The Teardrop Chord: Analyzing the Enigmatic Minor IV Chord in Pop and Film Music - John Baxter
Episode 327th January 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:16:46

Share Episode

Shownotes

John Baxter presents a poignant discussion on the "teardrop chord" in this third episode of the season.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Beavers.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

SMT-Pod theme music playing

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this episode, John Baxter focuses on emotional response and the experience when we hear a particular kind of mode mixture: "The Teardrop Chord: Analyzing the Enigmatic Minor IV-Chord in Pop and Film Music."

John:

My undergraduate composition professor said something that changed my entire perspective on music. Like a magician pulling back the curtain to show his tricks, he pointed to a chord in my piece and said “Ah, yes, the teardrop chord.” There it is. Do you feel that? That sense of yearning, loss, heartbreak. The Teardrop Chord, I later learned, is a minor four chord placed within a major modality. So, for instance, if you play F Minor while in the key of C Major, you get the teardrop chord.

John:

The examples I’ll be discussing today are mainly from the past 10 years. However, this harmonic gambit has been in use far before then. Frank Lehman (2013) discusses modally mixed cadences and their roots in Romantic Concert music repertoire, for instance in the music of Schumann, Chopin or Mendelssohn. Indeed, in the first measure of Chopin’s famous Nocturne Op.9 No. 2, we can hear this harmonic motion in the left hand.

John:

Steven Laitz claims that this motion between I and iv suggests “sentiment or sublimity”. Do you agree? Of course, this is not the only chord progression capable of conjuring sorrow and melancholy. Scott Murphy examines a different chord progression in the film music world this one being I-iii a mediant relationship. He calls this the chord progression of “loss”.

John:

Certainly, there are several examples of film scores that utilize the I-iii progression in association with sadness such as Crash, Pearl Harbor, and Legends of the Fall. One large difference between Murphy's "loss" progression and the Teardrop Chord is the introduction of a non-diatonic pitch (if we were in the key of C major this would be Ab).

John:

Susan McClary corroborates this idea, "The fact that the minor iv chord is deviant from the diatonic processes of the major key intensifies its functional instability--its unnatural generation demands resolution all the more." Today, I’ll show that in recent years, a trend has arisen of associating the minor iv chord with internal sadness, illusion, and loneliness. I’ll be discussing film examples from Star Wars, Moonlight, and Love Actually; and, popular music examples include Radiohead’s “Creep”, Post Malone’s “Stay”, and John Mayer’s “Stop this Train” (Although there are numerous examples of this chord showing up.

John:

We’ll start with Star Wars. Towards the end of “The Empire Strikes Back”, the characters Han and Leia begin to realize their love for one another . As Han goes to meet his fate by being frozen in carbonite, Leia expresses, “I love you!” to which Han responds, “I know.” John Williams’s created “Leia’s theme, which appears in scenes such as this one [Figure 1 in Supplemental Materials]. Starting on the tonic Major I chord, Leia’s theme then shifts to the minor iv harmony over a pedal in the bass.

John:

I contend that this harmonic motion captures their relationship very well. Though Han and Leia love each other, it is clear that their love is not without problems or obstacles. It is not, necessarily, an inspiring love story. In many ways, an enigmatic and harrowing theme is more appropriate to describe their story than a triumphant and saccharine melody. Later in the film, Luke and Leia look into the distance and begin their plan to save Han. As the film comes to a close, a different theme plays.

John:

This theme [Figure 2] is titled Han Solo and Leia’s theme and interestingly bears a strong resemblance to Leia’s theme, each starting with a major six leap in the melody. The harmony under Leia’s theme is predominantly a minor iv chord while the harmony under Han and Leia’s theme is predominantly a bVI chord. Now of course if we are in the key of C major, F minor and A flat major are related chords, sharing two chord members including the pivotal non-diatonic tone of the flat six scale degree.

John:

By having a similar harmonic motion between these two themes, John Williams subtly gives narrative cohesion to these two characters through their themes. The use of non-diatonic scale degrees mirrors the depth and complexity of their relationship as it is presented throughout the films. When used as the finale to Empire Strikes Back, this theme sets the stage well for the final chapter in the series.

John:

Let’s move on to Moonlight now. Nominated for both an Academy award and a Golden Globe award, Nicholas Britell’s score for Moonlight features a simple, yet haunting theme. The story of Moonlight takes place in three parts, centered around the main character, Chiron. In the first section, he is referred to as Little. In the second act during his teenage years, he is called by his given name. In the final act, he is simply called Black. Growing up in a community hostile towards homosexuality, Chiron continuously feels a need to hide who he is and run from his abusive environment.

