Ariana Grande, NASA, and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony
As a musician, everything I hear and experience in life tends to associate itself somehow or someway to whatever piece of music I’m studying. With Phoenix’s season finale, Radiances, just a few weeks away, I’ve been hard at work with my score to Beethoven’s magnificent masterwork Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. So naturally when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Switched on Pop, the other week, every song mentioned related itself to Beethoven 6 in my head.
If you want to check out this particular episode of Switched on Pop here it is. Just to give you the gist, though, pop artists have spent the last decade finding new and interesting ways to adjust to the weird financial models of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. These models mean that artists are incentivized to make sure listeners listen to entire tracks, or at least a significant portion of a track. The most obvious way to achieve this? Shorter tracks. Another popular method, and the one that’s on my mind right now, is making sure the very first thing listener hears is enticing enough to be sure they stick around.
The third track of Ariana Grande’s newest (amazing) album, thank u next, does this to great effect, and I just can’t get the similarities between its first four measures and the first four measures of Beethoven 6 out of my head.
Ariana Grande - NASA
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of pop songs are most well known for their choruses. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, it’s not to say the verse can’t be the main draw sometimes, but when we get drunk in a bar and sing at the top of our lungs, chances are we’re singing the chorus. Waiting thirty seconds or even a minute into a song to give the listener the chorus, though, risks them just turning the track off or skipping the song. So one obvious way to get a listener to stick around for the chorus is to sample it at the very top of the track.
When you listen to NASA, unless you’re a genius, you don’t actually realize what you’re listening to at the very beginning. Listen to this opening:
It sounds pretty innocuous. Just F# A# A#, F# A# A#… It’s fantastically orchestrated to be this alien-sounding drone that fits the spacey theme of the song in every way. But it’s not really until 20-plus measures later, in the build up to the chorus and the chorus itself that you realize that these innocent four measures of introduction are actually the essential DNA of the entire track.
That F# A# A# goes from being the background for the lead up to the chorus to actually being the main melody [“Give you the whole world, I’ma need space”] of the chorus itself! So the tune starts as four bars of intro, becomes background music in the build up to the chorus, and then becomes the chorus. It’s a pretty amazingly economical use of melodic material! Even more than that, it helps tie the song together as a whole, whether we realize it or if it’s just in our subconscious.
But… Where have I heard that before?
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 6
You could write an entire book on just the very beginnings of Beethoven’s 9 Symphonies. He might not have been fighting against shortened attention spans or the payment structures of multi-billion dollar corporations, but he certainly did know how to grab the attention of an audience, like in these examples from his 3rd and 5th symphonies:
But the 6th Symphony’s introduction is unique even among these other examples. It starts with four measures of isolated music (see the tune in the red box). A fermata pauses everything for a moment, and then the same exact melody goes to the background (now in the blue box!).
So what is this tune? Is it just a little ditty of an introduction? Is it background material for another, more important, melody? Well, we finally find out a little bit later that it’s actually the main theme of the whole movement (in green)!
Beethoven’s innocuous intro is actually the closest thing the piece has to a chorus! His introduction was meant to grab our attention, put this ear worm in our heads, and leave us wondering what it was we had just heard. Those four measures of music go from being an introduction, to background music, to a central theme of the whole piece!
Now, none of this is to say that Ariana Grande was inspired by Beethoven (I highly doubt it), it’s just to say that composers throughout history have found similar ways to cope with the issue of grabbing an audience’s attention, whether the piece of music is three or thirty minutes long! These little things that are often hard to notice make great pieces of music more than just a collection of measures and notes, but cohesive wholes that belong together.
If you’d like, take a listen to all of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and - of course - all of NASA. I’ve provided YouTube links to both below. After that, grab your tickets to our 5/4 performance of both Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and the world premiere of of radiances blossoming in expanding air…, a brand new cello concerto by American composer Jeffrey Mumford!