Each year, the Eurovision network’s song competitions lead to thousands of song submissions. Of the hundreds of songs broadcast throughout the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and beyond, only a few make it to the host cities where the contests are held. Each song has its own merits and can be explored in more depth. This article will conclude the ongoing discussion about “Arcade”, the winning entry of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. It will focus on the harmonies and production values found within the song.
Note: certain countries, in particular Romance and Slavic countries, might have trouble processing concepts in this article due to their own countries’ historical note naming systems. This article makes constant usage of movable do and la-based minor, which liberates the singing syllables discussed within the article from specific pitch labels. Specific pitch labels in the article can be transposed, or moved so that the anglophone note C always goes with do.
Disclaimer: All sound clips in this series, including those in this article, were self-made. They are meant to be used instructively within the context of discussing theoretical aspects of the song as they pertain to music theory and production and are thus claimed under fair use.
Harmony and the Search for a Stable Tonic
For preliminaries, we will answer the questions:
- What is a note?
- What is a scale?
- What is a chord?
- What is a mode?
- What is a key?
The answers to these questions will make explaining anything about the harmony in “Arcade” – as well as any other pieces – easier for the future.
Notes and Scales
Sound can be measured by relative intensity (loudness), timbre (quality), as well as pitch (frequency). Some of these frequencies have names, and a specific frequency, name, and sometimes duration are used to define a note. For example, most musicians in the current day use the note A4, which rings at 440 Hz (whose sound wave oscillates 440 times a second). This video plays that pitch for an hour. For the purposes of this discussion, we will only touch on rhythm as it relates to the rate of harmonic change (to be defined later), and not as it pertains to any single note.
Pitches can have different names depending on the region or country, and certain collections of pitches, called scales, have names. Perhaps the most well-known of these scales is the major scale, which was immortalized in the song “Do-Re-Mi” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. In the movie adaptation, Maria (played by Julie Andrews) uses singing syllables called solfeggio to demonstrate how each note within the scale sounds relative to each other. Here is the clip below:
The song also impresses upon the listeners the importance of the note they call do in this instance (in this case, do refers to a note called B♭ in anglophone contexts and is pronounced “bee flat”). Within the song, do is the most settled note, and a move away from do generally produces a tendency to return back to do. This establishes a tendency common to centuries of Western music, and these tendencies (or lack thereof) will be discussed further in the following section about keys and modes.
A different scale using the same notes, but having la as the home note (called tonic) is called the minor scale. Further differences between both scales will be discussed in the next section.
Further discussion on note name history, including historical and mathematical discussion, can be found in the Resources section at the bottom.
Chords, Keys, and Modes
In the major scale, notes can be grouped together to form pleasant-sounding groups called chords, related to the words accord and concord (agreement). Western music theory is largely based on thirds, and chords with three sounds based on thirds are called triads. A third requires jumping over one of the solfeggio syllables. Using the “Do-Re-Mi” song as an example, “do mi sol” is a triad, and so is “ti re fa” and “do mi la” (if the notes are moved around, “la do mi” make up a triad), but “do re la” is not – there is no arrangement where there are exactly two solfeggio notes between the notes actually used in the chord. Beyond triads, seventh chords, also called sevenths, also involve another third being put on top of an existing triad. There are additional chords in usage in pop music, but these additions are relatively new and are largely irrelevant to the scope of this discussion.
The diatonic chords built on the home notes in each scale – the chords that use only notes within the scale – are the biggest differentiator between major and minor keys. While la to mi and do to sol are essentially the same interval (roughly musical distance), la to do is smaller than do to mi, and the difference in interval size is what makes la-based scales minor as opposed to do-based scales. In context, “x-based” means that the singing syllable x is the tonic, or base, of said scale.
Beyond the notes within each scale, certain chord patterns inform the presence of major or minor.
In major: the diatonic triad on the fifth scale degree – sol ti re, a major chord – includes ti, which is just under do and leads strongly upward, particularly if a diatonic seventh is added, making sol ti re fa. The strong push of the chord on the fifth scale degree towards do contributes to its importance, and the chord built on this scale degree is thus called the dominant chord (dominant seventh chord for the major triad with the seventh on top). Examples include the chord motion into the choruses of Ryan O’Shaugnessy’s “Together” (Ireland 2018) and during the lyrics “‘cause we got love” at the end of choruses in Jessica Mauboy’s song (Australia 2018).
In minor: the diatonic triad on the fifth scale degree – mi sol ti – is a minor chord and does not include the note directly under the tonic. In this case, the syllable si is used to show the note directly below la. In order to have a leading tone like ti leading up to do in major, the note sol must be moved up so that the major chord mi si ti is created and acts as the dominant chord in minor. The shift to si is mostly an isolated “correction” for harmonic purposes and does not erase the original (natural) form of minor with sol. Examples of this include the beginning of “Für Elise”, Valentina Monetta’s “Crisalide (Vola)” (San Marino 2013), as well as Sergey Lazarev’s “You Are the Only One” (Russia 2016).
