Studying the Music Theory of pop songs on the Billboard Hot 100

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The Seventh Scale Degree in Katy Perry’s Dark Horse
Half Time in Justin Bieber “Beauty and a Beat”
Triplets in Taylor Swift “I Knew You Were Trouble”
A Programming Note from Pop Music Theory
Mixed Meter in Blake Shelton “Mine Would Be You”
Mixolydian Mode in “Royals” by Lorde
Syncopation in Katy Perry’s “Roar”
Chromatic Chords in “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars
Relative Key in Justin Timberlake “Mirrors”
Polyrhythm in Taylor Swift’s 22

The Seventh Scale Degree in Katy Perry’s Dark Horse

Last weekend, at a party here in Brooklyn, I discovered that Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” is a karaoke favorite of mine. Why? Because the chart-topping song (#3 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time of this writing) is really fun to sing. Also, because the vocal melody is an ideal way to learn about the seventh scale degree.

Dark Horse gives off an evil vibe. This is partly due to the minor key, the pitched down vocals, and the use of tritones (plus the baby crying “Oh No!” at the very beginning doesn’t help). Another contributor to the mood and overall melodic interest of the song is the usage of both types of sevenths.

Let’s start off by listening to our song in question:

Let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way: There are two types of sevenths commonly used in pop music: the minor seventh (A.K.A. the subtonic) which is a whole-step down from the tonic, as well as the major seventh (A.K.A. the leading tone), which is a half-step down from the tonic. In pop music, either or both sevenths are commonly used in both major or minor keys.

In Dark Horse, we are in the key of B♭ minor (although the So you want to play with magic? section flirts with the relative major key of D♭ major). Our minor seventh scale degree is A♭ and our major seventh scale degree is A♮ (natural).

Now let’s listen for the sevenths in the piece. The minor seventh can be heard in Katy’s very first vocal line (the word “you” in “I knew you were“) as well as throughout the first half of each verse (another example is the next line, the word “you” in “and here you are“).

The major seventh can be heard in the second half of the verse (the “aph” in “Aphrodite” and the word “one” in “Make me your one and only”).

Can you hear it?


Pop Music Theory Katy Perry Dark Horse


It is very important to be able to hear the difference between the major and the minor seventh. Being able to hear the distinction will increase your music listening enjoyment, as well as increase your tonal palette, if you are a songwriter.

Minor sevenths can also be used when you are in a major key. In this case, you would be in the mixolydian mode. An example of this is Lorde’s Royals).

I am a big fan of the minor v chord when you are in a major key (Beyonce’s “God Made you Beautiful” is a great example of that). The minor v is created by lowering (♭) the 3rd of the diatonic major V chord, which is the seventh with respect to the tonic.

Can you think of any other songs which use either major or minor sevenths (or both) in an interesting way? I would love to hear about it in the comments!

Half Time in Justin Bieber “Beauty and a Beat”

Today’s article is an introduction to the music theory topic of half time. Modern pop music, certain styles in particular, utilize and in fact heavily rely upon half time. From Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” to the infamous “Harlem Shake” song by Baauer, half time has infected pop music and the epidemic is reaching almost epic proportions.

Today, we will begin covering the topic of half time with a very basic example of this rhythmic technique. Unlike some of the topics we have covered in the past, half time is a very basic and simple concept to understand and identify.


Half Time Music Theory


For our basic introduction to this topic, we will be using Justin Bieber’s “Beauty and a Beat.” The song was no. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Top 100 Singles of 2013, therefore it qualifies to be written about on Pop Music Theory.

Let’s begin by listening to the song below. You may choose to listen to the complete song, or, if you are in a rush, you may choose to listen to 2 sections indicated below:

  • Regular Time Section: 0:50 – 1:05. (Or, any of the rest of the song, except the half time section.)
  • Half Time Section: 3:05 – 3:35

Justin Bieber’s smash hit is a typical modern pop song complete with bridge featuring currently famous rapper (in this case, Trinidad’s Nicki Minaj). What makes this bridge special? It is in half time relative to the rest of the song.

So, what is half time? Half time is when the tempo and rhythmic feel of a song becomes half the speed it was a moment earlier. Sidenote: When the opposite occurs (tempo and rhythmic feel becomes twice as fast), it is called double time.

One very common way of indicating tempo and rhythmic feel in pop music is by the pulse of the snare and kick. Using the snare as an example, half time occurs when the same unit of time which contained 2 tempo-producing snare hits, now contains 1. It is very important to note however, that many modern pop songs no longer use snare drum to indicate tempo, meter or rhythmic feel (see my last post for an example).

