The Many Facets of Pop Composition: A Few Music Theory Aspects
Together with his late brothers Robin and Maurice, and with such heavyweight arrangers like Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, Barry Gibb has created not only highly successful but incredibly well-made pop songs that have reached a world audience. Aside from purely enjoying the music, examining these from a music theory point of view can illuminate many facets of great pop composition. In referring to well-known Gibb hits (which have proven to be timeless both in composition and arrangement) and to a few more unlikely of songs, some of them performed by the Bee Gees, by Diana Ross, or by other distinguished recording artists, a cursory treatment of harmony and function is to add to a view of a tiny part of the Gibb oeuvre´s specialty. As can be seen, ingenious musical skills have led to creating great pop songs to which e.g., tonal ambiguity and fluctuating tonality are key ingredients. Such have made for an outstanding musical oeuvre. – (In parts of the following, abstraction requires nomenclature: Roman numerals refer to scale degrees.)
Starting with the ´normal´ Gibb, it is worthwhile to mention that such highly successful penning of songs for lots of artists has led to great acclaim. One of these has been the outstanding Dionne Warwick hit “Heartbreaker.” Taking out a snippet, the well-known fanfare at the beginning is an unusual example of diatonic modulation toward the song´s tonic G, which for the fanfare is functioning as the subdominant of D, a chord that in this context is actually never played. Functionally being the submediant of the parallel minor tonic B in aeolic mode, G surprisingly turns out to be the tonic for almost the rest of the song, right after having introduced itself as some subdominant, or even some submediant, of the composition. This is highly unusual but works out very well. Later into it, the interlude gets back to the fanfare only to modulate itself to D/E as the dominant of the forthcoming tonic A in the key change (we are witnessing something between diatonic modulation and a somewhat surprising Rückung). Such playful yet unobtrusive device is typical of very skillful composition.
Still in G, the bridge in moving toward the chorus has the subdominant C change from major to minor, which has a long tradition. Yet, here we have a natural minor subdominant with no jazz augmentations. Such augmentations, as often used in R&B/pop, make a difference in color through adding e.g., sevenths and ninths like in, say, Monte Moir´s work for Alexander O´Neal, creating a more robust color. Gibb´s use of a pure minor chord here is rather mellifluous, and is much more pop formally, owing to the song´s smooth feel of longing and desire. Beforehand, the bridge´s alternating IIIm-VIm progression under the ascending strings creating an upward motion is legendary, anticipating the same progression later in the chorus´s somewhat central motif. It reveals a skillful approach to generate motion and rest in immediate proximity.
This is taken to its most elaborated stage in “Tragedy” moving through full root notes back and forth in the verse, which again is highly unusual, and in the chorus´s central motif which is, again, a IIIm-VIm progression (which should be coined the ´Gibb progression´). In the “Grease” theme, the latter is slightly but distinctly varied toward Im-IV(7)-Im-IV(7)-Im-Vm, elegantly reflecting the somewhat slippery motion of the movie. Grease it is. Such translating of contents into musical form is rare, showing the composer at the height of his craft. What can be referred to as the “Grease” theme is actually the verse which, in a way, is the theme. After the Im-IV(7)-Im-IV(7)-Im-Vm progression has come in, its color is immediately modified (the tonal center staying the same) through changing from dorian to phrygian minor in IVm-III-bII-Im, which anticipates some of today´s trend of arriving at minor seventh tonics ´from above,´ like in recent modal, oriental-inspired half-step upward/downward phrygian swirls as in Beyoncé´s and Shakira´s hybrid funk duet “Beautiful Liar,” or in Snoop Dogg´s and Pharrell Williams´s “Beautiful.” The postmodernist aspect of never knowing for sure what the tonic is and will it remain stable calls for rhythmic motion mostly including suspended tonality. Yet in “Grease,” the unobtrusiveness stems not from suspended tonality but from tonal ambiguity, or fluctuating tonality. Suspended tonality often tends to demusicalization, which would not be in the Gibb sense of music. All the more, there is no oriental feel here, it is just appropriately slick: a surprisingly elegant use of flatted second scale degree.
Even not staying there but unobtrusively merging with the verse/theme, the phrygian mode quickly changes back to dorian minor. Again, it is notable that the vocals´ tonal center remains the same over bII-Im-IV(7)-Im-Vm. While the vocals in repeat confirm themselves, at the same time there is motion underneath through the minor tonic being swirled around by the flatted second, then by IV(7). After the tonic has been established once more, it suddenly moves out to Vm only to quickly return to the tonic Im. What a ride: Grease is the word.
Aside from the fact that “Love You Inside Out” might be one of the sexiest pop songs ever written, it is at the same time danceable and extremely steady. The use of unexpected rests and of elegant motion in a mid-tempo funk is one thing. The other is harmony function and its deceptive cases. Basically using augmented harmony in D major (Imaj7), a tonal center is deceptively defined that only exists for the time being, setting free other tonal centers only to be captured again. These are tonal centers on an interim basis presented in a steady fashion.
