There aren’t a great deal of circumstances where this advice would be prudent, but in the Beibs latest hit “What Do You Mean”. he does oh so many things right. Anyone who tells you they don’t like this song has an honesty deficit and you should be cautious about what else they are lying to you about.
JB sounds at a soulful peak in this lilting 125bpm stunner, topped by a worldy, Shakuhachi type hook and propelled by a Piano chord sequence that never quite lands.
By looking at some of the compositional techniques present in the chord sequence, we can arm ourselves with a few handy tools to keep in mind when writing songs. Whether or not this track was composed with these things in mind is irrelevant as we are just aiming to deconstruct this beauty so we can bottle a bit of it for ourselves.
The song is in the key of A flat or Ab and features a recurring, looping four bar sequence consisting of the chords: Dbadd9,Ab, Fm and Db/Bb
Simplified these are the chords 4,1,6 and 5 in the Key of Aflat major.
The sequence is constructed like this
4 | 1 6 | 5 |4 :||
Tools to takeaway
To recreate this sequence, lets invent a couple of rules to follow in an order that translates to a potential compositional workflow.
Save the tonic
The sequence starts on the 4 chord and saves the tonic chord for a brief interlude on beats one and two of bar two.
This resolution from the 4 chord to the 1 chord is called a Plagal cadence, or the “Amen Cadence”. due to its frequent use set to the word Amen in hymns. So right out of the gates this sequence sets up some suspension and releases briefly to the 1 chord.
This use of the tonic fairly early allows the chords following to contain some suspense in reference to it, not being the tonic themselves. This way the majority of the sequence contains chords that sound like they are in motion.
Inversion and substitutions create motion
The 4 chord used is an add9. Basically an add2 with the second up an octave. Using a basic triad as the first chord could fool your listener into thinking that it was the tonal centre for the first bar and would feel more grounded.
Preceding the tonic chord in its basic triad form with an inversion magnifies the cadence and the up in the air tonality of the add9 accentuates this whilst keeping its root note.
The use of a fifth in the bass of the 5 chord unsettles enough to take some spotlights off it that would otherwise subtract from the impact of the second bar tonic bouncing the rest of the sequence.
Every major chord besides the tonic is an inversion, this creates the aural effect of the sequence only landing briefly at the tonic and being in motion for the rest.
He’s not alone
This sequence can be found in many, many other songs,
See if you can recognise it and see how it is used.
Maroon 5 – Payphone
Calvin Harris – Sweet Nothing
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