Week 11 (Nov 1): Tonality in Pop Music (F21)

Last modified on August 4, 2023

A lot of pop songs have a very clear tonic, or even have very few chords besides a tonic chord. This is the norm in pop music. This week, you will read about the unique problems that pop music has with tonality and reflect on harmony in pop music vs classical music.

Fragile, absent, and emergent tonics: Mark Spicer

While the tonic of a pop song is often extremely clear, a significant number of pop songs obscure the tonic chord, often between major and the relative minor. To make things more complicated, in pop music, sometimes we are dealing not only with major vs. minor, but also modes, especially dorian or mixolydian. This means that a four-chord chord progression could even imply three different tonic chords!

This phenomenon is discussed in , which you will be reading this week.

Due Thursday: Response

In the Reading Responses channel on Teams, post a message with some type of response about the readings/videos. You may either make a new post or reply to someone else’s post (both count for this participation grade). You can approach this in a bunch of different ways! You might ask clarifying questions about the reading, summarize an important bit of it, share a related personal anecdote…anything counts, as long as it relates to the reading in some way.

Here is an optional prompt: Early- and late-2010s pop music tend to have distinctly different vibes. As put it, the early 2010s were “maximalist,” as exemplified in the “YOLO” aesthetic: “There was Ludacris ft Usher and David Guetta’s Rest of My Life with its soaring notes and Nietzsche-via-Kanye lines about cheating death and getting stronger, LMFAO’s apocalyptic Party Rock Anthem and Miley Cyrus’s nihilistic We Can’t Stop, which doubled as celebration and cry for help.” The late 2010s instead are “chill,” as exemplified by recent music by the Chainsmokers. James says: “their mega-hit Closer turns its first ‘drop’ – the thunderous climax of club-rattling electronic dance music – into a ‘downshift.'” How does this divide between YOLO and chill relate to ‘s fragile, absent, and emergent tonics?

Due Sunday: Analysis Assignment


Listen to “Green Light” by Lorde.

  1. Annotate my provided lyric sheet with the chord symbols (lead sheet symbols) to create a kind of lead sheet for this song. Chord symbols should go above the lyric they accompany.
  2. Add form labels to the lyric sheet to show where the verses, choruses, etc. begin.
  3. Write a short paragraph (250 words max) addressing the following:
    • What do you think is the tonic of this song, and why? (Use specific musical features as evidence.)
    • Does this song use fragile, absent, or emergent tonic techniques? Explain your answer.


  • You will be assessed on the following concepts:
    • Accuracy of chord/form labels
    • Argument for tonic
    • Understanding of fragile/absent/emergent terms
  • You will be given detailed feedback through the rubric. Click “View rubric” in the gradebook to access this.
  • Assignments are always graded pass/fail, with a threshold of 70% to pass.


  • Upload both your annotated lyric sheet and your interpretive paragraph.
  • Submit your assignment on Canvas.
  • Upload your assignment as a .pdf attachment. Please do not use other file types.



If articles are not available online, you should be able to find them in the Readings folder on Teams.

James, Robin. 2018. “Toned down for What? How ‘chill’ Turned Toxic.” The Guardian, July 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/02/toned-down-for-what-how-chill-turned-toxic.
Spicer, Mark. 2017. “Fragile, Emergent, and Absent Tonics in Pop and Rock Songs.” Music Theory Online 23 (2). http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.2/mto.17.23.2.spicer.html.