After an out-of-the-blue exposition of assorted string patches in an ascending/descending hits intro, we experience an augmented E aeolic minor in the verse, the seventh and ninth making it as juicy as can be. The E minor chord here seems to function as the tonic (Im9), until it resolves to Dmaj7, which defines the E minor having been the supertonic of D (IIm9-Imaj7), only to right away skip to Am and to B7, both of which would retroactively confirm E aeolic minor as the tonic (read Im9-VIImaj7-IVm-V7-Im9). Instead, Am and B7 should be read as the parallel minor chord of the subtonic of D (which is C natural), and as the submediant of D respectively (which is B natural). For the first verse this should be amazing enough. In resolving to E minor (were it not for the sevenths and ninths), B7 once again makes use of functional deception being the dominant of E melodic minor, or as the submediant of D major. In a way it is both, and the first verse extension actually ends on the tonic D, only to skip to B(7) in transition to the second verse. Since it starts with Em9 we are again led to read Im9. The verse repeats until some dominant chord, A7sus4, or rather G/A, announces that we are unmistakably moving to areas of D (which in this case can actually be referred to so, the parallel minor B in the chorus taking over functioning as parallel minor tonic: VIm). Smoothly leading through the chorus, Bm and Dmaj7 are swirled around by some minor and elevenths chords, remaining in resolution to the tonic D which at the chorus´s end is not played but moves out either to verse repeat, or to the interlude, or to chorus repeat respectively. Such an amazing combination of at first sight highly compatible chords functioning in very different ways shows great dealing with complex harmony. In the process there are several ambiguities that are met easily. The way they function is unusually complex yet unobtrusive at the very same time (not interrupting but building the flow of the song), all the more mirroring the lyrics´ relationship topic in complexity and airiness alike. It reveals musical grandezza. So swell.
Moving to more unlikely areas of melody have been verses like those in “The Woman In You,” as is true for “Breakout,” and “Oh Teacher.” In “The Woman In You,” ´Barry here delivers the least obvious melodic structure (…)´ (Brennan 2013) but, say, the most urban one. Again, getting into the modes shows mode and rhythm to be sufficient to create extreme rat race feel, David Sanborn adding to it by providing presumably one of the sharpest 16-bar sax solos in pop. The same for “Breakout” which is not that modal yet feels so. The extremely urban track shows an approach of bringing together motion and stasis, which are key ingredients to good composition in one way or another. Although in the song there are lots of changes and major chords, there is some suspended process underneath the obvious motion while the fully developed tonality pushes for the minor tonic to return to the beginning without ever getting there.
Another rather modal approach shows in “Oh Teacher” (referring to the demo for Diana Ross) which is a perfectly accomplished blues/pop variation on grounds of a tight verse vocal performance over lots of syncopes, reminding of the Steve Kipner/John Parker style of composition and arrangement for performers like Olivia Newton-John in the early eighties. The intricate rhythm section supports the dorian minor mode very well, the overall arrangement being steady and of little motion yet a lot going on. This ain´t disco, this is the blues with a vengeance. Such heavy rhythmic accentuation generates a unique feel, in the Gibb oeuvre taking turns with not so heavily syncopated songs, as is the Diana Ross uptempo “Eaten Alive” (the chorus unmistakably modified and augmented by Michael Jackson), or in straightforward rockers like “System of Love.”
“Eaten Alive” flaunts a seemingly loose verse structure in an almost ad-lib fashion, still it is clearly the blues. The verse in aeolic minor mode Im(7)-VII over a constant bass root on the Im(7) tonic swirls with some blue thirds, or sevenths, accentuated with industrial guitar sound of e.g., tritone-to-fourth in-between bass rests. The sparsely syncopated rhythm creates a steady basis in which effect is achieved through select accents of syncopes, like in announcing the bridge. The second verse brings about suspense via a consistent string patch, the bridge a true amalgamation of the Gibb/Jackson collaboration, before turning to the typical Jackson-style melodic minor chorus: VI-V7-Im. It is “Eaten Alive” but also “Backtafunk” that link with “The Woman In You,” the first reminding of the (more moderate sounding but much more present) guitar riff and the ad-lib style vocals in the latter, whereas “Backtafunk,” the little-known masterpiece of straightforward funk, borrows much of its urban feel from it – the sax might have loomed larger though. “Backtafunk” is, aside from the ingenious rhythmic accentuation in the chorus, an excellent example of lively vocal performance, of letting go and catching up.
At first sight, the Gibb oeuvre seems little jazz, much mainstream pop. It is not. There is much jazz in it, like in most of great pop compositions. The motto is, ´though basically R&B, the slickness plays down some of the R&B feeling´ (Doerschuk 1990), and that is what makes it pop. One might say, beyond intricate harmony issues, it is a few select minor seventh chords, a fashion many Gibb compositions share with those of Brian Wilson´s, or with Patrick Leonard´s in his Madonna work, as well as a sparse but well-selected use of sevenths augmentation, and some specific use of elevenths (as slash chords), and rather pure minor or major respectively that can make pop so catchy, melody seems to build from it almost automatically. But that would be a lot. Moreover, Gibb songwriting craft spreads not only across choruses: rarely have compositions been that distinguished about verse. The ´normal´ Gibb composition is amazing anyway – but such skillful dealing with intricate harmony is nothing less than artistry. This is so rare, the pop music world would definitely sound different without the man and his brothers. It is undeniable that they were always on the profound side of well-crafted pop composition. Some suggestions of having overdone it a bit with disco (Dallach 2017) do not really apply. What disco is and what not, must be the category. Most disco is disco, but mid- or uptempo Gibb music has rather been R&B, or funk, which does not hold true for many disco hits of the era, of which many were more often than not marked by eighth-note octave bass boredom.
2016 saw the somewhat unhappiest year in the music world in a while. Barry Gibb is still creating great music, which the public audience has acknowledged and hopefully will in the future. Barry and his late brothers have created great songs and given great musical input, let alone for their vast oeuvre, which makes them range among the few top composers of late twentieth-century pop composition. Such musical extravaganza is rare, making Gibb music true artistry.
Joseph Brennan (2013): Gibb Songs, version 2, 1983, www.columbia.edu
Christoph Dallach (2017): Barry Gibb. In: Zeit Magazin, Intl. Issue 1, pp. 92-93
Robert L. Doerschuk (1990): Romancing the Dance (Babyface/Donald Parks). In: Keyboard (US) 11, 16, Miller Freeman Publ., San Francisco, pp. 76-113