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Another analysis of Strokes songs here. I love this band!

Looking at the choruses of Hard to Explain, Barely Legal, and New York City Cops, I see similarities. It appears that the boys are just jamming the tonic down your throat, expanding it, either through root movement, or, in the case of New York City Cops, using a sus4 chord (or is this technically an IV chord?), to keep things from becoming too monotonous.

Aldwell and Schachter put it in Harmony & Voice Leading like this:

"musical composition would not have evolved very far if composers had not learned to extend a chord by changing its bass tone. Perhaps the most frequent and important way of expanding any major. . . triad is by moving the bass between the root and 3rd of the chord."

This quote seems to apply to Hard to Explain and Barely Legal, except these songs play the supertonic after the mediant to create extra suspense.

Am I on the right track here? I am not sure if New York City Cops falls under the same umbrella--perhaps that is just an I-IV progression, and I am just looking for this to be another case of an expanded tonic.

Regardless, if anyone could elaborate on my analysis of these catchy and effective choruses, then please do!

Best,

User 286642

Edit: After analyzing these songs some, here are the choruses we're looking at. P.S. I'm not sure if it acceptable to notate chords as slash chords with Roman numerals, but here we go:

Hard to Explain (G major): I I/vi I6 I/ii

Barely Legal (G major): I I/iii I/ii

New York City Cops (C major): I IV (but looks like Isus4 with the 4th scale degree in the bass--I just don't know how to notate that.).

  • Using the slash with Roman numerals is confusing, because it has a special meaning different from your intent. Jazz symbols may be better for these songs where G/B mean G major chord and B in the bass. – Michael Curtis Mar 28 at 22:29
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    Thanks for the bounty! Anway. tonic expansion/prolongation. If you're interested in my comments about 'classical' music, try this music.mcgill.ca/~caplin/teaching-classical-form.pdf – Michael Curtis Apr 1 at 18:54
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+100

I would not call this tonic expansion.

Tonic expansion is a concept for classical music where key changes are essential to the musical structure.

That doesn't really happen in the music of The Stokes. So let's dispense with tonic expansion and try to approach the music on it's own terms.

We need some rough outlines of the choruses. I will only try to approximate the rhythms of two guitar parts. The letters are single notes except the guitar in NYC Cops where chords are listed.

Hard to Explain

Guitar| D C B   | D C B   | B A G   | B A G   |
Bass  | G G G G | G G G G | B B B B | A A A A |

Barely Legal

Guitar | D   B   | A   B   | E   B   | A   B   |
Bass   | G G G G | G G G G | B B B B | A A A A | x2

Guitar keeps repeating the same thing...
Bass   | G | G | E | E |
       | D | D | E | E |

NYC Cops

Guitar |Cmaj| / |Fmaj9| / |Cmaj|  /  |Fmaj9| / |
Bass   | C  | C |  F  | F | C  |C (E)|  F  | G | 

There isn't much to say harmonically about Hard to Explain. It's just a G chord with rhythmic figuration and some passing tones the A's and C's in both parts. Harmonically nothing is expanded, because there's just one chord. The B in the bass is interesting, because the chord third isn't normally played in rock music, except for arpeggiating the whole chord or walking bass, which this is not. The following A in the bass is a passing tone and that adds a nice tension before it resolves back to G.

The next two use what I think is a formula in a lot of indie rock: superimpose two basic triads to make a larger extended chord. The extended chord is broken up into multiple riffs so it's never heard clearly like a block chord. The riffs sort of shift around the larger extended chord. Multi-tracking and lots of reverb help blend it all to a big shimmering sound.

Barely Legal combines I + vi tones G B D and E G B into vi7 or E G B D. All the notes of the chorus fit that vi7 chord except the A in the guitar - a neighbor tone - and the A in the bass - a passing tone. At the moments we hear only tones G B D is it a G chord or a portion of the vi7 chord with E omitted? The music just shifts back and forth between the two sets of tones so I like thinking of them as just parts of the one larger set, the vi7. Compare the chorus to the verse where we have I IV I IV V vi V. That's pretty traditional harmony. That progression could be a hymn! Each chord is distinct. The chorus is treated differently using a shifting/superimposing of I and vi.

NYC Cops combines I + IV tones C E G and F A C into IV9 or F A C E G. I voiced the guitar chords as x32010 and x33010 to approximate the recording (I'm not sure exactly what's played.) The same shifting back and forth and superimposing like Barely Legal happens here. Compare the chord treatment in the chorus to the verse. The verse mostly moves between distinct Am and G chords. But when the chorus arrives the C chord is sustained when the bass goes to F. Those parts superimpose to make a big major-ninth chord.

