Schenker and “The Soar”: Modifying tonal conventions for not-really-tonal music

Schenker and “The Soar”: Modifying tonal conventions for not-really-tonal music

“Rhythm” and “Harmony” are often offered as contrasting, if not opposed, ways of organizing pieces of music. As the famous diagram attests, Western music uses harmony (chords) as its way of organizing pieces of music: all you need to start a band, after all, are three chords. Musics with their roots in Afro-diasporic traditions, however, use rhythm as their primary means of organization. Of course this rhythm/harmony opposition is a false dichotomy (i.e., they’re not mutually exclusive—think about how jazz musics use both harmony and rhythm as organizational devices), and of course the Western harmony vs. African rhythm scheme is a huge generalization. However, there is a grain of truth to the overarching idea: harmony and rhythm are two different ways to organize a song.

Due in large part to (1) the cannot-be-overemphasized influence of Afrodiasporic music on Anglo-American pop music, and (2) electronic and digital instruments and technology (e.g., that make it easy to cut, sample, and loop), the formal structures of contemporary Anglo-American pop songs are just as likely to be rhythm-based as they are to be harmony-based. For every traditional, harmonic Taylor Swift or Kelly Clarkson number, there’s something like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” or Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On Em.” However, with the current resurgence of house-influenced tracks like, well, all of Usher’s new singles, or the Black Eyed Peas’ past few albums, or Ke$ha’s party rap, the pop charts have been relying heavily on repetition (not always to the exclusion of harmony, but often only to a minimal extent).

As Daniel Barrow has insightfully noted, many of these house-based tracks eschew traditional, tonal verse-chorus-verse structures that rely on harmonic development and resolution for more truncated, punctuated, verse-chorus-verse “assemblages,” if you will. Instead of “the time-honoured pop chorus,” we now have

a rhythmic restructuring of song: the curiously unearned bursts of euphoria that puncture ‘I Gotta Feeling’ seem unrelated to what surround them; the song’s individual parts begin to resemble plastic modular bits suffled around at will.

This “rhythmic” restructuring is a revision away from harmony. In tonality, we “earn” euphoria—or rather, resolution to the tonic—by progressing through some harmonic development (through the dominant, subdominant, whatever.) Tonal harmony is like a narrative in literature: there has to be rising action, plot development, etc., in order for the confict to make sense, and in order for the resolution to be satisfying. For example, it wouldn’t be a big deal for Ulysses to come home if he hadn’t been away for so long, and the Odyssey would be seriously boring if he didn’t meet all those creatures. So, the reason why these “bursts of euphoria” seem “unearned” and random is because they are not set up by harmonic development: in these tracks, you don’t need three chords to start a band, so to speak. While Barrow himself doesn’t mention tonality or harmony, his analysis is, I think, clarified by their introduction. Barrow identifies a newly trendy pop compositional structure, what he calls “The Soar”. He defines the Soar as

chorus, topped, in the case of female singers, with fountaining melisma; the moment the producer deploys the riff, the synth-gush, the shouted vocal-hook for which the whole of the rest of the song is a mere appendage, a prologue and epilogue that only the chorus validate.

The Soar is the “climax” of the piece—Barrow even calls it the “money shot.” As such, the Soar is a teleological device: it is a way of channeling rising energy, intensifying and building it, prolonging it until—BAM!, the payoff—and denoument.

I want to suggest that the Soar is a way of reintroducing the teleology that tonality provides into songs that aren’t primarily or significantly tonal (they can use some harmony, but they’re not structured in a traditionally “tonal” way). If we can’t find “tonal” payoff in harmonic resolution, the Soar gives us timbral, textural, and rhythmic “payoff.” The Soar is a different way of affectively “charging” the chorus. It’s precisely these elements—timbre, texture, and rhythm—that the Soar uses to create a directional buildup. Here’s a general formula (which can loosely be applied to any number of specific cases, which will obviously be different in the details): dynamically, there’s a crescendo from softer to louder; texturally, there is an intensification of sound: more and more layers are added (either new instruments/effects, or the doubling/tripling of already-present voices); timbrally, the song gets increasingly brighter and more “raw” (or, it is pushed further “into the red”); rhythmically, rhythmic events are intensified: there are more and more complicated rhythmic events (e.g., where there were eighth notes, now sixteenth notes, and in two measures, thirty-second notes). These non-harmonic forms of musical intensification create a sense of affective intensification: the song builds and builds, teasing listeners with an implied (and expected) payoff of some sort. This payoff, however, is not “resolution”—it’s often more of a burst or a release, after which the song drops off/down. In Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends,” the main moment of Soar is followed by silence.

I have a hunch—and I want to emphasize that this is just a hunch and I’m very happy to be proven wrong (or right!): This teleological “Soar” is not absent in tonal music—it’s just framed in terms of harmony. Music theorist Heinrich Schenker argued that all “traditionally” (as in, pre-Romantic) tonal music was structured by or reducible to a fundamental harmonic formula. He called this formula the “Ursatz,” or “primary sentence/statement.” The Ursatz is composed of three moments: the initial statement of the tonic (I), the climactic statement of the dominant (V), and the final resolution to the tonic (I). If you look at an Ursatz in notation, you will see that it takes the shape of, surprise(!), a Soar:

With its rise and its fall, the Schenkerian Ursatz soars in the same way that the Barrowian “Soar” does: it creates tension, builds teleologically up to some “payoff” which produces listening and/or performative pleasure. If you draw a line connecting the three bass-cleff moments of the Ursatz, it even looks like a “soaring” arch. The key thing is that both tonal Ursatze and non-tonal Barrowian “Soars” more or less do the same thing: they are ways of teleologically organizing both the structure of a song, and our affective responses to music. We still expect a payoff, whether it be harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, whatever.

So, I would argue that the difference between Soaring pop and “proper” dance music is that dance music often is ateleological—it’s not goal-directed, but maintains or prolongs or repeats. The Soar is really a way of making dance-y pop more like traditional, tonal pop. It takes the teleology of verse-chorus-verse structures and re-orients it, shifting it from the domain of harmony to the domain of something else (often somethings else, plural). I really enthusiastically endorse Barrow’s read—in fact, as I hope I’ve shown here, he’s more correct than he lets on.