Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 16 – functional harmony basics and functional movement in pop music

Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 16 – functional harmony basics and functional movement in pop music

Kpopalypse is back with more music theory!  Let’s do the music theory thing!

So in this series we’ve discovered what chords are as well as what they aren’t, and even how to use melody with chords, but what we haven’t really talked about yet is the practical application of chords when writing a song.  Let’s assume that you’re writing a piece of pop music.  Let’s also assume that you’re not wanting to write some bland, screechy hep-hap inspired junk with a bunch of girls or boys randomly yelping awful shit, but instead have a strong desire to create a piece of music that is interesting enough in its own right to be appreciated by someone other than delusional k-pop fandom fuckheads who have had their musical standards evaporated by corporate marketing and will swallow up literally anything with their favourite teenage indentured slave’s name on it.  You’ve heard that these “chord” things can be quite useful to make a song more interesting, so you’ve learned what a bunch of them are, but now you have a problem.  Which one do you use?  Where do you use it?  How do you go from one chord to the next?  Lots of options can be paralyzing, so it’s good to set some rules in order to narrow down your choices.  This then brings about yet more questions – how do you set rules?  Which rules?  Should you make your own or use someone else’s, and if we’re using someone else’s, where do we find these ‘rules’ and how much should we care about them?

The first thing to know is that music is a mental game, and when playing a mental game of any kind there’s the idea of expectation, anticipation and reward.  Music is also an idea, and ideas have an accepted form and structure, that derives from our previous experience of ideas.  For instance if I’m writing a music theory post and then I suddenly start discussing how earlier today I was watching drama video MIAA-695 where Ichika Matsumoto stars as a multiple-orgasming hermaphrodite, that would be considered weird by “music theory post” standards.  However, it may not be considered quite as weird, and maybe even arguably expected, by “Kpopalypse music theory post standards” (especially if I foreshadowed it on my Twitter account, for instance).  So the way we “frame” information is very important, and our reaction to content of any kind is heavily dictated by the frame of expectation, anticipation and reward.

Let’s demonstrate this idea in a really simple musical way.  Consider the following musical example, of an ascending major scale.

Even if you have no knowledge of music theory at all, and even if you don’t know what a major scale is (because you didn’t read my post on it, tsk tsk), you might feel a bit odd at the end of listening to the video above, like something’s not quite right. 

Adding an extra note fixes the problem and “resolves” the strange feeling.  But why?  The answer is that you’ve heard this type of scale exercise before (piano students right now are probably all experiencing PTSD symptoms), and even if you haven’t, you’ve definitely heard this type of melodic movement before.  The seventh note in a major scale moving to the eighth note (the octave, relative to the starting position) is a very common melodic movement that’s embedded in a high amount of western pop, rock and classical music, so when we hear that seventh note, we have the automatic expectation that the eighth note will follow.  This expectation in this case is compounded by the fact that the entire group of notes are ascending, so why wouldn’t the pattern continue?  Well usually it would, it just didn’t in the first example because Kpopalypse is a cunt.  Now if you were someone brought up in a completely different culture and have never heard western-style popular or classical music before, you probably wouldn’t have that expectation, but since you probably are, you probably did.

This is far from the only example – the most obvious other example is that if we go the other way and descend the scale rather than ascend, we get the same result.  First, the cockblocking version:

….and now the version that finishes on the octave and leaves you with complete satisfaction:

This perceived ‘pull’ from the second note to the first, is just as strong as the pull from the seventh note to the eighth, for the same reasons.

The same expectations that apply to singular notes also apply to groups of notes, so these arbitrary culturally determined melodic rules can apply to harmony as well as melody, because as previously discussed, harmony is really just multiples of melody.  If we were going to devise the “ultimate satisfying harmonic resolution to western-trained ears”, we could use a group of notes that featured both of the above types of melodic resolution.  While there is more than one potential answer to this, the most common version of this which has been latched onto the most severely in the world of music, is the progression V-I, which is everywhere in all types of western music.

V = scale degrees 5, 7 and 9 (2)

I = scale degrees 1, 3 and 5

This progression combines the power of going from 7 to 1, and going from 2 to 1, at the same time.  While harmonically classical music goes to all sorts of places, many of the most popular big thematic sections in classical music that everybody knows are harmonically just built up of endless repeated variations of V-I.  Blues music goes V-I compulsively every 12 bars (hence the term “12 bar blues” used to describe this common progression of I-IV-I-V-IV-I-V) and a lot of tangenital styles do the same every four bars, such as doo-wop which is mostly just I-vi-IV-V over and over.

