A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul”
Beyoncé’s hypnotic new single, “Break My Soul,” has topped the Billboard Hot 100, and if pandemic restrictions continue relaxing, you’ll soon experience this ebullient ’90s-inspired house jam on a dance floor near you. It’s is a four-on-the-floor, fastball-down-the-middle club track, threaded with raucous New Orleans bounce chants (courtesy of a Big Freedia sample), and replete with archetypical house production characteristics. Because expertly crafted public relations accompanies everything Beyoncé does, it can be tempting to reflexively dismiss her music as mere ear candy—i.e., alluring sonic confections that lack nutritional value but attain cultural buoyancy due to strategic marketing. However, if you scratch the surface of a song like “Break My Soul,” you may notice some deceptively sophisticated composition techniques. Indeed, this new Beyoncé single might initially sound like it uses only standard house music tropes, but there’s actually some skillful innovation going on. So let’s check it out.
“Break My Soul” has a fixed 115-bpm tempo and is ostensibly in the key of G# minor. It contains a strictly diatonic melody (i.e., one that never deviates from the song’s key signature). In fact, with very few exceptions, the notes comprising the melody are drawn entirely from the G# minor pentatonic (5-note) scale. See Figures 1 and 2 below.
What’s notable about the pentatonic scale is that it’s the one musical scale you can find all over the world. It’s as common as 4/4 time. Over centuries of history, cultures across the globe independently came up with this scale — from the horn of Africa, to Polynesian islands in the South Pacific, to Scotland, to the Andean region of South America. There are Indian (South Asian) ragas based on the pentatonic scale. Traditional Chinese music (and bad parodies of Chinese music) are based on this same 5-note scale. You can also hear it in Native American music from First Nations across the North American continent. Check out this video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating how universal and intuitive this scale is — even to people who may not have any musical training.
Importantly, the pentatonic scale also forms the basis for American blues. The blues scale is essentially the pentatonic scale plus the famous “blue note”: a “flat 3” (when referencing the major pentatonic scale) or a “flat 5” (when referencing the minor pentatonic scale). See Figure 1 above.
Because the pentatonic scale is so versatile and so simple, melodies that use it can invite more complex and stimulating harmonic structures as accompaniment. And this is where “Break My Soul” gets interesting.
Diatonic chords, by definition, live in the song’s key center. In the key of G# minor, the diatonic chords are G#min7, A#min7♭5 (or A#-half-diminished), BMaj7, C#min7, D#min7, EMAJ7, and F#7. We generate these 4-note chords by stacking intervals of 3rds to harmonize the scale. [For more background on this concept, check out my previous article on Lorde’s “Solar Power.”] See Figure 3 below.
The chords G#min7 and C#min7 represent the i7 and iv7 in the key of G# minor. It is these two chords — and only these two — that we hear during the entire first minute of “Break My Soul,” from the intro through the first chorus and second verse. This persistent back-and-forth motion between the i7 and iv7, the two most fundamental chords in this harmonic system, creates a kind of mesmerizing effect. Coupled with Beyoncé’s impeccable mezzo-soprano vocal, the chords establish a trance-like quality, with a fluid groove and minimal harmonic tension. It’s as though Beyoncé is trying to lull us into a harmonically uniform and predictable space… that is, until she furtively expands the harmonic palette using a musical sleight of hand.
Neapolitan Isn’t Just About Ice Cream And Pizza
In the second chorus, the song slides in an AMaj9 as the second chord in the sequence — a decidedly non-diatonic chord relative to the G# minor key center. The effect of this new chord is subtle, but important. Because the bass note moves up a half step (or semitone) from G# to A, while the rest of the harmony remains intact, it injects a sense of optimistic defiance. It creates the impression of percolating energy, threatening to break free of the constrained i7-to-iv7 chord architecture. All of this parallels Beyoncé’s lyrical theme of divesting from the past and envisioning a new-found freedom. See Figure 4 below.
