For readers from the northern hemisphere and non-English speaking backgrounds, “daggy” is a wonderful word used in Australia and New Zealand to denote that which is embarrassingly out of fashion….
It was back in 2005 when I attended a Rolling Stones concert (for the first time in my life) that I realised what made the Rolling Stones so ‘cool’: the almost complete absence of the dominant chord in their tunes. More than that, in fact, because this absence of the dominant was accompanied by an abundance of the subdominant.
This is all classical-speak for saying that the Rolling Stones use chord I and chord IV (C and F, for instance) and almost no chord V (G).
Now, I haven’t sat down and catalogued the occurrences of the various kinds of chords in Rolling Stones numbers to be able to support this assertion, but certainly in the play list the Rolling Stones for that September 2005 Madison Square Gardens appearance the dominant didn’t get much of a look in.
This experience made me start listening to contemporary music of all kinds with a new ear. How prevalent is the dominant in contemporary composition, and how does it work as a marker of degrees of ‘cool’ (or its reverse)? I was unsurprised to find that whenever the dominant made an appearance the street-cred value of the music was at least a little diminished.
You may well disagree with me – but before you set your opinion too firmly go out and listen to whatever music comes your way in the next 24 hours. Do you find any examples of the dominant creating a ‘cool’ vibe? (If you do, please leave comments listing these pieces – I really want to test my hypothesis, which also includes an assumption that the Beatles used the dominant much more widely than the Rolling Stones ever did).
The dominant is, of course, an incredibly important chord in classical music. All the main structural patterns in music of the Classical period (as compared to the wider category ‘classical music’) need the dominant as the midway point, or a destination tonality in the process of themes unfolding. The dominant chord followed by the tonic chord (V-I, or G-C) is called the “perfect cadence” (or more recently and in North America, as an “authentic cadence”). The sound that this chord-combo makes is one that proclaims: THE END.
Now a lot of the music of the Rolling Stones uses the styles and structures of the blues as either a template or as an inspiration, and if you take a quick look at the statistics of a basic blues pattern you begin to see how they come to use the dominant so little. For the uninitiated, a blues is traditionally in a 12-bar format, and the chords, in their most fundamental realisation, go like this:
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
Notice how we get a 8 repetitions of I, 3 repititions of IV, and only 1 appearance of V. The function of the V is definitely to signal the the end is nigh, but the effect is softened by the interspersing of the IV between the V and the I that would otherwise create a ‘perfect’ or ‘authentic’ cadence. The combination of IV to I in a classical setting is what is called a ‘plagal cadence’, and (again for the uninitiated) you’ll be able to imagine it if you think of a choir singing “amen”. This is a much softer way of concluding your musical statement, and it communicates none of the bombastic ‘because-I-say-so’ that the V-I combination exudes.
Having listened to the Rolling Stones simply ignore the dominant for the best part of their concert I then started listening to every other pieces of music I came across: pieces for piano students to learn, new orchestral compositions, poppy pop songs, jingles for advertisements, you name it – that dominant is a killer.
And can I say again, please do leave me any and all examples you can find from recently composed music to counter my hypothesising (but note that there’s not much point telling me that Mozart uses the dominant – he’s well dead, and therefore permanently ‘cool’ being from his own time and place and all).
Here’s my theory: it’s not cool to take a cut-and-dried, there’s-nothing-more-to-say-about-it approach to life or conversation anymore. In the 21st century you have to leave some room for new information, for new experience, and certainly for changing your mind, and the dominant doesn’t communicate any of that openness or ability to negotiate.
So what does this mean? For starters, if you are a composer do a quick street-cred check on your use of chords! Hit the dominant too frequently or with too much enthusiasm and you’re in instant and inescapable fuddy-duddy-land.
And even more seriously, it’s time for piano teachers and piano examination boards to start looking at the kinds of new cadences that express the meanings of the 21st century. Nearly every piano tutor on the market explores the oh-so-200-years-ago I-IV-V7-I chord sequence. On a very simple (almost beginner) level I would suggest that the major key pattern I-vi-IV-I is a much more relevant harmonic experience. And then, if you do want to explore the dominant in a contemporary setting, try I-iii-V-I. These two chordal patterns sound fresh, relevant and, most importantly, interesting to our students.
More on this topic anon!