John:

Alternating between I and iv, this theme utilizes a small ensemble consisting of only a piano and a violin [Figure 3]. Britell uses the same exact theme for each of Chiron’s life chapters. As he gets older though, the quality of the sound changes, getting deeper and more distorted, almost unrecognizable by the time Little has become Black. The music is relatively unemotional, avoiding any use of extreme dynamics or sweeping gestures. The theme almost mechanically keeps rhythm and moves forward.

John:

Yet there is a sense of sorrow and darkness. I would argue that this is a perfect encapsulation for the character of Chiron. Throughout his life, he has been forced to just keep moving forward despite what is happening in his head and heart. People know that he is different and abuse him for his deviance. As he grows older, he takes this vulnerability and pushes it further and further down. In this case, the teardrop chord is not functioning as a modally mixed cadence (the theme has a PAC after the use of minor iv). Rather this use of minor iv seems to give an inflection of sorrow to this sad character’s slow march through life.

John:

The chord lilts up to the minor iv teardrop chord, but does not stay there, perhaps representing Chiron’s true self coming to surface but quickly fading away.

John:

In a steep contrast to Moonlight’s emotionally agnostic sound, the music to the 2003 film Love Actually composed by Craig Armstrong is drenched with emotional pathos. Of interest here is the Glasgow theme [Figure 4a], used to describe the relationship between the characters Juliet and Mark. The relationship between these characters is rather emotionally complex. Mark was the best man to the groom at Juliet’s wedding. However, unbeknownst to anyone, Mark falls in love with Juliet, his best friend’s now wife. In an attempt at what Mark later calls self-preservation, Mark feigns a coldness towards Juliet and never speaks to her.

John:

All is revealed though when Juliet shows up at Mark’s door asking about the video he took from her marriage. Juliet finds the footage and plays it while Mark is forced to stand by. The footage shows nothing but close ups of Juliet, revealing his love for her. The music that plays during this very emotional interaction features heavy use of the teardrop chord. Again, this harmonic motion is associated with a sort of secret sadness present in the character. The major tonality could represent Mark’s need to present a front that he is okay with this marriage, but the introduction of the minor iv chord belies his heartache that he cannot be with the woman he loves.

John:

As the footage, comes to a close, Juliet remarks on the camera shots softly “they’re all of me”. Mark responds slowly “Yeah. Yup. Yes”. At this point in the scene, the score introduces a flat ^3 scale degree which can act as a sort of bridge in between the major and minor tonalities. In the moment of Mark’s admission of his love for Juliet, the music becomes fully in the parallel minor as if the façade has been broken [Figure 4b].

John:

So far, we’ve discussed the films Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Moonlight, and Love Actually. Now we’ll pivot to pop music and songs, starting with Radiohead’s Creep. Released to huge success in 1992, Creep tells a similar story of unrequited love and a feeling of being different and cast out. Throughout the song, the chord progression I-III-IV-iv is used which involves two uses of the enigmatic sixth scale degree [Figure 5]. Guy Capuzzo (2004) analyzes the lyrics in relation to the chromatic nature of the ascending soprano line in the guitar.

John:

He writes, “The highest pitches of the ostinato form a prominent chromatic line that “creeps” up, then down, involving scale degrees 5 – #5 – 6 – b6. As the line ascends, the lyrics strain towards optimism, with 5 and #5 set to the words “you float like a feather, in a beautiful world” in the second verse. As the line descends, the subject sinks back into the throes of self-pity, with 6 and b6 set to the words “I wish I was special, you’re so very special” in the same verse.

John:

The enharmonic relationship between #5 and b6 thus serves distinct expressive ends—optimism in ascent, despair in descent” In the second verse, the harmonic motion again supports the lyrics. By singing “I want a perfect body” on the major IV tonality, the singer expresses a common sentiment reflected in many people’s minds. A relatively common sentiment for a relatively common harmony. A minor iv chord follows on the line “I want a perfect soul” reflecting something that is more difficult to obtain, perhaps even impossible for this singer.

John:

Let’s keep moving with Post Malone’s song Stay. Described by Billboard as “brilliant in its somberness” Stay utilizes a very colorful harmonic pallet in the verse starting on the IVM7 harmony, shifting to IM7 and then to vi7. The chorus, however, starts with the line “Tell me that it’s all okay” on an unambiguous major tonic triad which then moves through the vi chord and major II chord. Post Malone finishes the chorus by singing “I’m here” over an encouraging major IV chord, but the chord shifts to the minor iv tonality on the final line “But don’t count on me to stay”.