For a helpful clarification, please watch this brief YouTube clip for an example of half time (watch from 0:06 – 0:46).

At this point, you should be able to hear the difference between regular time and half time (the half time sounds half the speed). Go back above and listen to “Beauty and a Beat” again. When Nicki Minaj comes in at 3:05, the song goes into half time for the next 30 seconds.

This simple rhythmic technique has massively affected modern pop music, an explanation of which is beyond the scope of this introductory article. I will be continuing to go into greater detail about the concept of half time, and I will be reporting many further examples. If you are eager for another read now, please see my last post on a Taylor Swift song that utilizes half time during the chorus:

Triplets in Taylor Swift “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. I’ll see you in the comments below!

Triplets in Taylor Swift “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Today we will be covering the role of triplets in Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

Taylor Swift is riding high on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Top 100 Singles of 2013 with her smash hit “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The track came in at number 16 on Billboard’s year-end wrap up, the highest showing of any Taylor Swift song for this year.


Pop Music Theory - Triplets in Taylor Swift by Eric Strom


From a music theory point of view, the song has several noteworthy features. It utilizes relative key, as it alternates back and forth between F♯ Major and D♯ Minor. The meter of the song utilizes half time, a technique which is extremely popular in current pop music, and a topic upon which I will be publishing a complete blog post soon. The verse uses what I refer to as the golden chord progression. Most importantly, the song uses a prominently placed triplet for rhythmic interest in the chorus. This is what we will be focusing on for this blog post.

Before we begin our discussion of triplets, I would like to draw your attention to the chorus of the piece, which occurs at 3:08 – 3:21. Please listen to this section, which is queued up in the video below.

Can you hear the triplet? Below is a notation of the synth keyboard chords from 3:08 – 3:15. As you can see, the triplet occurs in the fourth measure. (Side note: The section is notated in F♯ Major, however the tonal center at this point in the piece is D♯ Minor. These two keys are relative and thus they effectively share the same key signature)

So, what is a triplet? A triplet is when a chunk of musical time is divided into three equal rhythmic stresses. In this case, the duration of our triplet is equal to two of the original quarter note values contained within. The triplet, which is a strong deviation from other rhythmic patterns found in the work, adds rhythmic interest.

Pop Music Theory - Triplets in Taylor Swift by Eric Strom

There is no doubt that this triplet, along with the syncopated eighth note chords, reflect the infusion of a modern genre of music called dubstep. These rhythmic techniques, in particular the jarring triplet, go a long way in characterizing the feel of this section.

This stylized technique takes away from the timelessness of the record, and will make the work sound dated a decade or two from now. Nevertheless, the purpose of this blog is to analyze the music theory of pop songs that are currently on the Billboard Hot 100, and to do that while ignoring the widespread prevalence of dubstep-inspired triplets would be impossible. Listen to the synth in the opening verse of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” below for another example.

Thank you for reading today’s post about triplets. Can you think of any other modern pop songs that use triplets? Please leave me a comment below!

Like this article? You may also enjoy Taylor Swift’s use of Polyrhythm in her song “22.”

A Programming Note from Pop Music Theory

Exactly two months ago, I started this blog, which is called Pop Music Theory (PMT for short). During that time, I have analyzed the music theory of 11 pop songs. Although this blog is still in it’s infancy, I am proud to say that PMT has received over 700 unique views! I am so grateful to each and every person who took the time to read my blog.

Most of the songs that I have covered to date have been songs which are currently on the Billboard Hot 100, which is the American music industry standard pop chart. However, we have also covered a more diverse range of songs, including unreleased/leaked pop songs and classic David Bowie. This has given me the freedom to write about any song I choose.

However, freedom is not always a good thing. With this in mind, I have decided to restrict myself to only analyzing songs which are, at the time of writing, on the Billboard Hot 100. Like the 140 character limit of Twitter, restriction leads to creativity. Also, restricting myself in this way will help remove any bias I may have towards certain musical devices which, given access to the entire library of popular music, I would be able to selectively highlight.

To keep consistent with this decision, I have eliminated the “Classics” and “Can you Hear It?” categories on this website. I have also unpublished the analyses of songs which are not on the Billboard Hot 100.

I believe that this decision will give this blog a more focused goal and story. Although my decision is final, I would very much like to hear any feedback, questions, concerns or commentary that you may have. Please leave a comment below, and thank you again for reading Pop Music Theory!