It’s possible to get really deep into this, by assigning each different type of chord a “weight” relative to the tonic, root or I chord, and then assigning different strengths and relationships to each note and chord, and eventually you end up with a sort of “orbit diagram” that shows the most common tendencies that each chord will resolve towards:

The above shows such progression, implying that chords have a tendency to move from the outer orbit to the inner orbit, and eventually, to the inevitable root or I.  They’re using what I call the ‘egghead fuckwit names’ because this diagram is from my university music theory textbook that sucks fucking dick, but translated from fuckhead into English the chords they’re talking about are:

The silly names are basically just trying to convey the importance of each chord in terms of how it dominates listener attention (i.e “dominant” has the “most dominant” pull to the I, “mediant” is the “most middling” with less of a huge pull anywhere, etc), but of course they can’t write that because they’re egghead classical music fuckheads who suck.

Here’s another diagram from the same book that goes into a few more options:

And here’s another one which also says the same kind of thing but might be easier to make sense of, or maybe not, who the fuck knows:

…but of course you don’t just have “progression” but also “retrogression” and “elision” and “repetition”, so basically what they’re trying to say is, the rules are always followed except when they’re not.  However what you wouldn’t have commonly is something that’s not within any of these options at all.


So that’s the basic classical music theory foundation of what we’re talking about (it gets more complex with things like modulations and secondary dominant chords, but I’ll talk about that shit some other time).  Credit where it’s due, all of the above photos are from the wonderful two-volume textbook “The Elements Of Music: Concepts And Applications – Second Edition” by Ralph Turek so by all means pick that up, it works better than most over-the-counter sleep medication for insomnia and the cheap low-grade paper it’s printed on is very environment because it biodegrades quite quickly and probably won’t last on the planet as long as you do, hence the dark tint to the photos above. 

However if you actually want to sound like G-reyish instead of reading a bunch of greyish rotting bits of paper, you can probably disregard almost everything in a book like this beyond the basics.  While pop music certainly has classical influence as well as influence from blues and jazz, it doesn’t hold the same functional harmony rules in such high regard, so while some stuff can be made to apply especially when groups reach for an “old school” type of concept, with anything modern very few fucks are given.  Most pop songs these days don’t even go V-I at all, and modern pop-listening ears don’t have the same sensitivity to ‘leading tones’ that our grandparents did.  The eight chords of the “Kkili Kkili” chorus are  i-VII-v-VI-III-VII-#VII-i by the way.  Going VII-#VII-i in a minor key is definitely a ‘leading tone’ resolution of a sort because you’re still using that 7-8 thing we heard in the major scale example earlier (even if it’s 7-#7-8), but that’s not a resolution method that you would commonly find in any classical music.

What you’re more likely to hear in pop music is the above, which makes up a good chunk of popular songs and is I-V-vi-IV, there’s no V-I movement in that, but the “weaker” IV-I resolution.  However audiences don’t seem to mind.

The minor key “mode” of the same progression where we start on the vi and which is also known as the “Roly Poly chords” is i-VI-III-VII.  (We don’t call it vi-IV-I-V because we’re not fucking stupid and we realise that the song is in a minor key, so the minor chord has to be the i and everything else is interpreted relative to that.)  VII-I is also considered not as strong a resolution as V-I, according to functional harmony rules, so why does it work so well?

What this illustrates is that modern pop music has gradually gravitated away from the classical rulebook in terms of what goes where.  The reason why is that in pop music, the musical hierarchy of needs is reversed.  Texture is king, rhythm is queen, and melody/harmony is less important, and you can actually get away with just about anything in the harmony.  There however are still expectations – the concept of expectation, anticipation and reward still applies, it just applies to texture and rhythm first.  Let’s look at some examples of that.

At 0:28, when the beat vanishes in the prechorus of Le Sserafim’s “Fearless”, we have an expectation already set up (from listening to hundreds of other songs do similar things) that this change is not permanent.  We’re waiting for the beat to come back after a certain time, and eventually, at 0:46, it returns.  The harmony is different in the pre-chorus, but it’s not very different, it’s the texture change (from heavy bass and drums to a lighter sound, and then back) and the rhythm change (the pulse of the beat is no longer as heavily emphasised) that draw our attention the most, they’re much more important to the progression of the song than what the harmony is doing.

