Do you know … what key we’re in?

So many popular songs sit happily in one key. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: a skilful composer can get enough variety in the three to four minute span of a song to keep the listener’s interest without resorting to adventurous key changes. An engaging melody is a good starting point, and a few spicy, unexpected chords along the way can add tension.

More inventive songwriters will often including a few unassuming modulations: by making the verse modulate into a related key for the chorus for example, or by including a bridge passage that shifts the harmonic centre and then leads via a cadence back to the home key. A great deal of pleasure can be had in discovering the various technical refinements and imaginative touches that composers use to raise a three-minute ditty above the ordinary.

The really great song-writers can stretch the form in more ingenious and challenging ways. Think of Burt Bacharach at his best, or Jimmy Webb. Yet, while any composer with a firm grasp of form can add tricksy bits of business, employ unusual time-signatures, throw in some dissonance, it’s probably fair to say that the real accomplishment is in devising unexpected harmonic or structural shifts that grow naturally, that make sense, that convince. Consider, for example, Jimmy Webb’s poignant “Galveston”. There is a song that flows; it’s sing-a-long simple. Only, it’s not. Webb’s bar structure is peculiar – not because he wants to show you how sophisticated a song-writer he is, but because the melodic, and dramatic, flow of the song requires it.

For many years I have been fascinated by “Do you know where you’re going to?”, also known as the theme from “Mahogany”. This intriguing gem was composed by Michael Masser and has words by Carol King’s distinguished side-kick, the late Gerry Goffin. This is a popular song that resolutely refuses to sit happily in one key. Indeed, it presents itself as constantly modulating. That is to say, that it shifts its harmonic centre every four or eight bars. Only it doesn’t, quite. I’ll come back to what I mean by that later.

For those enviable people who have, attached to each side of their heads, what we are pleased to call “musical ears”, following the harmonic progress of a piece of music is a less confusing business than it is to me, and many others. I have a poor musical ear. I note key changes when they happen, and, if the change is a simple one I can often note its nature – from tonic to dominant or sub-dominant, say.  Most of the time, though, I am left foxed (though pleased) by the more recherché harmonic explorations of the better composers.

But I won’t be beaten. With an accurately-tuned ukulele on my knee to assist my duff ear, I have – painstakingly – found out the enigma of “Do you know where you’re going to?” and why what ought to sound like a scatterbrained rag-bag of a composition, is so coherent and compelling.

I am referring throughout this essay to the original recording made by Diana Ross.

The song is in Eb and alternates two melodies. The main melody in Eb, which we’ll call the verse and a second melody, the chorus, in C*. This alternating between the tonic and the submediant (the key based on the sixth degree of the scale**) can be used to high romantic effect. An obvious comparison would be with George Harrison’s “Something” which alternates C major and A major.

So we already have a fairly unusual  harmonic basis for the song, but the piece as a whole employs even more unexpected and delightful modulations to achieve its purpose. The composition begins, not in the tonic, but in Gb where the verse melody (or at least a close variant of it) is presented instrumentally. Note that the relationship between Gb (the introduction) and Eb (the tonic to which the introduction leads) is the same as the Eb-C relationship between the verse and chorus. We have already been prepared for the romantic submediant modulation that is central to the song. This is seductive songwriting.

The wistful verse melody (in both its main form and the variant that we hear first in the instrumental introduction) sets up the all-important tonic-submediant context because, over its brief four bars it smoothly, almost imperceptibly, suggests the possibility of the shift to the submediant harmonic centre. As a result, the key change it sets up seems entirely logical, indeed inevitable.

The brief Gb introduction then leads us to the song proper in Eb (and, as I indicated above) prepares us for the I-VI tension that is central to the song’s progress. Once we are in the tonic, however, a trick is played upon us (this is a teasing seduction). As I said above, the melody itself draws us from Eb into C. The very tune itself wants to lead into C major. Yet, the first time the melody is sung, instead of leading to the submediant, the fourth bar is extended by a beat (the time signature changes to 5/4 for a single bar) so the modulating phrase at the end, instead of being an upbeat figure leading us into a new section, and new key, ends impotently on a weak beat in the bar.

