m. 23), here with no common tone at the joint, as though the singer is forcing herself into the key, or place, where she is reunited with her loved one. The most poignant moment occurs in measure 26, where the C-flat major key turns to minor with the D-natural/E-double-flat over the cadential six-four chord. Her inability to remain in the major mode, or even to reach an authentic cadence in measure 27, forces the return to the tragic tonic key in measure 28, complete with the “lonely” modally-mixed F-flats.
The devices discussed in this article—nonresolution of tendency tones, the reciprocal process, and common-tone mediant modulations—are all loaded with interpretive potential. While students need the skills to label advanced chromatic concepts, if they are not able or willing to use them as a basis for forming their own interpretation, then the purpose behind the task is voided. What is the use of labeling a device if one cannot use it to interpret the music? By introducing how voice-leading and modulation can affect the meaning of songs that are stylistically familiar to them, before tackling those topics with the art music literature, they will be more prepared, and more confident, about applying interpretive concepts to music in any style.
1 Rogers, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, 74–5.
2 Jimenez, “Maximizing the Benefits of Using Familiar Music,” 1.
3 Hoag, “Seven Strategies for Enabling Student Success,” 12.
4 Stephenson, “Popular Music in the AP Music Theory Classroom.”
5 Everett, “Voice Leading and Harmony as Expressive Devices,” 20.
6 Schiano, “Theory Seminar: Music of the Beatles.”
7 Cone, “Schubert’s Promissory Note,” 239–40.
8 Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven, 58–60.
9 Justin London’s analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 song “One Step Up” also contains an instance of the reciprocal process as well as a clever interpretation of the bass line that reflects the lyrics of the refrain. “One Step Up,” 112.
10 Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.”
11 Capuzzo, “Sectional Tonality...in Rock Music,” 159.
12 Laitz, The Complete Musician, 665.
13 Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.”
14 Laitz, The Complete Musician, 664. In this piece, the final tonic is major and is approached via a plagal progression, creating the possibility of hearing the final C major chord as either a major tonic or a dominant to F.
15 Robert Bailey describes the iv–I progression as an instance of semitone voice leading; in the music of the nineteenth century, “linear considerations (with either diatonic or semitone voice leading, or both in alternation) more and more take precedence over harmonic ones.” He also claims the progression demonstrates “a principle of reciprocal function characteristic of the musical idiom of the later nineteenth century.” Bailey, “An Analytical Study of the Sketches and Drafts,” 117–19.
16 Laitz uses “Auf einer Burg” as an example of the reciprocal process without commenting on its meaning through the text-music relationship. The Complete Musician, 665–6.
17 Such a tonal connection is common in Schumann’s song cycles. John Daverio writes, “Almost without exception, adjacent songs demonstrate a close tonal bond.... Occasionally an inconclusive ending...increases our sense for the necessity of a continuation.” Robert Schumann, 215.
18 Such twists occur elsewhere in the cycle as well. The song “Im Walde” “uses disturbing juxtapositions and contrasts to highlight the theme of alienation and deception;” the juxtaposition of a wedding with a hunt causes the question, “Is the wedding a celebration of a loving union, or is it the culmination of a scene of seduction?” Ferris, Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis, 218.
19 Although the sequence “Auf einer Burg” into “In der Fremde” seems inevitable due to motivic and harmonic connections, Patrick McCreless offers an intriguing analysis of the cycle with the songs rearranged according to their order of composition. That order puts “Auf einer Burg” as the final song, which pairs with the first song “Waldesgespräch,” in E major. “Song Order,” 24–5.
20 Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.”
21 Everett, “Swallowed by a Song,” 118, 151 (n. 17 and 18).
22 Kaminsky, “The Popular Album as Song Cycle,” 42. The pop-song modulation may have its roots in the late 19th century, particularly in the music of Wagner. Robert Bailey describes a technique wherein “the repetition or recall of a passage is transposed up to underscore intensification.... These shifts are usually made by a semitone or a whole tone” (“The Structure of the Ring,” 51). In “An Evolutionary Perspective on Nineteenth-Century Semitonal Relations,” Patrick McCreless discusses key areas a semitone apart as substitutes for one another, thus a song ending in a transposed passage can still provide closure.