Where did this AMaj9 chord come from, and why does it sound so lush relative to G# minor? We can trace its roots to 17th- and 18th-Century Italian opera, and specifically to Baroque composers like Alessandro Scarlatti who worked in Naples. An AMaj is what we call a Neapolitan chord in the key of G# minor, and it serves as a poignant substitute for the iv chord. Referring back to Figure 3 above, you can see that it’s a chord built on the lowered second scale degree. Immediately after Beyoncé sings about “Lookin’ for motivation/ Lookin’ for a new foundation/ On to that new vibration,” the song does harmonically what the lyrics are saying: Beyoncé uses the flavorful Neapolitan chord to subtly suggest escape from the rigidity of the G#min7-to-C#min7 pattern. See Figure 5 below.
Perhaps the most famous use of the Neapolitan chord is in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” (Piano Sonata No 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27, No. 2) from 1802. In the second half of the third measure, Beethoven deploys a D/F# chord (D Major in first inversion) — what we call a “Neapolitan sixth” chord. It’s powerful because it evokes a rich, dramatic, and unexpected feeling, while retaining the function of leading to the V7 chord, which pulls us back home to the i chord.
There aren’t many examples of the Neapolitan chord in pop music, but we can hear it used to great effect in Def Leppard’s “Bringing On the Heartbreak” (listen to the turnaround in each verse). Props to Beyoncé and her team for employing this inspired-but-rarely-used chord modulation.
Dr. Barbara Murphy, Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee, has described the Neapolitan chord as a borrowed chord from Phrygian mode — which makes sense. It’s consistent with how the Neapolitan chord is viewed in Schenkerian analysis, where it’s called the Phrygian II chord. To wit: If we were to consider “Break My Soul” to be in G# Phrygian (with the song effectively using the notes of the E Major scale, but with G# minor still serving as the “home” chord), then the three chords heard throughout most of the song (G#min7, C# minor7, and AMaj9) would fit diatonically. See Figure 6 below.
The Sound Of House Music
Anyone who listened to popular music in the early 1990s will know the sound of the Korg M1 synthesizer whether or not they realize it. (Fun fact: It’s the instrument Jonathan Wolff used to create the iconic faux-slap-bass sound from Seinfeld). The M1 was a 61-key synth with built-in 8-track sequencer, and it’s now widely recognized as the best-selling synth of all time, with many of its presets having been etched into our collective musical memory. Notably, we recognize it as the sound of ’90s house music.
Specifically, there are three presets in the Korg M1 that ’90s house producers used extensively: patch 1 (Piano16′), patch 16 (Pick Bass), and patch 17 (Organ 2). You can hear some combination of these sounds on dance classics like Madonna’s “Vogue,” Londonbeat’s “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap!, “Please Don’t Go” by Double You, and perhaps most notably, “Show Me Love (Stonebridge Remix)” by Robin S. Clearly, Beyoncé and her collaborators, including The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, crafted “Break My Soul” as an homage to this early ’90s genre, as the song prominently features the Korg M1 Organ 2 and Piano 16′ patches in its central, recurring riffs. More broadly, Beyoncé’s song resuscitates many of the production tropes of that style and period, albeit with a shiny modern veneer (e.g. with vocals made pitch-perfect using current software).
At present, on the used market you can buy a vintage M1 for $500-700 US, but Korg makes a $50 virtual instrument plugin for digital audio workstations (DAWs) that impeccably recreates all those classic sounds. I have no idea whether Beyoncé and her team used the actual Korg M1 hardware or a virtual instrument when making “Break My Soul.” Either way, the sound is indelibly linked to ’90s house production.
Sampling, Interpolation, Or Inspiration?
Much has been made of the stylistic similarities between “Break My Soul” and Robin S.’ “Show Me Love (Stonebridge Remix),” with some people — including Robin S. herself — implying or asserting that Beyoncé’s song samples “Show Me Love.” But is that true? If it is, what exactly did “Break My Soul” sample from the Robin S. song? Let’s define some terms.