The primacy of texture and rhythm over melody and harmony is why Red Velvet are able to get away with all sorts of musical weirdness in “Feel My Rhythm”, the classical music is of course used as a harmony, but it’s also being applied as a texture, and the melody has only been written around it just so it doesn’t clash too much, but it still does in some places anyway.  There’s a couple bars of pretty mushy sound collision right at the start of each chorus (1:14) where the harmony is very indistinct because so much is going on, but because the textural effect is still there, it doesn’t end up mattering a whole lot, the texture alone sets up the expectation of classical melody, and eventually we get it when the high string melody comes through (1:21), the chorus then playing nicer after that.  “Feel My Rhythm” ends up working fine in context here but wouldn’t actually work that well as a fully orchestral piece for this reason, a completely orchestra rendition would just sound too much like “wrong notes” being played unless a lot of musical content was also stripped back and removed.

Teddy’s continual “jumping of the shark” after the second chorus of Blackpink songs is something that right now is only very peculiar to how he writes, and hasn’t taken off in the k-pop world quite as much as some of the other trends that he’s spearheaded.  When 2:58 happens, the beat stops temporarily and the pitch bend downward is applied, we know that we’re moving to different territory, the implication is that a turntable has been turned off, as one track has finished and another is now starting.  The harmonic rules from this point onward are somewhat different to everything that came before, but there was no setup within the song’s harmony itself that foreshadows this change.  The song was doing one thing and now it’s going to do something new, and that’s fine – the signifiers of progression are all texture and rhythm based.  Once again I’ll revisit this idea when the series talks about modulations.

Where k-pop plays by traditional harmony rules more, is in situations where the songs are more traditional.  “Love Of B” sticks very closely to the kind of harmonic conventions that you’d find in a minor-key swing jazz piece.  Also k-pop ballads and anything that is based on trot sounds will often follow classical harmonic systems closely, such as Glam’s “In Front Of The Mirror” which is textbook harmony in practice.

The conclusion is this: “functional harmony” in pop music, doesn’t actually exist in the traditional sense that you would learn it in a music theory course, except in the most conservative forms of the style that draw heavily on more traditional pop forms, such as ballads and very self-consciously retro concepts.  We should think of progression more as “functional movement” for anything very modern.  Pop songwriters don’t care about the old rules for the most part, they’ll use melody and harmony “as they see fit”, the rulebook is still there as an option but it no longer has the meaning or relevance that it once did.  The real rules that apply to pop music are textural, rhythmic, and structural.  A song must have a chorus.  A song must have a beat or rhythmic pulse.  A song must have some kind of light and shade.  A song must have rhythmic attributes that reel in the listener in a catchy way.  Anything else is optional, and melody/harmony can be used, but they can also be completely discarded, IF the context permits.  This is why people with no formal music education can write music with machines.  If you can intuitively understand structure, arrangement, and what someone might find catchy, you can write a song.

Nada’s “Trippin” doesn’t have any vocal melody at all, no real harmony of any description as we know it (you certainly couldn’t write a chord chart for it), and whatever fragments of melody are in there in the backing track feels like accidental chance combinations of sounds rather than any genuine attempt to write something someone could sing or hum along to.  However the result sounds punchy and impressive because it has a pretty tightly defined structure and a lot of contrast between ideas.  There are no time-wasting sections, everything serves the overall aesthetic of the song, and the texture and rhythm of the song are on point throughout.  Yes it sounds like a car crash, but it’s a car crash that you want to be in.

Of course that doesn’t mean throwing out elements of melody and harmony works all the time.  To finish up let’s look at an example that failed.

Oh My Girl’s “Shark” could have been great, but it definitely isn’t.  The chorus has a neat progression that is very much adherent to traditional functional harmony rules, with a looping VI-V-i and then i II III VII as a quick turnaround at the end of every four bars, with some cool bass to reinforce this idea.  However the songwriters pissed away any chance of making the chorus sound good by having the girls just chant the whole way through it, over a progression where some kind of simple, catchy melody would have worked wonders.  Even something mega basic and lazy like vocodering the girls to match their voices to the keys, would have been enough to save what they had here.  I criticise the lack of melodic parts in k-pop a lot, and that’s not because chanting parts can’t work (Nada shows that they can) but that they’re often used in a poor context just because it’s a trend, where often something else, sometimes anything else, could have worked better.  So what I’m trying to say is that just like multiple-orgasming hermaphrodites in JAV, functional harmony rules have their place in k-pop, but it’s better to think about structural aspects of pop music more holistically when listening, and more experimentally when writing.  It’s just one part of the toolkit, not the whole box.

That’s all for this post – see you next time, chiki chika chu!

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