By now the world has learned of the death of the great composer, songwriter, and pianist Burt Bacharach. He studied with, among others, Darius Milhaud, and elevated the pop song in so many different ways.
Since we haven’t done a Theory Thursday in a while, I thought it would be cool to talk about what makes Bacharach’s work so…well, cool.
In a lot of pop music – and in a lot of non-pop music – there are certain structural and tonal expectations. Two of the most common ones are:
1. Phrases (complete musical ideas ending with some kind of closure) are four measures in length
2. The most important relationship when defining a key is the dominant-tonic relationship (V-I).
Let’s listen to the song “Always Something There To Remind Me,” one of my favorite Bacharach tunes (co-written with the legendary Hal David). First up, the demo version from Miss Dionne Warwick:
Pretty cool, huh? Now let’s listen to the version I first heard in the 1980s, the synth-pop cover by the band Naked Eyes:
What jumps at you is the phrase structure. Instead of nice four-bar phrases, Bacharach gives us a verse with a phrase structure of five-five-three.
Example 1: The opening phrase, five measures long.
The asymmetry, coupled with the ending ii half-diminished chord (not a chord normally associated with the end of a phrase, though Robert Schumann uses one to great effect at the end of a phrase in “Widmung,” the opening song of the op. 25 collection), adds musical interest. Things are off-kilter. A romance is no more, but there’s always something there to remind you. Bacharach thwarts the first of the two expectations listed above.
The other expectation is thwarted as well; there’s not a V-I until you get to almost the end of the chorus, with “I was born to love you, but I will never be free.” Listen again. There’s not a root-position dominant The piece is clearly in a key (Naked Eyes uses D, so I shall use that as my reference point), but the V-I – the defining tonal relationship – is only barely present. You can go almost the entire form of the tune before you hit a V-I.
One last little bit: Naked Eyes’ version takes the descending chromatic line from the soprano in the original down to the bass. This doesn’t actually change anything harmonically, but it does add the dimension of possible reference to the lament bass, or a descending chromatic bass line used as the basis for a lament or sad song. (Purcell’s “When I am laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas is the go-to model.) Some websites list the second chord as A/C#, but as I hear it there’s not enough there to think in terms of it being a dominant, and even if you could hear it that way, it’s an inversion with strong chromatic linear motion, which goes a long way toward undercutting the idea of it being a V.
Example 2. The opening phrase as performed by Naked Eyes.
Bacharach was a titan for so many reasons, but for me it’s because he thwarted expectations, and in doing so created tiny masterpieces. May his memory be a blessing, and may he rest well.