Ne-Yo Schenkerian

When I wrote about Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” last week, I mostly wanted to talk about timbre — the effervesynths that seem to give it so much of its tingly, zeitgeisty affect. But I did find myself discussing things like form and rhythm and harmony too. Actually, I pretty much passed on any real harmonic analysis, as a quick ear’s glance suggested to me that the surface simplicity of the song (I called it a “two/three-chord” progression) betrayed a much more complicated — and in some ways not so easily / usefully reducible harmonic structure.

So I decided to seek out some expertise from a dear, old friend, Greg Brown, a colleague from UW-Madison working on a PhD in music theory. A student of Brian Hyer and Lee Blasius, Greg writes really beautifully about Sigur Ros, but he’s also quite able to walk the walk and talk the talk on some 18th/19th century “common practice” sump’m sump’m, knomesayin. So I look to Greg when in need of high theoretical perspectives that remain well grounded. Below, he lends his ears to those of us who’d like to attend a little more closely to the harmonic bedding for Ne-Yo’s r&b fantasy. All hyperlinks are his.

Here’s the audio for those who want to follow along —

[update 1/27/10 — there used to be an imeem link here, but then myspace bought imeem and nuked it, leaving me a nice orange ringtone ad instead; so i’ve deleted that. i’m sure you can hunt down the neyo song yrself.]

Take it away, Greg…

Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent,” harmonically speaking, isn’t going to fit into any neat Schenkerian plan, and not just because of your and my justifiable skepticism of music-analytical reduction.

Because of the meter, I’d argue (and maybe I’ll even use the present, non-conditional tense starting now) that we have to hear the first chord as some sort of I. But we can’t, if we’re gonna be Zocchian about it. (For the benefit of anyone reading this who’s not Wayne or I, I’ll just say “Zocchian” is an inside-joke, a reference I use with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s a shout-out to a mutual friend, who’s an awesome pianist who can provide a play-by-play harmonic analysis, score, unseen, of even the fastest, most complicated tonal music.) So, straight off the bat, we lose the ability to proceed through a convincing harmonic analysis of this song in any traditional sense.

Of course, we can (and I will) do so anyway, which isn’t a bad exercise. In fact, the process might help us connect to the music on another level.

With philosophical disclaimers out of the way, I’m thinking we have to hear the song as being in B-flat minor. With no altered keys (five flats: BEADG, if you’d like a refresher).

Whereas the Romantics (not the band, as far as I know) — perhaps in an attempt to ride the coat-tails of Beethoven after the “controversy” — which stemmed from the fact it opens with a series of V-I, not I-V or I-V-I progressions — of his First Symphony, we can’t say it’s surprising or innovative that “Miss Independent” doesn’t start on I. Starting on IV is a little weirder, but not really too weird, because the producers are likely not thinking tonally, per se.

As a side note, this goes well with my theory that contemporary music (lots of dance music, but lots of other music, too) has effectively replaced V with IV. IV used to serve to prepare V (so sayeth the Schenkerians), or otherwise it was simply used to expand I. Today, IV tends to be the place I moves to and from — thus playing a role traditionally given to V — but IV still retains a sense that it’s “expanding the tonic” (another word for I, the root harmony, which defines the key), which is why the music we both love so much keeps flowing, pushing forward even as it asks us to listen to things that aren’t harmonically relevant.

Back to the beginning of the song: the first chord is E-flat minor. But because we initially hear it with that gay (sorry, I couldn’t resist) effervesynth, which starts on — and folds back to — D-flat, the chord is effectively a seventh chord. So it starts on a (minor) IV-7.

So the progression, as I (am asked, for the historical record, to) hear it is:

iv7 — i — VI — VII

(Note: I’m capitalizing major chords and not minor, as most theory students are asked to do unless they attend UW-Madison.)

This (non-)progression is repeated over and over until the bridge, which, by the way, I haven’t given much thought to yet, other than to briefly think about how cheesy it sounds to me. Have fun with that!

Now, I could spend way too long on this. Hell, I probably already have. But one thing is worth noting in particular. If you were to remove the iv7 (which would likely change the song beyond recognition), you get a familiar progression of some pop music (and note: it’s not really a classical progression, since it doesn’t — to Zocchian ears — “progress”). I’m thinking of some hardcore metal songs, the verse of Prince‘s “Little Red Corvette,” or the entirety of Stevie Nicks‘(s) “Edge of Seventeen.” Weird, actually, I think the Prince reference would be on key. Keep in mind we’d have to hear both those songs as I — II — iii instead of VI — VII — I.

So yeah, it’s complicated, mostly because we’re forcing harmonic theory where it doesn’t belong. Still, even leaving that opinion aside, it’s also complicated because the iv7 makes it complicated. It’s a lush, energetic chord that displaces the tonic (i) harmony on the downbeat. When you play it on the piano …

D-flat      D-flat
B-flat      D-flat
G-flat      F
E-flat      F

… you can feel and hear how the iv7 results from a double-appoggiatura of sorts. G-flat and E-flat narrow in on F, and when they get there, it’s just a i-chord.


To help you out, let me finish by writing out for you how I’d play it to really feel what I’m getting at. The middle lines are the right hand (start with your pinky on the top note, thumb on the bottom). It looks like four lines, but think of it as triads. I just want you to see (and feel) the two pitches converging into one. The bottom (bold) line is the left-hand bass line, which I think matches the bass of the song. I positioned the right-hand triads to give smoother voice leading between the first and second chords, and also so that you can hear the riff’s melody on the top, which is where it is in the actual mix. Finally, I just noticed that the melodic instrumental riff follows what I had already notated as the top line of the right-hand triads, but it fills in the F-to-D-flat interval stepwise, while rhythmically anticipating the chord changes. This melodic hook (for your own safety, don’t try to play it at the same time) is in italics at the very top, but there’s no space to notate anything other than each pitch the first time it’s heard. (I’m not notating repeated pitches or rhythm there.)