Harmony Foul!

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:

Click play:

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! πŸ˜›

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. πŸ˜› )

Click play:

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:

Click play:

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! πŸ˜›

Note: Miss Music Nerd is partial to the 6-inch Veggie Delite with avocado and extra cheese.


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    Harmony Foul! — 19 Comments

    1. It is a weird choice you’re absolutely right. But then, it’s also got you noticing it, which I guess is what jingles are supposed to do. You’re supposed to remember them, not enjoy them!

      Also – I’ve added your blog to my blogroll over at http://www.songwright.co.uk Great stuff!

    2. Pingback: Songwright » Blog Archive » Miss Music Nerd - My New Favourite Blog

    3. Thank you for getting me to think about something musical — tonight is chorale rehearsal — instead of politics.

      I agree the choice is weird but obviously effective. If the songwriter hadn’t turned the chord progression on its head, it wouldn’t aggravate you into blogging about it and thereby giving Subway some free publicity. Now, they need to give you a free 6″ Veggie Delite your way.

    4. Yes a very interesting and nerdy topic. But what of the hand gestures that go along with it. First a fingers spread open palm “stop in the name of love” movement, then the foot long gesture. I see a new dance, quite minamalist of course with two chords and two movements. But then there is an odd phalic message to the whole commercial. A highway cop, Godzilla, a stewardess, and Times Square. Very Weird.

    5. Not having had the musical training
      and not knowing what the rules
      are and when they are being kept
      and when they are being broken…

      …it seems to me you set up a straw
      man and knocked him down.

      Clearly the minor chord worked.
      Clearly, whatever associations
      you have with what a Minor IV
      chord is supposed to evoke,
      nobody is responsible to you
      and maintaining your own
      sensibilities. That’s your job.

      From my perspective, the rule
      is simple. If the ear is expecting
      a step of a full note, a half note
      has a good chance of creating a
      frisson. Try improvising a jazz tune.
      Every time you don’t know where
      to go, drop a semi tone or raise
      a semitone.

      Works wonders.

      I wrote charts for a group I created
      years ago, and not knowing anything
      sometimes caused problems and
      sometimes created magic.

      You should have seen the charts!

      Tom St. Louis

    6. Bill — Gah! It pretends to be Beatle-y.

      That is another reason it’s wrong! πŸ˜›

    7. Tom –

      …it seems to me you set up a straw
      man and knocked him down.

      It seems to me I identified something I don’t care for and explained why. I’m not running for office or anything, just having my say in my lil corner of cyberspace. πŸ˜‰

    8. Okay, it’s neo-Beatle-y. And realize–the more you talk about it, the more you have proved its success. You personally are the validation of this jingle.

    9. Bill — Oh, I never said it wasn’t successful! But successful doesn’t mean good… there are millions of products on the market that prove that! πŸ˜‰

      You personally are the validation of this jingle.

      Um, in the sense that strongly objecting to something validates that thing, I guess! Don’t tell that to the folks at ihatecilantro.com! πŸ˜›

    10. Jingles aren’t entertainment–they’re advertising. Success isn’t that whether you like it–it’s that you remember it. And you are now helping everyone to remember it. Like me–I’d never noticed it before. You’re spreading the word of the client.

    11. Bill — I’m flattered that you think I’m that powerful and influential! πŸ˜‰

      Re: your jingle categorization nitpick: if it’s music, I treat it as music. That’s what I was trained to do, and what this blog is about.

      And, as Alto2 noted above, Subway now owes me a sandwich, at least. I’m always happy to be of service any way I can! πŸ™‚

    12. Miss Nerd,

      You are that powerful! I’ve already bought five of these sandwiches!

      I didn’t say it wasn’t music–I said it wasn’t entertainment and can’t be judged by how entertained you are.

      And…you like Stockhausen but you’re offended by a minor IV chord???


    13. Bill, Bill, Bill! You’re not getting me! I must not be making myself clear.

      I adore the Minor IV chord. That’s why I don’t like to see it used in a way that, in my opinion, fails to jibe with the expressive impact it traditionally has. That’s what offended me.

      As for Stockhausen — sir, how dare you say I like him! πŸ˜‰ I enjoyed writing about him, because he was such a nutter! I think he’s interesting and historically important. That don’t mean I like his music! πŸ˜›

      I also don’t think I said anything about whether jingles should be entertaining, or whether I thought this one was entertaining or not, or any of that. That’s not my gig.

      I just write about musical things that pique my interest.

      I hope it’s clear by now, incidentally, that 90% of what I write is tongue in cheek. I’m also given to hyperbole. I exaggerate at least a million times a day. πŸ˜€

    14. Linda,

      I say: just assume the jingle is in the key of f minor, ending on the i 6/4 chord. I guess it could be in the fourth category of 6/4 chords–you do know what they all are, right?

    15. Yeah, it’s been bugging me too.

      Maybe they were going for a mournful, bittersweet feeling, as though this would be a $5 Foot-Long of Regret.

      Just recently hearing it without the intrusion of the V.O., it now seems to me the bass line actually dips down a major third to Ab (assuming C) at the top of measure 4, and might walk up via Bb at the end.

      It changes the feel of the hook slightly. If it’d been mixed with the bass more prominent, there’d be more meatball-sauce-stained shirts everywhere.

    16. @boomaga —

      $5 Foot-Long of Regret

      LOL! That kind of goes against their healthy diet/Jared theme, too, doesn’t it?

      Maybe the subliminal message is, “I shoulda stopped at the 6-inch!”