Whitney Houston and the Unexpected Chord

Just occasionally, a run-of-the-mill pop song puts an harmonic foot somewhere odd, somewhere unexpected. In this case, it”s Whitney Houston’s 1987 dance track, I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

In the key of G major, the chord that occurs towards the end of the verse at the phrase ‘When the night falls’on the word ‘falls’ could, in the hands of a lesser composer, so easily have been D major, the dominant. However, and wonderfully, the chord is in fact E minor – an unexpected flirtation with the relative minor (the last few seconds of the audio clip above, or at 58” in the video below).

This means that the note in the melody, an A, rather than being the fifth of the dominant (D major) becomes instead the fourth of the relative minor, E; for the melody to sit, however briefly, on the fourth degree of the scale (which does not occur in either the major or the minor triad) is unusual, and demands some sort of resolution.

Rhythmically, the chord falls in the wrong place, landing as it does on the fourth and weaker beat of the bar, instead of the stronger, first beat – it has anticipated the first beat of the following bar. Added to this is the fact that, for the first time in the piece, it’s a chord that lasts for five beats, a beat longer than the four beats we’ve come to expect in a 4/4 dance track and the first time a long, uneven-beat chord has occured.

The combined effect of all of this, of a five-beat chord of the relative minor beneath the pitch in the melodic line that falls in an harmonic no-man’s-land between triads, is to make the music hover momentarily in mid-air, suspended on an unexpected chord for an unanticipated duration: the music trips up slightly, and hangs for a tiny moment, before moving on.

It’s only a small moment buried within the song, and could easily be missed, but it’s a brief moment of magic.

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