- Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)
Analysis by Dean Christesen
I strongly believe that there are characteristics of music that only hit the subconscious level and that can help or hinder the popularity of a song. There can be a discrepancy here, since what might affect the subconscious of the layman listener might be fully realizable to the musician or music scholar: not only those who know about a dominant-tonic resolution are aware of what it feels like to listen to it, but it is a conscious realization to know it exists. Since it is impossible to pinpoint the qualities that subconsciously affect the listener's opinion of a song (for if it is truly subconscious, we are not aware of its presence), I will attempt to identify the features of "Single Ladies" that may be subconscious moments of bliss for some, and fully recognizable musical techniques to others. For now, I will put aside the fact that this song feels good, and therefore might be popular for that reason alone.
"Single Ladies" starts with 6 beats (the last three quarters of the groove that will play the entire song) of the basic drum beat and a few unidentifiable sounds (one sounds like a cuica if it were coming from a computer. A cuica is a small moaning drum utilized heavily in samba and other Brazilian music). The time is marked by a hand clap sample, immediately prompting the listener to follow with clapping and/or dancing. Beyonce's entrance is not stalled for anticipation; after these quick 6 beats, she enters with a titular salutation. Her melody is entrancing and simple: the 5th scale degree B ("Single Ladies" is, for the most part, in the key of E major) is a call and is responded with a descent down the tonic major triad to the 3rd (G#), the 2nd (F#), and resolving to the tonic. This melody already seems eerily similar to the Largo from Antonín Dvořák
's Symphony No. 9, "From The New World" (Op. 95) (Symphony No. 9 in E minor; 2nd movement; Largo
). This, of course, was absolutely not directly inspired by Dvořák's work. But in writing his 9th symphony, Dvořák sought to utilize truly American melodies that he found traveling the country in 1893. For Beyonce to sing this same fragment of a melody may touch something ingrained within the American listeners: not just a Dvořák melody but a pentatonic vignette of American culture.
This first descending melodic motif response (G# F# E) begins once as a solo voice, repeats with a harmony up the tonic triad (B A G#), and once more with a harmony to complete the triad (E C# B). The inner voice constructs an F# minor chord, diatonic in the key, unjarring and transparent as a passing voice. This cascade of harmony seems exotic, as if barbershop in practice but Caribbean or African in origin.
Beyonce's verse melody could be (and most likely is) the melody to a nursery rhyme. It simply ascends and descends diatonically (E F# G ' E F# G ' E F# G F# E, or in scale degrees 1 2 3 ' 1 2 3 ' 1 2 3 2 1). Her delivery and articulation of the melody swings, as if coming from a shuffle, or a more modern swinging dance music like funk or Go-Go. Phrases vary in rhythm: some are busied with more words to sing in the same amount of space, resulting in this swinging; other phrases are sung in 8th notes.
The chorus can be analyzed as A B A'. "A" is characterized by a quick singing line descending diatonically from the 5th scale degree (B) to the 2nd (F#) (or, in scale degrees, 5 4 3 2). New sounds are heard: a space-age sound whooshes upward into a synth pad proclaiming the tonic near the end of the measure. Beyonce teases by leading to the tonic but never singing it until the last note ("it") before the "B" section. The "B" section's melody (in "oh's," an ever popular syllable for singing along) is a combination of what the listener has heard so far. It first descends the tonic triad, revisiting the intro without the 2nd scale degree, and then sings scale degrees 1 2 3 2 1 like in the verse. As if this melody were not catchy enough, the beat is added to by a laser-sounding sample on the upbeats. With the addition of the upbeat, the groove's Reggaeton nature in the second half of the beat seems to be affirmed. Also, the beat swings more with the lasers' help.
"A' " welcomes a flirtation with bitonality. The song no longer sounds like it is in E major, although it is up to the listener to decide--if he or she chooses to--what the resulting tonality is. A heavy synth plays B to C natural under the same melody as section "A"--B A G# F#. In the next measure, the synth descends from B to A. These two measures are repeated with slight variation in rhythm. This synth motion suggests an overall sound of A melodic minor: if the listener allows the mind to believe that the synth's A is tonic, this can be a possibility. But the human mind, however musical or non-musical, is smarter than this and remembers the melody from the original "A" section: the melody and harmony eventually resolves to E major. For this reason, it can be argued that this was not a modulation to A melodic minor, but instead a foreign bass was inserted in the harmony to augment the existing melody.
Another verse and chorus is sung, ensuring a predictable song structure for the listener. An extra "B" section occurs in order to transition to the bridge. The bridge indirectly modulates to the parallel minor of E minor: instead of following the "B" section's E major with an E minor chord, it instead goes to the iv and V chords (A minor and B major). But since the A chord is minor and not major (the C# from E major becomes C to fit the A minor), the listener senses the change to a minor key before the E minor hits and at the downbeat of the bridge. This iv-V-i progression occurs three times, and then varies it by going to C major (VI) (nearly hinting at a Phrygian cadence) to B major, the dominant (V), for five measures. Like a newly liberated woman in a club, the fanfare-like theme from the intro re-emerges in glorious E major, triumphing over the short-lived E minor section.
The re-intro section gives way to the participation-encouraging "B" section of the chorus, then to A', nearly combining the two with tease "whoa oh oh's" leading into the lyric "If you liked it..."
The song ends with an unaccompanied "whoa oh oh."
The infectious beat, stunning singing from Beyonce, an mindless commands like "Now put your hands up," secure "Single Ladies" a spot on the radio charts. The subtleties, however, are what make the more-aware listener's ears perk up. The fleeting moment in A' of the chorus comes as somewhat of a shock to anyone versed in typical pop music mechanics. This was my "driveway moment": sitting in my parked car, I had to hear the rest of the song before I got out. This was a conscious realization to notice the unorthodox harmony in the chorus. But this is not to say that there were not effects on my subconscious that really held me in that car. Studio tricks like vocal multi-tracking and panned instruments seem to reach the brain differently than things like lyrics, melody, and harmony, and are fully capable of having attracting powers greater than those of musical fundamentals.
"Single Ladies" is written by Chris Stewart (a.k.a. Tricky), Terius Nash (a.k.a. The Dream), and Kuk Harrell of RedZone Entertainment.