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I can't put my finger on it, but in many pop songs there exists a note that stands out from the song which sounds like it has:

  • "gone flat"
  • been raised/lowered a semitone
  • gone into a minor key

Mind you I have limited musical knowledge so my descriptions may not be the most accurate, and I am only going by "feel".

It certainly evokes a "feel-good" emotion that I instantly recognize every time I hear it, but I've been trying to put a name on it for a while now.

Here's an example:

At 1:01 in Bruno Mars' "Grenade", the notes sang with the lyrics "take a bullet straight through my brain" seem to stand out from the rest of the song, especially on the word "through".

Any ideas?

Edit: As a follow-up to my question, I've done some looking and discovered that these same sounds (that evoke the same emotion) are used abundantly in Japanese music and occasionally in Western music. They use the terms "royal road" progression as well as Relative Multipolar Tonality. A nostalgic emotion is evoked.

Examples can be found in these videos:

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_note
    – Lazy
    Dec 11, 2022 at 22:52
  • My guess is you're referring to the iv chord in a major key, but I can't say without at least one example.
    – Edward
    Dec 11, 2022 at 22:53
  • @Edward Thanks for the feedback. Added an example to the post!
    – Scene
    Dec 11, 2022 at 23:18
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    It's the leading tone heading for the relative minor. First the key is F major, then it goes to the relative D minor (which you should consider the same key as F major really) via an A major chord, where the A major's "third" is C#, which is D minor's leading tone. The chords are: F, A. Dm. C, Bb, A, ... Dec 12, 2022 at 0:49
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica this is an answer
    – Edward
    Dec 12, 2022 at 2:41

2 Answers 2

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a note that stands out from the song

You're 99% of the way there!

In the Mars example, this is an instance of something we call "chromaticism," which ultimately means "using a pitch outside of the current key." At this moment in the song he's in F major, but he throws in a C♯ (raised from the normal C♮) to briefly point towards D minor.

In music-theory parlance, we say that this is a V/vi ("five of six") chord: we're in F major, and D minor is vi (i.e., the sixth scale degree) of F major, and the C♯ is a part of an A-major chord, which is V (i.e., the fifth scale degree) of D. Hence, the A-major chord is V of vi (i.e., V of D minor, the sixth scale degree of F major).

This exact same idea, just transposed to a different key, is present in all kinds of words. See, for example, the theme to Parks and Recreation. The chromatic chord appears at

0:11–0:12

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    Wouldn’t some call this a chord borrowed from the relative minor? Dec 12, 2022 at 14:32
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    @ToddWilcox That's a very good question; I've only ever heard of "borrowing" in relation to the parallel minor, not relative, but perhaps my training has been too limited!
    – Richard
    Dec 12, 2022 at 14:42
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    @ToddWilcox - can't see why notes (and chords, for that matter) can't be borrowed from the relative minor, exactly like they get borrowed from the parallel key, or any other parallel modes. Seems to be just another bit of theory, trying to explain what's happening, and it's fairly plausible. Obviously nothing could be borrowed from the natural minor, though...
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2022 at 15:22
  • That's what I've been looking for! That Parks and Rec example confirms it. Thank you :)
    – Scene
    Dec 12, 2022 at 21:07
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Not particularly in the song quoted, but in a lot of other pop type songs, it's the m3 sung rather than the M3, and D5 rather than P5. Both notes sung a semitone (or thereabouts) off the 'proper' , diatonic note. Known widely as the Blue notes, and quite often not an actual chromatic note, but one 'in the cracks'. That sometimes does resolve immediately to a 'proper' note. Used extensively by guitarists sax players, and, as you note, vocalists.

So, yes, 'gone flat', 'into a minor key', 'lowered by a semitone' are all good ways to describe those notes.

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  • Yes, I took the OP to be asking about "blue note" or similar intentional expressive flattening and pitch bending. Dec 12, 2022 at 14:57
  • @AndyBonner - that would seem to be far more common in usage than the example shown, which to me is nothing out of the ordinary. Hence my answer. Richard's addresses the actual note concerned, which I don't hear very much indeed.
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2022 at 15:18

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