Saturday, November 2, 2013

Song #409 of 9999 - Airbag by Radiohead

Song #409 of 9999

Title: Airbag
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 1997
Album: OK Computer

Okay, I get it. Maybe it does seem a little odd to be constantly measuring popular music in terms of the rules of functional harmony, developed hundreds of years before electricity let alone Pro Tools. And these are rock and roll musicians and they're the rulebreakers anyway, right? And for that matter, even classical composers tore up the rulebook in the twentieth century so what about that, Mr. Music Theory? All true. And if I could write a blog about something more progressive and current and topical, I would but I just haven't learned enough about gene splicing or Candy Crush Saga to do that.

But really, by using this common ground as a starting point—most of us know what a I-IV-V progression is by now—we can see how creative a band like Radiohead can be with their harmonic progressions and better understand why their music delights so many people, including classically trained pianists (see Christopher O'Riley) and jazz musicians (see The Bad Plus).

Which brings me to "Airbag," the first track from Radiohead's groundbreaking record OK Computer. Before delving into the harmony, let's acknowledge some of the surface elements. This is a groove-based song after all and much of its appeal can be chalked up to the piecemeal drum pattern, assembled by the band from heavily processed short samples of drummer Philip Selway's playing. This slightly off-kilter drumming drives a production rich with sonic pageantry: guitars swirl as they enter and exit the fray, electronics peek in and out of the mix, a minimalist bass guitar riff pops up almost at random intervals. And for good measure, sleigh bells jangle metronomically in the distance.

Strip all of this away and you're left with a fairly sparse harmonic structure but one that takes advantage of two very broad-sounding chord relationships. The first, "Progression 1," opens the piece in support of Jonny Greenwood's opening guitar melody. The piece is in the key of A Major but begins on the lowered submediant (bVI—borrowed from the parallel minor) before quickly resolving to the tonic (I): Fmaj -> Amaj. This is a very dramatic chord progression, one which momentarily obscures the key of the song. "Progression 2" occurs when Thom Yorke's vocal arrives. The verse begins with the tonic (A) which proceeds to a major supertonic (II-B Major) over an A pedal tone. This is another very dramatic sound, borrowing from the Lydian mode with its raised 4th (D#). The diminished chord that follows (also borrowed from the parallel minor) allows the progression to cascade chromatically back to the tonic, with the entire progression reading as:

                              Amaj      Bmaj/A        Bdim/A          Amaj
                               (I)            (II/I)           (ii°/I)              (I)

The harmony is interesting in that it balances broad whole step relationships between chord roots (F-A is two whole steps and A-B is one) with chromatic relationships between the chord tones (for example, F-A-C and A-C#-E in progression 1) and chromatic adjustments to the chord tones that create new chords (B-D#-F# to B-D-F in progression 2). Greenwood takes advantage of these chromatic nuances by incorporating them into his melodic lines, including the riff that opens the work (E-F-C-B-C#-A) and the descending tremolo line that accompanies the second verse (A-G#-F#-G#-F). I would contend that this emphasis on chromaticism is a central tenet of the band's compositional approach.

This get a little dense, I know. But that's what's so fun and interesting about Radiohead's approach to harmony. And whether conscious or not, they always seems to take full advantage of these attributes in the melodies they play and sing which makes them musically sophisticated and/or instinctively gifted. Qualities which would certainly appeal to purveyors of classical and jazz and which set them apart from most of their contemporaries.

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