PopMAC day 2: Pentatonic Scale Fragments in Pop-Rock Harmony. Christopher Doll #popmac

Pentatonic Scale Fragments in Pop-Rock Harmony. Christopher Doll (Rutgers University)

[abstract] The harmonic practice of much Anglophone popular music from the past fifty years represents a fusion of pentatonicism and diatonicism that resists analytical techniques designed with only the latter in mind. This paper offers both a theoretical and historical account of this kind of mixed pentatonic-diatonic harmony, starting with an analysis of ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. and the MGs (1962), an early soul hit that is likely responsible for sparking an explosion of this harmonic practice in the mid-1960s. In ‘Green Onions,’ the harmonic framework is the traditional 12-bar blues, but embellishing this structure are chords with roots derived from the minor pentatonic scale, as heard in the opening motion F-Ab-Bb-F, or I-bIII-IV-I. Transpositions of this scalar fragment to the subdominant (Bb-Db-Eb-Bb) and dominant (C-Eb-F-C) result in still more embellishing chords (IV-bVI-bVII-IV and V-bVII-I-V), which, when taken altogether as a group, can easily be misinterpreted as having roots based in diatonicism. (The only ‘missing’ chord would be II, on G.) Using ‘Green Onions’ as a model, this paper shows how the transposition of pentatonic scale fragments can be a powerful explanatory idea when analyzing pentatonic-diatonic harmony from the mid-1960s onward, even when there is no clear connection to the blues (the style in which this practice originated), and even when the scales are not fragmented in an obvious way. Numerous artists from the past fifty years will be discussed, from The Temptations to Ozzy Osbourne, from Loverboy to The White Stripes.

Christopher Doll is Assistant Professor in the Music Department of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He teaches theory, analysis, and composition, and his research focuses on recent popular and art music, particularly in regard to tonality and intertextuality.

Chris’s paper begins with the Sex Pistols’ Submission (1976) – he shows the power chord harmony loops of C-Eb-F-G-Bb, then C5-Bb5-Eb5-C5 and the chorus Eb5-F5-C5. He comments that the chords are built on an underlying pentatonic scale, noting that it is unusual in popular music to build the entire harmony’s root notes purely on pentatonics in this particular way. He gives us a ‘pentatonic effect’ equation that can be used to quantify the extent of pentatonicism in a work. The second example is All Day And All Of The Night (1964) and http://www.metal-archives.com/images/6/2/4/624.jpghttp://www.metal-archives.com/images/6/2/4/624.jpg directs us to listen for the major thirds in some of the moving barre chords. This song is used as an illustration of the pentatonic/diatonic mixture that underpins much rock harmony. He asserts that pop-rock diatonicism is often therefore coloured by implicit chromaticism [I agree, and also with the way he nuances this point by observing that the resultant chromaticism is an artefact of the underlying pentatonic scale driving the root notes).

He speaks of eight ‘pentatonic schemas’, and plays Wilson Pickett’s In The Midnight Hour, referring to the intro as a ‘pentdescent’. This is contrasted, unsurprisingly, with Eddie Floyd’s ‘pentascent’ mirror in Knock On Wood. These two examples show very clearly and simply that the roots inhabit ‘black key space’ and the upper parts of the harmony occupy ‘white key space’. We now get more complex examples, starting with Booker T & The M.G.’s’s Green Onions (1962). [JB note – the preceding plural apostrophes ARE accurate – look up the spelling of the band!]. By using this example and the earlier Kinks one, http://www.metal-archives.com/images/6/2/4/624.jpg observes that in these examples almost all of the notes of the chromatic scale can appear somewhere in the harmony. All Day And All Of The Night’s three-chord riff, moving as it does around chords I, IV, V, creates almost all of these notes.

So we next look at ‘mulipentascent’, with chord sequence examples being E-G-A-C-D and A-C-D-E-G). The Temptations’ My Girl is the next audio excerpt, showing the pentatonic transposition of the simple ascending riff. We are now asked to imagine if My Girl and Green Onions had a baby – he suggests that it would sound like Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane (1984). This loop is I | IV | I-bIII | IV-bVI-bVII. He sees this song as being a pentascentative [my inferred word] collision of the two types of pentatonicism in the Kinks & BT&TMGs examples.

Now we get to Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train – | I | bIII-bVII | I | bVI-bVII |. He argues that the first half of the riff projects a diatonic effect, the second half a diatonic one. This is followed by The B52s’  Dancing Now (2008) – I | bIII | bVI | bVII. He defends his position that the b6 interval is not an ‘alternative pentatonic scale’.

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