You could disagree with my superimposed harmony idea and say the two chords are being played separately. That's fine. With that point of view you would have two super common chord pairs: relative major/minors I-vi and I-IV. All rock music uses those. It's barely worth mentioning. Nothing special is explained by those chord labels. I think superimposed harmony is more descriptive of how the two guitar parts work together in the choruses.

  • Thank you for the analysis. This is the clear bounty winner. – 286642 Mar 29 at 13:08
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    Cool. This answer's been floating around in my head for years waiting for the right question :-) – Michael Curtis Mar 29 at 13:14
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There's a concept in music theory known as the pedal point. It's defined as a note (typically in the bass section) that remains constant while notes in the mid/treble region change. A variation on that concept is the inverted pedal point, where the note that's constant remains in the treble section.

Now I am not sure what the name is of the concept you described but I personally see it as a special case of the idea described above. The composer is essentially giving the listener something to "hold on to" while re-harmonizing it according to what the song needs. It sounds beautiful in practice if used right.

In theory, when the bass note changes while the chord remains the same, it usually helps to see it as a different chord of it's own, mainly because it's the bass notes which have the biggest impact on how the chord feels. For example, If you're playing a Gmaj7 chord, and you decide to keep the chord same while changing the bass note to E, it now becomes an Em9 chord.

I am currently unable to think of examples of the exact kind as what you described (I will edit my answer if I am able to recall any), but I am certain it is fairly common in Jazz. However I can cite some related examples where it's not exactly a chord that stays constant but more like a repeating melody/note.

  1. The intro to Haken - Atlas Stone
  2. This section in King Crimson - Starless where the guitar will play a constant note in repeat for an extended duration while the bass note keeps changing.
  3. The beginning of the piano solo in one of my original compositions - On Freedom
  4. This section in Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata where he plays a constant note in the treble which acts as a pedal, while the main melody plays in a lower register.
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    Thank you for the response. Very helpful and I appreciate the examples. – 286642 Mar 29 at 13:07
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Looking at the compositional technique there, I thought of a term I've heard of called "hanging on the dominant". In that technique, one expands the dominant chord and spends a long phrase waiting to resolve. I've also heard similar things about hanging on the predominant, where (usually in a prechorus) a song spends a large amount of time on a predominant. From this, I'd like to propose that the songs you mentioned are "hanging on the tonic". Unlike the other two, tonics don't usually build tension, so whole sections on a tonic can get boring or ambient; common ways around this are "expanding" the tonic (modifying it to create some tension and interest) via extensions, suspensions, melody, or other effects. I've also heard a similar term "static harmony", though that usually describes ambient progressions.

Another analysis one could apply there is that the whole sections of the song are in question are part of a tonic structure. In this form of analysis, whole phrases and sections can have function. Therefore, the large parts of the songs you describe could have tonic function.


Finally, let me add that the quote you have from the book may not be a good explanation of these songs. Generally, there are differences between modern music and counterpoint (the oft-cited one being parallel fifths), and consequently the music theory of the past doesn't always yield the best explanation of the music of today.

  • Thanks for the response, but there is no analysis of the chords here. Did you listen to the songs? – 286642 Oct 16 '18 at 20:40
  • @286642 I don't think the actual chords matter that much. As long as they function as tonics, I say they're all basically interesting variations on the tonic. – user45266 Mar 29 at 15:20
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When a tonic chord moves into first inversion it's more likely going to lead to further movement of the bass note, very likely to IV. Mere variation of a static I chord is more likely to be through added notes and suspensions. By far the most common alternative bass note will be V, though a I, V, I, V bass line hardly counts as harmonic variation.

I - vi- I could be considered a variation of I.

Now, let's llook at 'Barely Legal'.

This chord sheet seems about right.

https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/the_strokes/barely_legal_chords_735765

And I'm afraid I can't see what you're talking about. Yes, it's pretty simplistic. But it's not just I with different bass notes.

  • thanks for the reply. Any idea how i can attract more attention to this post? I dont have enough reputation to place a bounty on it, and i have already edited it once. – 286642 Aug 15 '18 at 20:52
  • What would you LIKE people to say about it? You've described a composing technique. What was the question again? – Laurence Payne Oct 14 '18 at 16:40
  • I am wondering if I am correct in my assumption that if we reduced these choruses then we would just have the tonic. When doing roman numeral analysis, is it (take the example of Barely Legal) I-iii-ii? Or I I/iii I/ii? Are the actual chords changing or just the bass tone? – 286642 Oct 15 '18 at 16:25

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