My dear fellow music nerds, I’m at my wits’ end.
I mean, I’ve had it. I have just had it! And I can’t take it anymore!
If you watch television at all, I’m sure you have encountered the source of my angst. It’s a little commercial jingle that has become quite the earworm of late:
So why does this irk me so, you ask? I mean, sure, this brief, catchy little tune wheedles its way into your brain and begins to intertwine itself with your cerebral convolutions until you can think of nothing else, but that’s the case with plenty of commercials, so why is this innocuous little jingle being singled out for Miss Music Nerd’s indignation?
Well, there is a chord progression that is near and dear to my heart; it’s one of the most expressive harmonic devices in all of music, in my humble opinion. Allow me to explain it briefly.
Let’s say we have a song in the key of C major. You’re going to hear the C major chord quite a bit, of course. You’ll likely hear the F major chord a lot, too — in this key, C and F are two of the three chords that constitute “three-chord rock.” (The third one is G, for those of you playing along at home.)
Here’s a sample progression that goes from C to F and back to C again. It’ll probably sound nice and familiar to you, even out of context.
Click ‘play’ to hear it:
(If you’ve ever done any hymn-singing, you might recognize the motion from the second to the third chord as the “Amen” cadence.)
Now, we all know that composers love to break the rules — so much so that when someone finds a really neat way to break a rule, everybody starts doing it, and it becomes a new rule itself. At some point, someone discovered that if you changed the second chord in the progression from major to minor, it sounds really cool:
That F minor chord is called a borrowed chord — it doesn’t ordinarily exist in the key of C major, but it does occur in C minor, so we say it’s borrowed from the minor mode.
It’s also known as a “minor IV chord”. Here, the Roman numeral IV is used because F is the fourth note in the C major scale.
Now, as I said above, I’m particularly fond of this chord progression. At one point I decided to make a list of as many examples of it as I could find. I discovered that it’s used A LOT, which surprised me a bit because it’s one of those things that’s most effective when used sparingly, like a potent spice. But I suppose ‘sparingly’ can mean that it doesn’t happen too often within one song, though it may appear in a significant percentage of songs! You’ll find it in many different genres of music, as well, from classical (especially in the Romantic period), to pop, to Mexican Corridos, just to name a few.
Anyway, I like it so much that I point it out whenever I hear it. McDoc and I will be listening to the radio, watching TV, sitting in a concert, etc., and I’ll lean over and whisper “Minor IV chord!” in his ear. Hey, he knew I was crazy when he married me! 😛
So what does any of this have to do with a sandwich commercial?
Well, the jingle in the video above uses the minor IV chord. And, while I usually hesitate to make hard-and-fast rules about music, as it is, after all, an intuitive and subjective affair, I’m not afraid to state categorically for the record that the use of the chord in this case is WRONG. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Because I wanted to explore exactly how wrong it is, I wrote it down: (note: I couldn’t really hear the bassline in the video, so I made one up. 😛 )
Traditionally, the minor IV chord carries a poignant, bittersweet, melancholy connotation. It’s like a distant rain cloud on the horizon of your sunny day; the drop of sorrow that makes all your joys that much more precious; the lost love that you nevertheless don’t regret. Chips and a drink simply don’t have any place in this blizzard of metaphors, knowwhatI’msayin’?!?
You might think I’m getting excessively overwrought about all this, but I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one who finds it disturbing — some would claim that this jingle can threaten one’s very sanity!
Now, I’ll grant you, this chord has these associations mainly because that’s the way it has been used. It’s hard to say whether these things are ‘absolute’ — in other words, if a creature from another planet heard this chord progression, would the creature feel it the same way we tend to do? Probably not. But that’s the case with most of our cultural devices. The connotations accrue over time, and if you want to tweak them, you have to have a darn good reason.
Turns out, the person responsible for this musical travesty has given it some thought.
The chord structure does imply something dark,” he agreed, getting out his guitar to demonstrate over the phone. “On the word long, [the guitar part] goes down from a C to an A-flat,” he said, strumming, “which is kind of a weird place. It’s definitely not a poppy, happy place. It’s more of a metaly place. But at the same time, the singing stays almost saccharine.”
Hmmph. “Dark” and “metaly”. Accurate? Sure. Sensitive to everything that going to that place really implies? Nay!!! What is it about a foot-long sandwich that says “let’s go to a dark place”? Nada, zip, bubkes, dang it!
I decided to see what the jingle would sound like with F major instead of F minor:
Not nearly as catchy, huh? Kind of vapid and insipid and lacking punch, even.
Despite my indignation at this cheap and heedless harnessing of our harmonic heritage, I can’t claim that the jingle-writer isn’t good at what he does.
Hey, I’m suddenly feeling hungry for lunch! 😛
Note: Miss Music Nerd is partial to the 6-inch Veggie Delite with avocado and extra cheese.
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