The resolution tendency of V (the major chord on the fifth scale degree) to I (major tonic, do) or i (minor tonic, la) is a key definer of tonal music, a period spanning from the 17th to the late 19th centuries, particularly in classical music. Other such cadences (resolutions of musical phrases) exist, but the V to I/i cadence, called an authentic cadence, is by far the strongest. This cadence is the key to tonal music, and tonal music is the foundation from which keys, a hierarchy of chord relations and cadences, arise.
Beyond I/i (the tonic) and V (the dominant chord), there are a few chords in a key that have other functions in tonal music. The IV and ii chord in major are the triads built from fa and re, respectively, which are F and Dm (D minor, or d moll in German) in C major. These two chords serve a predominant function – these chords often precede and prepare a dominant function chord’s arrival.
A framework with a clear tonic chord but without said cadences is called modal. A framework without a tonic chord is said to be atonal.
Arcade and Tonic(s)
For ease of explanation, a piano keyboard and the note name layout is given below. Playing the labeled notes from C up to another C coincides with the syllables used in “Do-Re-Mi”.
Intro, Outro, Verses
In the intro, outro, and verses, variations of four chords play and repeat: F G Em F. If the Em (E minor) chord were F G C F instead, a V-I relationship could be established between G and C, and one could potentially say the song were in C major. However, that is not the case, and there are no other candidates for the dominant-tonic relationship. Therefore, these sections are modal. The chord that is emphasized the most is F major, and starting from F, the notes are F G A B C D E. This sounds almost like a major scale, but instead of a fa (which would be a B♭ in this case), there is a fi (B in this case), which means that the fourth note in the scale is raised. This modal scale is called Lydian, and the names derive from ancient Greek music theory, even if modern modes have little to do with the past. Therefore, we seem to be in F Lydian during the verses. The lack of harmonic resolution in the face of hundreds of years of tonality adds to the unsettling nature of these sections, which was discussed in the first article. The increased reverb in the backing vocals in the second verse onwards, the reverb and delay of the guitars, and the additional low percussive ambience added in the third verse all add to the ethereal quality of these sections. Below, the Lydian mode is played, and then the verse progression is played. Note the harmony’s relatively static nature and how it does not hint at any other chords intrinsically.
In modern practice, the first three chords of the pre-chorus, F G Am, make a very common cadence that while not recognized as a tonal cadence resembles another tonal cadence not previously mentioned: a deceptive cadence. Many songs go from V – I, but if the V chord goes to another chord, the cadence is interrupted, and the preparations going into it “deceived” the listener. Examples include the movement from the verse to the pre-chorus in Carola’s “Fångad av en stormvind” (Sweden 1991, V-♭VI), the beginning of the chord progression in Zedd’s “Clarity” (ii-V-vi), the final chord to the first chord in the chorus of Lisa Ajax’s “Torn” (V/vi (in F minor, the C major chord) – ii (the chorus is in A♭ major; the equivalent chord in F minor would be iv, which is still not i).
In particular, while IV – V – vi occurs in popular music (in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), for example, it is used to make tags – repetitions of a line before continuing with the song), it is now more often found as a way to lead to the tonic and thus functions as ♭VI – ♭VII – i (fa – sol – la are the notes upon which the chords would be built). The ♭ sign before the Roman numeral here is a modern/jazz method to show that the root, or lowest, note of the triad is one discrete note lower than it would be in a major key. VI in C major would be an A major chord, but ♭VI lowers the A to an A♭, which on the keyboard is the smaller black key between A and G.
Songs that have the ♭VI – ♭VII – i movement this year include (but are not limited to):
- “League of Light”, Julie & Nina (Dansk Melodi Grand Prix);
- “Like It”, ZENA (Belarus), in the pre-chorus;
- “Spirit in the Sky”, KEiiNO (Norway), the pre-chorus;
- “Look Away”, Darude feat. Sebastian Rejman (Finland), especially the ending;
- “Keep on Going”, Oto Nemsadze (Georgia);
- “Stay”, Anna Odobescu (Moldova);
- “On a Sunday”, Ester Peony (Romania); and
- “Kruna”, Nevena Božović (Serbia).
Overall, the pre-chorus of “Arcade” has this chord progression (simplified): F G Am G F G Dm Dm. While no V-I movement is visible here, Duncan’s insistence on singing la mi mi__ throughout this section on A, as well as the rise of said modern cadence specific to modal contexts, suggest that this part is actually in what looks like A minor but without the cadential function. In other words, this section seems to be in A Aeolian (again modal), which has the same notes as A minor but without the V-i cadential resolution. It may be worth noting that the higher guitar’s final note, which forms a minor third with the other guitar, is pulled slightly lower than normal tuning standards. The lowering of the interval between the two notes gives a darkening quality, particularly since a pad synth playing above the higher guitar disappears right as the two guitars play the final notes. The high pad synth gives a sort of light in that section, and it disappears at the end, in a way like the processing of grief. The section’s instrumental is parsed in the tracks below. The first has guitars, the bass slide, and percussion; and the second adds a clandestine pad synth that was missed a few articles ago. Reverb was added to mirror the reverb in the original track, which gives tracks a sense of space, lowers their overall presence in the mix, and makes the track sound darker than it would otherwise be. How does the lowered pitch make you feel about the section as a whole?