23 Rufus Hallmark interprets the accompaniment of the B section as presenting “a prototypical Schumann mood of sincerity, warmth, and tenderness.” “Robert Schumann,” 108.
Bailey, Robert. “An Analytical Study of the Sketches and Drafts,” in Richard Wagner, Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan und Isolde (Norton Critical Score). New York: Norton, 1985, 113–146.
—. “The Structure of the Ring and Its Evolution.” 19th-Century Music 1/1 (1977): 48–61. doi:10.1525/ncm.1977.1.1.02a00040.
Buchler, Michael. “You’re the Top: Upper-Tetrachord Songs from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and Hollywood.” Paper presented for the University of Colorado at Boulder Colloquium Series, Boulder, Colorado, November 18, 2013.
Capuzzo, Guy. “Sectional Tonality and Sectional Centricity in Rock Music.” Music Theory Spectrum 31/1 (2009): 157–174. doi:10.1525/mts.2009.31.1.157.
Cone, Edward T. “Schubert’s Promissory Note: An Exercise in Musical Hermeneutics.” 19th-Century Music 5/3 (1982): 233–241. doi:10.1525/ncm.1982.5.3.02a00060.
Daverio, John. Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Doll, Christopher. “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.” Music Theory Online 17/3 (2011).
Everett, Walter. “Voice Leading and Harmony as Expressive Devices in the Early Music of the Beatles: ‘She Loves You.’” College Music Symposium 32 (1992): 19–37.
—. “Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon’s Crisis of Chromaticism.” Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. Ed. John Covach & Graeme M. Boone. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. pp. 113–153.
Ferris, David. Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis and the Genre of the Romantic Cycle. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hallmark, Rufus. “Robert Schumann: The Poet Sings.” German Lieder in the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Rufus Hallmark. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. pp. 92–141.
Hatten, Robert. Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Hoag, Melissa. “Seven Strategies for Enabling Student Success in the First-Year Music Theory Sequence.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy E-Journal 1 (2013). Accessed May 12, 2017. https://music.appstate.edu/about/jmtp/seven-strategies-enabling-student-success-first-year-music-theory-sequence.
Jimenez, Ivan. “Maximizing the Benefits of Using Familiar Music in Undergraduate Music Theory.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy E-Journal 6 (2016). Accessed May 11, https://music.appstate.edu/about/jmtp/maximizing-benefits-using-familiar-music-undergraduate-music-theory.
Kaminsky, Peter. “The Popular Album as Song Cycle: Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years.’” College Music Symposium 32 (1992): 38–54.
Laitz, Steven. The Complete Musician. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
London, Justin. “‘One Step Up’: A Lesson from Pop Music.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 4/1: 111–14.
McCreless, Patrick. “An Evolutionary Perspective on Nineteenth-Century Semitonal Relations.” In The Second Practice of Nineteenth-Century Tonality, edited by William Kinderman and Harald Krebs, 87–113. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
—. “Song Order in the Song Cycle: Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’, Op. 39.” Music Analysis 5/1 (1986): 5–28. doi:10.2307/854339.
Rogers, Michael R. Teaching Approaches in Music Theory: An Overview of Pedagogical Philosophies. Second Edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Rosenberg, Nancy E. “From Rock Music to Theory Pedagogy: Rethinking U.S. College Music Theory Education from a Popular Music Perspective.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2010.
Schiano, Michael J. “Theory Seminar: Music of the Beatles.” Class notes, University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT, Spring 2000.
Stephenson, Ken. “Popular Music in the AP Music Theory Classroom.” AP Central Teaching Resources, an online publication of The College Board. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/homepage/36106.html.
Turek, Ralph, and Daniel McCarthy. Theory for Today’s Musician. Second edition. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Carissa Reddick serves as the head of the music theory area and the Graduate Coordinator for the School of Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Her articles appear in Music Theory Online, the e-journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, and most recently in the Journal of the American Liszt Society. She has presented papers on form in late nineteenth-century music at EuroMAC 8 and at various conferences throughout the United States. She is a former president of the Rocky Mountain Society for Music Theory. She holds a Ph.D. in Music Theory and History from the University of Connecticut and a Master's of Music in music theory and in cello performance from The Hartt School at the University of Hartford.