Week 5 (Jun 26): Techniques for Pop Music (Su23)

Last modified on August 4, 2023

This week, we’ll discuss pop music through two lenses: tonality and lyrics. Before you begin, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with form in pop music, if you are not already comfortable with terms like “verse,” “chorus,” “bridge,” etc.

You will read about the unique problems that pop music has with tonality and reflect on harmony in pop music vs classical music. You will also learn how to analyze the structure and poetry of lyrics. This goes beyond the kinds of meaning-based lyric analyses you see on sites like Genius.com and instead analyzes the poetic structure of the lyrics. We will learn through Lori Burns’s excellent approach. Your analysis assignment will incorporate both of these issues.

Form in pop music

Read about form in pop/rock music to think about why/how we classify things as verses, choruses, etc. If this is your first time with these ideas, you may first want to read this overview.


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.

But 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.

Lyric analysis

Watch my video summarizing . The video cuts off abruptly—somehow I lost the very end of it. But don’t worry, I was pretty much finished!

Note: This video uses interactive technology. The picture-in-picture can be swapped or even viewed side-by-side. The video also uses a menu so you can quickly navigate to certain portions of the video. For more explanation, see this video from Kaltura.

Here is a link to the song in the model analysis:

This diagram (Example 7.2 in ) summarizes the important terminology introduced in this article.

Diagram summarizing important terminology from Burns.
Burns (2010), Example 7.2.

Concept check

Optional: Complete the Concept Check quiz on Canvas to see if you are understanding these concepts.

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 are some optional prompts:

  • Lyric analysis relies a lot on intertextuality, which you studied back in Week 1. You are not meant to be uncovering the “true meaning” when you analyze lyrics, nor are you uncovering the “true meaning” when you analyze poetry! Related to this: you cannot know the identity of the “real author” and the “real reader,” which is why Burns places those terms outside the flowchart in her diagram. What are some reasons why the “real author” is unidentifiable?
  • A big issue that recurs in pop music scholarship is the notion of “authenticity.” Authenticity is a trait that is prized in many pop genres. Country, rap, folk, rock, metal—the list goes on and on, and includes a wide diversity of genres, if not close to all of them. How does the issue of authenticity relate to lyric analysis?
  • 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 several times while looking at the lyrics.

  1. Annotate my provided lyric sheet with chord symbols (not Roman numerals) 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. Work through each step of Burns’s paradigm for lyric analysis and apply it to “Green Light”. Using Burns’s Figure 7.2 as a guide, create a succinct outline that directly addresses each aspect of Figure 7.2. Who is the implied author, narrator, etc.? Addressing the agency of the implied author, what is the implied author’s sensibility, values, ideologies? Addressing the voice of the narrator, what is the narrator’s status, identity, etc.
  4. 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? You should choose only one overall tonic for the song (even if you think it modulates for some sections) and one technique. Explain your answer.
    • Highlight the most interesting aspects of your lyric analysis.
    • Create a coherent interpretation of the lyrics as poetry, and tie it in with your analysis of the song’s tonality.


  • You will be assessed on the following concepts:
    • Understanding of lyric analysis
    • Accuracy of chord/form labels
    • Argument for tonic
    • Understanding of fragile/absent/emergent terms
    • Relation between lyrics and tonality
  • 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 3 documents: your annotated lyric sheet, lyric analysis outline, and 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.
Burns, Lori. 2010. “Vocal Authority and Listener Engagement: Musical and Narrative Expressive Strategies in the Songs of Female Pop-Rock Artists, 1993–95.” In Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music, edited by Mark Spicer and John Covach, 154–92. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.