John:

Post Malone’s use of the minor iv chord reflects the bittersweet concluding lyrics. He implements the major II chord to set up a rising motion, similar to the Major III chord in “Creep”. The sharp 4 scale degree pushes the song in an upward trajectory on the line “Call me in the morning tell me how last night went” while the flat 6 scale degree pushes the harmony down given the voice leading tendencies of the chord [Figure 6]. Similar also to “Creep”, the song ends on a major tonic triad, emphasizing the acceptance and resolved nature of the singer’s departure.

John:

A song with a chord progression such as Post Malone’s Stay is a little harder to understand when using classical theory. Given the II chord, one would expect the next chord to either be V or bIII. Neither of these occur. After the applied II chord, the progression rises to IV. Perhaps by thwarting the expected motion resulting from the applied II chord, a feeling of failure and sadness is even more effectively permeated. The # ^4 scale degree should rise to scale degree ^5. By falling instead to natural 4, a more resigned, downcast impression is given (doubled by the flat 6 scale degree after).

John:

Of course, this progression is not uncommon, often known as the Lydian progression (I, II, IV, I) such as in Cee-Lo Green’s song "Forget You". But by introducing both the vi and the iv chord, Post Malone casts a much darker inflection on this progression.

John:

Lastly I’ll be discussing John Mayer’s song “Stop this Train”. Written during what Mayer described as a “quarter-life crisis”, “Stop this Train” is described by Mayer as the feeling of “...running out of a continually burning hallway and you can’t go back and get your stuff and all I want to do is yell ‘I want to go get my stuff!’ and people go ‘You can’t. Keep running!’” Until this point, I have only analyzed songs that feature the minor iv chord as either the end of a phrase or as an ornamental passing chord. “Stop this Train" in contrast, features a chorus that begins on a minor iv M7 chord (in the key of C major, notes f-ab-c-e).

John:

The verses tend to feature lyrics about conflict between the singer’s confidence in himself and his feelings of anxiety. By using unambiguous major I and IV chords through the verses and the minor iv chord in the chorus, Mayer sets up a sort of reflection of the anxiety within himself [Figure 7]. When the chorus arrives, the underlying harmony contributes to the poignancy of the lyrics. Mayer begins the chorus by singing “Stop this train. I want to get off and go home again”. By switching to the minor iv chord at the chorus, he shows the inner part of himself, less confident and more anxious about his speedy trajectory through life.

John:

The addition of scale degree 7 in the minor iv chord adds an even deeper layer of meaning. Given the feeling of stasis and ennui associated with the major 7 interval, the combination of this interval with the minor iv chord causes a feeling of passive sadness to ensue. As if the singer is a passenger on a train, powerless to change what is happening, but yearning for an escape nonetheless.

John:

After discussing these six examples, I hope I have shed light on this tendency of associating the minor 4 chord with a strangely specific emotion associated with feelings of secretive loneliness, distorted positivity, and extreme sorrow. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, none would argue that Mariah Carey's hit song "All I Want for Christmas is You" is a sad song. This song is played regularly millions of times over the holidays for joyous crowds. Yet this song does use the minor iv chord (and even flattened ^3 scale degree). I am not the first to discuss this particular harmonic device's nature and effects. There are several researchers who have published fantastic work on these harmonic tools. We don’t have time to discuss all of the research here today, but you can find their articles in the references for my talk online.

John:

By studying the teardrop chord trope and its use in media, composers can be more aware of the gestures they are using in their own music. Musicologists can perform larger corpus studies analyzing this motion as it has developed from the romantic period and into movie theaters/radio stations today. By keeping this harmonic gesture in our minds and ears, we can be more sensitive as to why a scene feels so suddenly sad or lyrics suddenly feel so poignant. The teardrop chord just might be the culprit.

John:

In closing, I'd like to thank Professor Christine Boone who was my peer reviewer - thank you so much for your feedback. In addition I'd like to thank my professor at the Frost School of Music Dr. Juan Chattah for showing me that my passion can be researched and that I can create valuable, intricate and complex research on equally complex and beautiful pop and film music from all across the decades. Lastly, I'd like to thank the composers' whose work I studied in this podcast, thank you so much for creating such wonderful music to enrich our worlds.

John:

Visit our website for supplemental materials related to this episode including a handout of musical examples you can edit for teaching at smt-pod.org. And join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!

Follow

Links