Vivek Maddala

Vivek Maddala


Thanks, Phil, for the tribute to Barry Harris. His melodic phrasing and harmonic sense were superb. Years ago, when I heard his explanation of the 6th diminished scale, so many things suddenly clicked into place for me. I had been exploring it indirectly since childhood to build diatonic chords using the flat-6 scale degree, but I didn't fully appreciate how it all worked 'til I discovered Barry Harris. (I referenced Barry and the 6th-diminished scale in my Stereogum article on Coldplay's "Coloratura" -- a connection I imagine readers were surprised to see.) I think Barry's music and teaching extended well beyond the stark boundaries of bebop, though he probably wouldn't have agreed. In any case, he affected me deeply -- and I admired him greatly. Rest in peace, Barry.
Yeah, that double bass really should have four strings instead of three. And what's up with the not-quite-five-and-a-half octave piano? And what kind of weird sax grip is that? But seriously, I hadn't caught what I think you're actually referencing til I saw your comment. I wouldn't say it's "problematic" (a word I avoid), but it's worthy of discussion. On an unrelated note: I like this "10 best" list but I would've liked to have seen it include "Uneasy" by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, and Tyshawn Sorey.
OK, so I grew up literally around the corner from your dad's house. And my parents knew the Felders quite well. Damn, small world.
I hope I'm not being dense here about your Benmont Tench reference: was your grandfather John Kraft, dean of the Univ. of Florida econ department? If so, we have a lot more in common than I had realized. (If your reference was just a joke, then please pardon my misunderstanding.)
I've always found "Unbelievable" annoying to listen to, but I think it has one really cool thing going for it: the song is based on an unusual musical mode called "Spanish Phrygian." It's so unusual, in fact, that I think it may be the only song ever to be featured in The Number Ones column that uses it. The Phrygian scale comprises the following degrees: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7. There's another scale called Phrygian Dominant, which is nearly identical, but it contains a natural (not flat) 3. Spanish Phrygian combines these two scales, resulting in an octatonic (8-note) scale containing both a Major 3rd and a minor 3rd. I'm sure everyone reading this has heard the Andalusian cadence (from Flamenco music) -- even if you didn't know that's what it's called. The chorus of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" uses it, as does David Bowie's "China Girl," Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing," Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Hall & Oates' "Maneater," and countless other songs. The Andalusian cadence comes directly from Phrygian mode. Today's number 1 song, "Unbelievable," is in G#, and because it uses the Spanish Phrygian scale, the notes are: G#, A, B, C, C#, D#, E, F#. Play or sing this scale and you'll hear that it possesses quite an exotic sound with a lot of melodic possibilities. The song's recurring guitar motif, which comes in after he sings "You're unbelievable," is the tune's most direct expression of this musical mode. It's an amazingly cool sound -- elusive, yet incredibly "hooky" -- and I think it's the main reason this song became so popular. Another name for this mode is "Mixolydian-flat-9-sharp-9-flat-13." It's similar to the Hijaz Maqam scale in Arabic music, the Bhairavi in Hindustani (North Indian) music, the Hanumatodi raga in Carnatic (South Indian) music, and Dastgāh-e Šur in Iranian music. And of course, you can find it in southern Spain (the Andalusian region of the Iberian Peninsula). As the name "Phrygian" implies, you can trace its origin to ancient Greece. So while musicians all over the world use it, it's pretty rare to hear it in Western pop music. I've used Spanish Phrygian when composing film scores, and my colleague Jeff Beal has made Spanish Phrygian one of his signature sounds (check out his score for HBO's "Rome" or Netflix's "House of Cards"). So here's the question: has Spanish Phrygian mode been used in any pop songs besides "Unbelievable"? Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" uses Phrygian, but there's no Major 3rd, so it's not Spanish Phrygian. "Would," by Alice In Chains, uses Phrygian -- but again, no Major 3rd, so it's not Spanish Phrygian. Kendrick Lamar's "Humble" sounds like Phrygian mode, but there's no 3rd interval at all in the recurring riff, so we don't have enough information to identify exactly what kind of Phrygian scale it uses. Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" is a great example of Phrygian mode -- but alas, not Spanish Phrygian. Likewise with Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)." Ravel's "Bolero" does use Spanish Phrygian mode, but we don't generally considered that a "pop song" per se. Maybe "Unbelievable" is unique within the pop music canon for its use of this unusual musical mode...? OK, I just remembered a song that uses Spanish Phrygian: Radiohead's "Pyramid Song." Also, the intro to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" is in Spanish Phrygian. (That song made it to #8 on the Hot 100.) Curiously, Tom Breihan wrote, "It is fucking insane that the guy from EMF was partly responsible for 'Beautiful Liar'." I just listened to that song, and -- lo and beyond -- it's in Spanish Phrygian! So it's not insane. Maybe Ian Dench was really into Spanish Phrygian? Can anyone name another pop hit that uses this musical mode? Other thoughts?
Yeah -- that's right! Good catch. The verses in Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" use a I-III-IV-iv-I... progression, same as Radiohead's "Creep." It's a pretty distinctive sound. Traditionally, you can't copyright a chord progression, but I guess the vocal phrasing, rhythmic feel, and overall vibe is pretty similar. Apart from these songs, there are innumerable examples of the iv-I cadence throughout the canon of Western music -- yet somehow that sound never feels tired or hackneyed to me. The half-step voice-leading resolution always feels a little bittersweet to me.
