Plateau Loops and Hybrid Tonics in Recent Pop Music

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Ben Duinker


This paper investigates harmonic progressions built around two major chords and one minor chord, all related by step. In many pop/rock songs, these chords can be analyzed as Aeolian progressions—VI, VII, and i—(Moore 1992; Biamonte 2010; Richards 2017a). Recent songs by Bon Iver, The Chainsmokers, and others, however, use chord loops where the harmonies can be interpreted as IV, V, and vi, which I call the plateau loop for its plateau-like activity: a constant hovering above Roman numeral I or i tonic chords, while retaining an overall consistent pitch-based topography. I interrogate the tonality of these songs, advancing the notion of a hybrid tonic. Hybrid tonics occur when a song or song section lacks a salient Ionian or (less often) Aeolian tonic on which both the harmony and melody concur. Instead, IV or (less often) VI or vi chords can function rhetorically as tonic, especially when the chords sound simultaneously with a melodic 1ˆ1ˆ and occur in a metrically strong position, or initiate a plateau loop.

The paper defines plateau loops and hybrid tonics, and explains the theoretical framework that supports them, consulting work by Harrison (1994), Nobile (2016), and Doll (2017) that decouples scale degree from harmonic function. Song examples by The Chainsmokers, Bon Iver, Jónsi, Astrid S., and M83 show how hybrid tonicity operates in varying degrees of prominence in popular music, and can also be contextualized with Spicer’s (2017) theory of fragile, emergent, and absent tonics. By building on prior scholarship, this paper aims to stimulate further inquiry into how tonal structures of recent popular music subtly differentiate themselves from conventions of common-practice tonality.

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