The choruses have the chord progression A G C F Am G Fmaj7 Fmaj7. There seems to be V to I motion here from the G to C! However, even authentic cadences vary in strength. A perfect authentic cadence, the strongest motion towards tonic, requires:
- V to I/i motion
- The lowest notes in both chords have to be the root, the letter that represents the chord.
- The melody note (in this case, a voice) on the tonic (I/i) chord must be the root as well.
While the first two points are met, Duncan sings the equivalent of mi sol mi instead of the sound associated with a tonic of C, do. The resultant imperfect authentic cadence thus leaves the listener searching again for the most appropriate tonic. The rhythmic figure on “loving you is a losing game” in the chorus matches perfectly with the first and third lines of the pre-chorus, which may suggest that both sections have more in common as well. If the chord changes are given a rhythmic pulse, the first four chords would act like this:
Am G C F |
Bold means primary emphasis and italics indicate a secondary accent. The Am chord is bolded because the first chord of a new section always receives the largest emphasis by default. The C chord is muted by its being the landing spot of what looks like an imperfect authentic cadence. If it were to be divided into sections of two chords each, the C chord would receive a stress as strong as the Am chord does, which has been shown to be inconsistent with the song’s analysis so far. This would lead to the second part acting like this for symmetrical considerations:
Am G Fmaj7 Fmaj7 |
With this, we now see that the Am chord is again strongest in the harmonic rhythms. This suggests that A Aeolian (not minor) would dictate this section as well, particularly since the Am chords sound the most settled. Every other chord feels slightly unsettled (author’s opinion).
On the production side, the choruses are notable for what happens with the guitars. Between the first four chords and last four chords, there is a sort of sudden stoppage of the guitar sounds before the second Am chord is hit. While this happens, a small metallic swiping sound occurs. This sonic artifact may have been produced when editing some of the instrument tracks, like cutting the end of a recorded sound or having fallen under the volume threshold a noise gate would allow. Think of a very distorted guitar that sustains some notes for a while and then stops making noise suddenly – a noise gate would do exactly that. On “Arcade”, that kind of effect is most audible in the second chorus, though it occurs during the other non-final choruses too.
In the bridge, the chords are (in simplest form): Dm C G G C Em F F. Just like in the choruses previously mentioned, there is a seeming V – I movement in C, but again, the seeming cadence is imperfect. Unlike the previous ones, however, the change is also emphasized rhythmically if the four-chord groupings from before are kept. It may be worth calling it C major for that reason, even if the section effectively bridges two choruses together as a transition. Another thing to consider is that A minor (which shares a natural scale with Aeolian) and C major are relative scales, as in they share the same notes, and according to Riemannian theory (no relation to calculus), A minor and C major share the same kind of function – tonic, in this case. The bass guitar enters during the second half of the bridge, but it still does not sound like a section that can survive independently of the choruses flanking it. In the recording of the bridge below, does the section sound complete and independent, or does it sound like it needs to attach to another section for it to have significance? What are your thoughts?
Final Chorus and Onward
The final chorus (after the drum and vocal chorus) is different than the other choruses. Not only are all the instruments playing at the same time, but the bass is louder in this section, and an additional quick stick-like percussion sound is added, adding to the drive towards the eventual Am chord. The melody is the same as the previous choruses (for the most part), but everything else is reharmonized, or put to different chords. The chord progression, Dm Em F G Am G Fmaj7 Fmaj7 forms a mountain going from Dm up to Am and then down halfway to Fmaj7. The steady harmonic climb suggests the strongest gravity towards any chord in the entire song, and it serves as a musical climax for all the emotions suggested by the form, instrumentation, rhythms, harmonies, and text working in sync. The Fmaj7 chord serves to bridge the ending of this chorus and the outro, which also begins with an F chord.
Considering the Song as a Harmonic Whole
While each part of a song can be thought of with a different tonic, the majority of songs stay with one overall tonic. Many songs stay away from the tonic at the beginning – Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid among them – but the difference between these songs and “Arcade” is that while “Teenage Dream” never hits the implied tonic chord (B♭) and the harmony in “Part of Your World” moves in a way that suggests one tonic throughout, the harmonies in “Arcade” tend to stay static throughout each section. Combined with their duration, the static nature of these sections suggests that these sections can be seen as being in separate tonics while they last, even if everything is related through the notes shared between the modes. The overall harmonic layout of the piece is below.
Summation: What’s Next?
This concludes a month-long study of the Marcel Bezençon Award and Eurovision trophy-winning song “Arcade”, as performed by Dutch musician Duncan Laurence on stage in Tel Aviv. Every facet of this song expresses the song’s feeling of unsettledness and staging of grief and loss, from the tumult of instruments playing simultaneously after an uneasy musical “peace”, and the unusual rhythmic shifts throughout the song to the sudden reharmonization of the final chorus and reverberant depths of its production. While these traits may not appeal to everyone, some traits in “Arcade” may even occur in other likable songs. Stay tuned for an upcoming discussion on arrangement as it pertains to the Eurovision family of contests!