The melody is then repeated, simply, in the home key. So we haven’t changed key, yet, oddly, it feels like a harmonic shift because our ear has been prepared for C major but gets Eb major. We hear the four bars again but this time the final bar remains in 4/4 and the modulation that is “built into” the tune takes effect as an up-beat figure leading to the expected (but delayed) submediant modulation. Eb to C. And now we get a new tune – the chorus.

The chorus, incidentally, incorporates a peculiar rhythmic device. It is in a solid 4/4 until the last bar that is a beat and half shorter than expected (5/8 rather than 4/4)***.

The verse and chorus are repeated, though this time the second part of the verse is presented in its instrumental variant. There is a final sung verse followed by a repeat of the second half of the tune in its instrumental form and still in Eb. These four bars are then repeated twice more but first in A (where did that come from?) and then in Gb (as in the introduction). The final statement in Gb modulates at the end and leaves us (feeling simultaneously at home and hopelessly unresolved) in the tonic Eb.

“Do you know where you’re going to” is roughly three and a half minutes long, and in that time it changes key seven times (or eight if you count that final Eb resolution). And when it’s not changing key it is teasing the ear with “false” modulations (where the first half of the verse sets up the expectation of a key change which is then confounded by the repeat in the home key).

Clever stuff, certainly, but is this simply technical – empty – bravado? I would say not. Structuring the composition on a sequence of harmonic modulations is an appropriate musical response to the lyric. The title of the song is a question: “Do you know where you’re going to?” and the song itself poses a philosophical question (albeit in the most colloquial, every-day and non-academic sense). Are you in control of your life? Is this where you wanted to be, or thought that you might be? When you look back do you have regrets? What are you hoping for? As such it is a telling summation of the kind of head-scratching most of us do pretty much every day. What better way might there be, therefore, to set this universal metaphysical exploration, than by leading the listener through a sequence of questioning harmonic shifts with a melody that is at once immediately affecting and harmonically wayward?

The song, as recorded by Diana Ross, should be further praised for its taste and restraint. I am aware that, in the previous paragraph, I referred to the song’s philosophical, metaphysical and universal concerns. I also, of course, specified its “every day” aspects. The people who created that song, performance and recording had the measure of it, and their taste must be acknowledged. There is no bombast here, or self-importance. The orchestral arrangement is refined and elegant, the backing chorus used sparingly though effectively. It remains a chamber piece, pensive and warm. It is stylish and peculiar and certainly to be cherished.

* Anyone who has approached popular song with analytical intent, will have been dismayed by the seeming interchangeable use of such expressions as verse, chorus, refrain, middle eight, bridge etc. I ask simply that you allow me my verse / chorus distinction for the purposes of the current essay. I use them here merely for convenience and without any proscriptive intent.

** The sixth degree of the scale, of course gives you the relative minor, so Eb major becomes C minor, or C major becomes A minor. Changes of this kind, though, are as much modal shifts as key changes since the scale remains the same. In the case of “Do you know” or, indeed “Something”, the shift is to a major scale based on the sixth note, which necessarily introduces pitches alien to the home key and therefore represents a key change.

*** I’m not entirely sure that I have described this rhythmic nicety correctly. A friend to whom I read the piece thinks that the time signatures I propose are wrong. I’d be happy to receive any corrections in the comments, but I think that my stipulation of 4/4 plus 5/8 can stand for the time being on the time-honoured principle of its being close enough for jazz.

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Posted in Popular music
2 comments on “Do you know … what key we’re in?
  1. kurtnemes says:

    Wonderful writing. I wish I had your non-musical ears and understanding of how music works. It’s so cool and must be exciting. All the best

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Well thank you. It is kind of fun. But I’d rather be able to play music. But given my shortcomings on that score, tinkering around and trying to understand it is a second best,

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