In the context of music production, “sampling” means using a piece of one recording in another recording. (The term “sampling” has origins in a branch of electrical engineering and information theory known as digital signal processing. It literally means to capture information that describes a continuous-time analog waveform for storage or processing in the digital domain. It’s the essence of all analog-to-digital conversion.) In practice, if you sample a melodic phrase from an existing piece of music for use in your own music, that implicates two copyrights associated with the piece you’re sampling: The musical composition copyright and the sound recording copyright. The musical composition copyright covers only that which would appear on a song’s lead sheet — i.e. melody, harmony (chords), and lyrics. The sound recording copyright covers the sounds that are on a recording — i.e., what you end up hearing when you listen to the finished song. You can think of the musical composition as analogous to a screenplay for a film, while the sound recording is analogous to the finished film that you can watch.
In contrast, if you quote a melody from another piece of music in your own music — i.e. if you recreate the sequence of notes from another song by playing or singing them, but you don’t use the actual recording — that’s “interpolation.” Importantly, it implicates the musical composition copyright, but not the sound recording copyright of the music you interpolated.
The prevailing assumption about “Break My Soul” seems to be that it uses the recurring keyboard riff in “Show Me Love”—which was played using the aforementioned “Organ 2” preset on the Korg M1 synth. Let’s compare the organ riffs in each of the two songs to detect what they have in common and how they differ. See Figure 9 below.
Putting aside the fact that the songs are in different keys and have different tempos, we can clearly observe that they use different melodic and harmonic structures. What they share in common is similar rhythmic syncopations at the beginnings and endings of each 2-bar phrase. Sonically, we can hear timbral differences between the synth organ sounds in the two songs, and that the “Show Me Love” organ has some delay/echo effects, whereas the organ in “Break My Soul” is bone dry. With modern technology, it’s possible to remove reverb and echo from a recording, to varying degrees depending on a range of variables, but it seems unlikely that Beyoncé, The-Dream, et al., would’ve gone to all that trouble unnecessarily (given that everyone has access to the Korg M1 “Organ 2” sound). So, unless I’m missing something, I think we can reasonably conclude that “Break My Soul” neither sampled anything from, nor interpolated, “Show Me Love.” What seems clear is that Beyoncé’s song found quite a bit of inspiration from Robin S.’ song in terms of feel and vibe.
If this is the case, why did the writers of “Show Me Love,” Allen George and Fred McFarlane, receive writing credit on “Break My Soul”? Were they actually involved in writing this new song, independent of any connection to “Show Me Love”? My guess is that it was a preemptive move by Beyoncé and her colleagues to inoculate themselves from a possible copyright infringement lawsuit — even a spurious one. The atrocious “Blurred Lines” case from a few years ago has created a chilling effect on music creators: If a new song you’ve recorded simply reminds people of another song due to a common style or feel — though not due to copying melody or chords or lyrics — there’s now a real fear of legal action. On the positive side, by including the names of the “Show Me Love” songwriters on Beyoncé’s song, Robin S. is benefiting from a resurgence in interest in her music — which is much deserved. There is real value in artists openly acknowledging their influences, and we should commend Beyoncé and her team for helping to steer listeners towards music they might not have otherwise heard.
“I’m Lookin’ For A New Foundation…”
With “Break My Soul,” Beyoncé is helping to revive the four-on-the-floor house music that undoubtedly inspired her throughout her formative years in the ’90s… but compositionally it’s not merely an homage. As with many of her songs over the past 20+ years (including during her tenure with Destiny’s Child), Beyoncé and her collaborators employ surprising and bold harmonic choices that defy genre expectations and expand the frontiers of the musical style she’s ostensibly operating in. In the fourth iteration of the chorus in “Break My Soul,” they introduce an EMaj7 (the VIMaj7) out of nowhere — an unexpected tension release that comes near the end of the song — followed by an energizing partly chromatic bassline walkup. It’s these sorts of clever and elegant choices that, in part, help to distinguish Beyoncé’s music from that of others operating in the same space.
As the latest chapter in Beyoncé’s ongoing artistic evolution, the entire Renaissance album is worth taking for a spin, if you haven’t already. I hope to see you on the dance floor soon.