Thursday, October 31, 2013

How "Call Me Maybe" works, according to music theory

Sitting, waiting, wishing. (Found on Pinterest.)
"Call Me Maybe." Catchy, cute, bubblegummy, ubiquitous, so summer-of-2012. But if you are, say, looking for the chords to the song online, you start to realize that none of them sound quite right. Why is this? Don't the masses deserve better? Why has no one yet produced the ur-lead sheet for the chef-d'oeuvre of the Jepsen corpus?

Part of it is because the people putting those sheets online are trying to fit the song into the normal frame of reference that a pop song would use. You've got your tonic, your IV and V, minor iii and vi—and that's pretty much it, right? Well, kind of. Because "Call Me Maybe," while not exactly complicated, isn't entirely straightforward, either. So here, ladies and gentlemen—probably 18 months late, I realize—is a music theory-informed interpretation of "Call Me Maybe."

(The Roots understand how this works.)

The song is in G major. But—and here's the clever part—the song never actually resolves onto a G chord in root position. Basically, the whole song goes back and forth between C and D in the bass the entire time. This is probably part of why the song seems maddeningly simple and yet impossible to get out of your head. But the C and D in the bass don't mean that the chords are C and D—that would be incredibly boring and no one would like it. That plinky two-bar synth-string intro consists of a treble G chord, without the D. The C and D then come in under that, basically going back and forth between Cmaj7 and a G chord in 6/4 (second) inversion. That's the verse.

When you get to the chorus ("Hey, I just met you"), things stay pretty much the same—the strings are outlining the E minor chord part of the Cmaj7. But when you reach "And this is crazy," things get even more tense: the strings play a B/D chord in the treble, but then F#/A, over the D in the bass. The G6/4 has become a D6/4-5/3—and still we get no resolution! It just keeps looping back to that big, open, double-fifth'd Cmaj7 over and over and over again. Basically, the entire song keeps us expecting a resolution to the tonic for three whole minutes that never actually comes. In short, the harmonic structure of "Call Me Maybe" parallels the whole story of the song: we're kept waiting for that G (which never comes) in the same way that the singer is waiting for that phone to ring.

Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" uses basically the same gambit to create a sense of emotional suspense: the song is in B-flat major, but once the bass line kicks in, the song never actually resolves to B-flat in root position. Interestingly, Brahms does something similar in his intermezzo op. 118, no. 1. It's ostensibly supposed to be in C major, but he goes far out of his way to use seemingly every chord other than a C major: the piece starts on C7 and ends on A major (transitioning into the transcendently wistful intermezzo in A Major, op. 118, no. 2). Brahms's harmonic vocabulary is much, much wider than Carly Rae Jepsen's and Tavish Crowe's, but the basic principle is the same: avoid resolution to the root-position tonic at all costs! You can listen to the two pieces, as played by Yevgeny Kissin, below:

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