Mixed Meter in Blake Shelton “Mine Would Be You”

Today we will be covering the Music Theory topic of Mixed Meter


Blake Shelton’s country hit “Mine Would Be You” is, at the time of this writing, #36 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The piece is very simple from a harmonic point of view. It never strays from the tonic, which is C Major, and it stays diatonic to C throughout the work. The primary point of interest, however, is found in the meter. Let’s have a listen:

Mixed Meter

During the intro and verse section, Shelton presents us with alternating time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4. This is called mixed meter. In other words, we hear one measure of 3/4, followed by one measure of 4/4, followed by one measure of 3/4, and so on.

Shelton uses mixed meter to add rhythmic interest to the song. “Mine Would be You” is an appropriate context for rhythmic interest, because the other fundamentals of the song, harmony and melody, are very simple.

Remember this law of pop music theory: True pop music, by definition, never adds too much interest at once, or else it risks confusing the listener and no longer being pop music.

Mixed Meter - Pop Music Theory

Above is a portion of the verse which has been notated (0:27 – 0:39 in the YouTube clip). You can clearly see the meter alternating between 3/4 and 4/4. As the verse section ends (0:54 “That’s easy ’cause mine would be you…”), the chorus brings us back to common time and acts as a return to normalcy.


Mixed Meter - Pop Music Theory

Mixed meter is a great way to add rhythmic interest to a song. It is a technique you will see from time to time in pop music (for example, “All You Need is Love” by The Beatles). Other ways to add rhythmic interest include polyrhythm (which we discussed in Taylor Swift “22”) and syncopation (which we discussed in Katy Perry’s “Roar”).

Thank you for reading today’s post about mixed meter! Can you think of any other songs that are in mixed meter? Are you wondering why we don’t simply notate the verse as 7/4 instead of alternating 3/4 and 4/4? Do you have any other questions about mixed meter? Please ask away in the comments, or tweet me!

Mixolydian Mode in “Royals” by Lorde

New Zealand’s Lorde has overtaken Miley for the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, with her debut single entitled “Royals.”

The sixteen year-old’s composition has held the coveted #1 spot for 5 weeks now.

Upon first listen to the song in question, what immediately stands out is the minimalist instrumentation. However, there is something beneath the surface, which is very unique and alluring about this piece: It is written in strict Mixolydian mode.

In simple terms, the mixolydian scale is identical to a major scale, except with a flat seventh scale degree. In this song, we are in the key of D Mixolydian, meaning our scale is D-E-F♯-G-A-B-C-D. Notice that our C is not C♯ as it would be in D Major.

Songs written strictly in Mixolydian have a unique feel, since we lose all the functions of the natural seventh. Major V chords become minor v. We lose our conventional leading tone. We also lose our standard minor iii mediant chord.

The flat seventh scale degree makes for less of a “major” feel. The mixolydian mode really creates a special sound which is hard to describe.


Please listen to “Royals” and see if you can hear it! Can you think of any other songs in Mixolydian mode? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Syncopation in Katy Perry’s “Roar”

Let’s suppose we have a rhythm like this:

Not Syncopated

Now let’s play the same notes, but emphasize the weak beats in the measure:


When a rhythm emphasizes the off-beat, as in the second example above, it is said to be syncopated. Musical genres such as reggae, jazz and hip-hop are heavily reliant on syncopation.

Syncopation is also used in pop music, however its presentation is usually very accessible.

Today we will be addressing the syncopation in Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Let’s have a listen, paying special attention to the chorus:

The syncopation begins during the chorus (“I’ve got the eye of the tiger…”). Beginning with the lyric “tiger,” and continuing for the following four measures, the rhythmic emphasis falls to the AND of the beat.

The AND of the beat refers to the off-beats in the measure when eighth notes are counted as 1-AND-2-AND-3-AND-4-AND. Please see the notation below:

katy perry1

As you can see, the weak beats are heavily emphasized during this section notated above. The chorus then continues (“Louder, louder than a lion, ’cause I am a champion….”). This section is also syncopated in the same way notated above.

This syncopation is integral to the character and feel of chorus section, which represents the main hook of the song. In typical pop music fashion, the syncopation is presented in a very manageable and understandable way, in order to provide musical interest without the challenge of listening to a more heavily syncopated genre.


katy perry2


Thank you for reading today’s post. Syncopation is a fundamental topic in music theory. As such it is often taught to and understood by many musicians. Maybe you can think of an example of a song that uses syncopation. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Chromatic Chords in “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars

“When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars is in the key of C major – meaning the key signature contains no sharps or flats. Why is it then, when we analyze the harmony of this song, do we find notes like F♯ and B♭?

The answer? Chromatic chords.

Chromatic chords (a.k.a. non-diatonic chords) add interest to a piece by deviating from diatonic harmony.