Compositionally, "More Than Words" is a straightforward ballad, but it has some notable things going on. The song is played in G Major, but Nuno tuned his guitar down a half-step, so it's actually in F#. For clarity, I'll use G Major as the reference key for this discussion. (1) The song uses a "secondary dominant" pivot chord to create a marvelous melodic hook. On the vocal line "all you have to do to make it real," and then later on the line "all I ever needed you to show," Nuno sneaks in a G7 chord, which is the V of IV. This creates a particularly ear-catching turn in the song because it comes right after Gary has sung an F# (7th degree of the G-Major scale). The G7 chord forces Gary to move the melodic line down a half-step to F natural -- which creates a big harmonic shift. This secondary dominant chord effectively functions as a pivot point, leading to a classic V-I cadence in a new key. In other words, the maneuver pulls the song's center of gravity away from G Major and towards C Major. It's a way of rotating the harmonic axis of the song, and it keeps the tune from becoming tedious. We can trace this kind of harmonic motion to 18th-Century Europe, and specifically, to the late Baroque period. A great example is the last movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 5 in G major. In 1939, composer and Harvard professor Walter Piston explored the concept of the secondary dominant in his seminal text, the "Principles of Harmonic Analysis." Notably, he used the Mozart example to describe how the diminished 7th degree creates a "secondary leading tone" that can resolve down to the 3rd degree of the newly "tonicized" chord. This is precisely the device that Nuno and Gary are using in "More Than Words": the F# in the melody moves down to F natural (on the G7 chord) as a leading tone to move stepwise down to E (the 3rd of C Major). Voila! It's a charming little turn in the song. (2) After the secondary dominant chord, when Gary sings the line "Then you wouldn't have to say," Nuno follows the newly "tonicized" C Major chord with a C minor. This is the "minor iv" chord in the key of G -- sometimes called a "borrowed chord" from the parallel minor key. It creates a brief bittersweet moment as the harmonic motion resolves back to the G Major. This iv-I resolution is a lovely cadence, and it's an effective musical device for injecting a sense of romance into an otherwise bland musical passage. Another well-known song that uses this cadence is Radiohead's "Creep": think of the end of the chorus when he sings the line "I don't belong here." That's a iv-I cadence going back into the verse. The chorus of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" uses the same maneuver, as does the Beatles' "Nowhere Man." And an even better example is the Eagles' "Desperado," as it uses not just the the iv, but the iv6 (Cmin6). This creates a real sense of longing, because minor 6 chords are really inversions of min7b5 (minor-7-flat-5) chords, which possess a wistful, aching quality. John Williams' "Han Solo and the Princess" love theme from Star Wars is an exquisite example of this use of the minor vi6 interacting with the I. It's a kind of variation of the diatonic chords built off the "6th diminished scale" (a concept that comes from bebop and modal jazz). But that's a more sophisticated use of the minor iv. The way Extreme is using the minor iv in "More Than Words" is pretty simple -- but effective. (3) Towards the end of the song, on the line "'Cause I'd already know," they insert the b9 (flat-9) upper extension on the V7 chord -- i.e., making it a dominant-7-flat-9. This is a tasty variation of the V7, and it contains many points of tension that crave resolution back to the tonic chord. We can think of it as a diminished-7 chord superimposed on the root of the V, a half-step above it. It's a colorful chord most often heard in jazz standards (like "Stella By Starlight"), and it's unusual to find it in a modern pop song. In fact, "More Than Words" might be the last Billboard #1 single to contain this chord -- until Silk Sonic used it in "Leave the Door Open," which recently topped the chart. Can anyone confirm if this is the case? Also, the single version of "More Than Words" ends on the tonic chord, but one of the vocal harmonies goes from the 5th to the 6th scale degree -- creating a sort of Beatlesesque musical ending. It's surprising, and I kind of like it. (4) One thing kinda bugs me about Extreme's "More Than Words" recording: the vocal intonation. To my ear, Gary's voice sounds a little flat in parts of the song. For example, whenever he sings the D# (in the key of F#), the 6th, over the tonic chord, his pitch sounds slightly flat to me. Anyone else hearing this? This surprises me given that he's a good singer and the whole band is pretty fastidious. It occurred to me that he's singing mostly without vibrato -- perhaps to create a more sincere-sounding performance (probably a good idea given how creepily manipulative the lyrics are, as Tom Breihan repeatedly pointed out). Vibrato has a tendency to make the pitch average of a note sound sharp due to the nature of the oscillation. If you're used to singing with vibrato and using that oscillation to center your pitch, I can imagine that your intonation would go flat in the absence of vibrato. Other thoughts?
I am involved with the organization CODE PINK, and last Wednesday they organized a petition on this issue (along with other important ones). You can sign it here, and I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to do so:
Good question. I think competent composers and songwriters absolutely know what they're doing -- even if they don't know the formal names for things. To wit: Joni Mitchell was using sus chords for years, intentionally and artfully, before she knew what they were called. She referred to them as "chords of inquiry" -- because that's what they meant to her. It was years before someone (maybe Wayne Shorter?) told her what everyone else calls them. One can write evocative, emotionally powerful music without having any formal training and without knowing official terminology. But when communicating with others, it helps if you have a common language with which to describe things. If you're a working musician, it's pretty important to be able to name notes, intervals, rhythms, and chord types using commonly accepted language -- and it's important to understand how notes, chords, and rhythms relate to each other. If you were to ask me to play a 16th-note C Lydian arpeggio, but my term for that is "Lavender chugalug," it would take a minute for each of us to figure out what they other person means -- which is not an efficient way to communicate.
Good catch! Do you realize you've just volunteered to proofread all my writings in the future? :-)


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