One might argue that the introduction and resolution of tension is the very essence of artistic expression. Music happens in time. From the beginning of a piece to its conclusion, everything that happens in between is known as "the music." Other arts happen in time as well. Books, movies, TV sitcoms all rely on the passage of time to unfold dramatic events. In each these art forms, tensions are introduced and resolved.
A good author will not, for example, introduce an interesting and unusual character in the first chapter of a book, but then never reference her activity again. A movie that introduces an exciting and intruiguing subplot, but fails to develop it later, will seem disappointing.
The TV sitcom "Seinfeld," (especially in the later episodes) provides a fantastic example of this in action. Each episode contains several multi-layered stories or ideas, that are somehow resolved (often in surprising ways) together in the final scene. The first time we watch, we are surprised and impressed with how everything fits together; on a second viewing, we can appreciate how we were "fooled," the first time around. (I suppose the Bruce Willis movie, The Sixth Sense would be another example).
Does this kind of thing happen in Music? Certainly. Let's look at an example from Kenneth Brian "Babyface" Edmonds, a fantastically gifted songwriter and producer, who has, to a large degree, defined the last two decades of R&B.
His multiplatinum album, For the Cool in You provides the track under consideration today, "Well, alright." (I'd rather think of it as "Well, All right!" so I take the liberty of altering the spelling.)
Babyface, "Well All Right!"
First, listen to the music and have the lyrics handy.
I've charted out the structure of the lyrics below. Interesting harmonic moments in this piece are highlighted in bold text. Note how the chord changes at those points in the piece tend to sound "unexpected," "fresh," or "out of place," in the context of the rest of the harmonic language of the piece.
Explanation and Commentary
Let's explore some of the features of the piece, looking to find ways in which Babyface uses musical elements to tell a story. In the same way a good movie introduces (apparently insignificant) unusual elements that are later found to be significant, Babyface introduces some interesting harmonic features that foreshadow drama later in the piece.
As with all good stories, there is of course, a happy ending.
How does Babyface introduce and resolve tension in this piece? I'll try to make this interesting...
As I've marked above in bold, we can hear moments where different chord qualities or unexpected "colors," are used. Let's follow those chords and see how they operate in this piece's musical story.
Below is a simplified representation of the chord progression and the bass notes being used. Please listen again, following the map:
- I've identified each section ("verse," "chorus") in blue.
- I've highlighted a unique descending, chromatic, and stepwise root motion is identified with a green bar.
- The "interesting" chords are marked with a red square. They are from another, foreign key (C major). Interesting!
In the opening measures of the piece (on the word "love") we are introduced to a unique "character," a C major chord (red box, measure 4 below) that connects the C# harmony to B minor (iii - ii, in Roman Numerals). It serves as 'connective tissue' between two harmonies that are common in the key of A major. Call it a momentary digression. At the end of the verse, we get another surprise--a G major chord; a chord built on that scale degree would normally be spelled G#-B-D; here it is G-B-D.
Foreign Elements: F natural and G major
This (G-B-D) chord itself is not terribly unusual, for it's very common to include a major chord built on the flatted seventh scale degree (bVII) in pop music. It seems interesting, though, for it only appears (at least initially) briefly at the end of each verse. Foreshadowing a later tension, the G major chord will play a bigger role later.
Something you might overlook is the passing f-natural in the bassline (E-F-F#-G) that immediately preceedes the G major chord (mm. 6-8). This pitch is used in two ways:
- Vertically, as a root of a "neighbor chord" (m. 25) or the basis of an important triad emphasized in the bridge, and
- Horizontally, as a passing, or connective note between G and E (or A and E, depending on your perspective).
To the Bridge, and Then Back Home
The bridge is where the harmonic "chickens come home to roost," as it were.
The bridge harmonies (mm. 27ff) suggest a modulation away from A major; by emphasizing F, G, and D minor sonorities, we're actually leaning dangerously close to C major--the very same, unusual chord that was introduced in the first verse! This is drama, folks, and the catharsis of the piece. The relatively harmless (if surprising) chromatic chords introduced early on are now threatening to destabilize the very key center upon which this piece is established. A key change like this, a modulation from A major (with three sharps) to C major (with none) would be a pretty risky move. Babyface keeps things under control, however; instead of actually switching keys to C major (with a V-I cadence), he only suggests its potential.
Before things can get out of hand, the bridge returns us to the chorus. The chorus is different now, for hear no chromatic pitches or chords that might suggest the instability of different keys, and we are in "repeat and fade" territory as the traditional I-vi-ii-V turnarounds from the chorus reinforce our stable, home key of A major.
The "Story of the Piece"
Like all good art, music provides interest and cohesion by introducting distinctive material and expanding upon those ideas.
In a very real sense, the music provides its own story--provided we're willing to listen. In "Well, alright" we noted the appearance of interesting, unexpected chords, observed their influence on the harmonic vocabulary of the piece, and finally returned to a stable and predictable key center. I take the presence of these features as being indicative of good craftsmanship, and perhaps even a justification for Babyface's almost legendary status as an R&B artist.
Before we start hailing this piece as the next great pinnacle of Western Music, however, we should identify some areas of improvement. Here are some:
- The bridge uses unstable, foreign harmonies that would be appropriate to a lyric phrase conveying "unstable, foreign" emotions. This is a common trick in art music, where the singer's internal psychological state is conveyed through music. We'd expect the lyrics to match these harmonies, but in the main, they are of the same character as the rest of the song.
- It follows, then, that the resolution of the tonal conflict (with the 'modified chorus') should also parallel the resolution of an emotive content in the text, which it does not.
- During the final chorus, after the cathartic chord progression (and heartfelt singing!) of the bridge, we'd expect the musical material to change, reflecting the resolution of the conflict. Babyface opts to 'copy and paste' the backing tracks here, which is a bit surprising. He certainly knows the producer's tricks well enough to understand that it's common to "pump up" the final chorus with some additional instrumentation or texture, so it's curious that he chose not to.
I suppose a "Hegelian" composer would approach the final chorus as a combination of harmonies, showing how two separate forces (in this case, A major and C major) somehow reached a compromise.
Regardless, I think it's a great example of a popular piece that manages to be 100% commercial but yet complex enough to warrant and reward some closer study.