Let’s have a listen:

Bruno Mars uses three different types of non-diatonic chords in this song:

  • VII♭ Chord – The subtonic chord, a major chord which is built upon the flattened seventh scale degree.
  • V/V Chord - A type of secondary dominant, where the V chord is borrowed from the dominant.
  • Minor iv Chord - The Minor subdominant, a minor iv chord which is borrowed from C minor.

The VII♭ Chord is first found at 0:56 in the song, during the lyric displayed in the chart below:




The subtonic chord in this case is B♭ major. It then resolves to the tonic, as the subtonic often does. As a side note, the tonic in this case is in second inversion which eases the transition to the following V chord.

The subtonic is so popular in pop/rock music, that it is ironically more common than the diatonic seven chord. The subtonic is sometimes said to be borrowed from the mixolydian mode, which is characterized by the flattened seventh scale degree.

As the song progresses, we are then led to the phrase where we hear the remaining two chromatic chords in the piece:




The V/V chord is so named because you are borrowing a V chord (in this case, D major) from the V (in this case, G major). Many songs use the V/V chord, such as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t think Twice, it’s Alright.”

The most classic way to resolve a V/V is to the V, but other common resolutions are to the IV, I, and minor ii. In this case it resolves to the IV, after which we proceed to another non-diatonic chord, the minor iv.

The minor iv should be thought of as a high-dosage borrowed chord, which can sound heavy-handed if not used judiciously. The minor iv creates a distinct melancholy-type feeling. It is often used immediately following or in substitution of a major IV chord.


Singer Bruno Mars poses in the press roo


Thank you for reading today’s post. Keep in mind, we have covered three advanced chromatic chords in today’s post, so please do not worry if you don’t yet fully understand this content. These three types of chords will come up again in other songs we will analyze, so you will have a chance to slowly learn these concepts over time.

In fact, there is even more musical content we did not fully discuss in this piece. For example, there is a B♭ non-chord tone in the melody during the V/V, which is actually an example of a neighbor tone. But again, I would like to emphasize that there is a lot of musical content “under the hood” here, and this piece will be a good one to come back to later in your studies.

Relative Key in Justin Timberlake “Mirrors”

If you are an aspiring songwriter, then you simply must understand the power of relative key. It is an extremely effective songwriting tool.

Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” is a truly classic example of the gold standard of relative key – minor verse/major chorus. Please have a listen:

Here is a quick intro to relative key. For every major key, there is a minor key which shares an identical key signature – these two are relative keys.

The relative minor of a particular major key is found precisely three half steps (a minor third) beneath the major tonic. The opposite is true as well.

In the case of Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors,” the verse is in the key of C minor, and the chorus is in the key of E♭ major. Both share the key signature of 3 flats.


The minor verse/major chorus found in “Mirrors” creates an emotional cycle of conflict and resolution.

The strategy of minor verse/major chorus is very powerful, and it is used frequently in pop songs. You would be smart to apply it to your own compositions.

Polyrhythm in Taylor Swift’s 22

Upon first listen, Taylor Swift’s “22” may seem nothing more than a rudimentary pop song. Utilizing a repetitive I-V-IV-V chord progression, with only slight variations to the minor vi during the chorus, the song is very simple on the surface.

The truth is, this simple tune has been elevated to a higher realm of pop by including exactly the right amount of polyrhythmic interest. Before we move further, please listen fully to the song we are discussing today:

You may be thinking to yourself, what is a polyrhythm? A polyrhythm is when two or more rhythms are played at the same time.

In the case of Taylor Swift’s “22,” we have a 4-3 polyrhythm. This means the listener has the sense of the same unit of time containing 4 evenly spaced pulses, as well as 3 evenly spaced pulses.

The polyrhythm begins during the prechorus, “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time…” Interestingly, it is Swift’s pitch changes which create the “4” portion of the 4-3 polyrhythm. Please see the chart below for a graphical representation:


During the chorus, the sense of polyrhythm goes on to play a more fundamental role in the piece, inspiring the rhythm of the kick drum and stabbing synth harmony.

The writers of this piece show their sense of humor, when, at 2:48, there is a very jarring representation of the “4” in the 4-3 polyrhythm.

A final interesting point is the repeating high pitched guitar G-drone during the chorus. In music theory, this type of sustained tone occurring over a changing harmony is called a pedal tone. Normally found in the bass, a pedal tone written in the highest pitch instrument is called an inverted pedal.  In this case, the inverted pedal is used to create a sense of rhythmic normalcy amidst the polyrhythm.


Thank you for reading today’s post. A teaser: Stay tuned to PMT for a future post about irregular rhythm in a different Taylor Swift song!

Copyright © 2014 Eric Strom