How does Beyoncé use music theory to make “Singles Ladies” hit harder?
Chelsea Zellner and Steve Newbrough
The quick answer is that Beyoncé uses a bass lines to imply the minor iv chord in the second chorus right on the word “shoulda...” (this is 51 seconds into the song). Notice how this makes you feel as a listener. What was light hearted jam suddenly becomes more serious and heavy.
The harmonic analysis of Single Ladies is actually hotly debated in the music theory community. This piece of music is extremely unique, and deceptively complex given the apparent simplicity of it on the page. It contains a pretty simple melodic line, percussive accompaniment, and very little harmonic support (pitched instruments playing harmonies). Because of this, there is some room for interpretation. While some minds feel this song is an example of polytonality and some pretty complex borrowed chords, there is abundant evidence pointing to the use of the minor iv chord.
What is the minor iv chord?
The minor IV chord is a very commonly used, and particularly delicious, borrowed chord found in many different genres of music. It is one of the most distinct sounding borrowed chords, and when used effectively, is a very striking addition to a composition.
But what exactly is the minor iv chord?
For songs in major mode, the majority of IV chords that we encounter in music are major IV chords. The major IV chord is a major triad built on the 4th scale degree. The different notes used are the 4th scale degree, the 6th scale degree, and the 1st scale degree. For example, in the key of C major, the fourth scale degree is F, so a major IV chord would be spelled F – A – C.
To make a chord minor, we must “flat” the third of the chord (or, lower it one half step). To use our example in C major again, to make that F chord minor, instead of spelling it F- A- C, we would spell it F- A flat- C. The F major chord becomes an f minor chord, and in the key of C major, the major IV chord becomes a minor iv chord.
How, and when, can the minor iv chord be used?
A minor iv chord can be used in several different ways in a song or piece of music. It serves a different function in different chord progressions, and each has a distinct feel. Most commonly, a minor iv chord is used after a major IV chord. To use C major as an example again, a common chord progression involving minor iv would be C major- F major- f minor- C major (I-VI-vi-I). This particular progression is widely used in many genres both for its distinct sound as well as its simple voice leading.
Another common use for the minor iv chord is very simple, yet perhaps more powerful. It only involves 2 chords- minor iv and major I. The progression is simply major I- minor iv- major I (I- iv- I). In C major, this would be C major- f minor- C major. This chord progression is very versatile. In some contexts, it achieves an “exotic” feel, whereas in others, it merely adds a great deal of emotion and poignancy.
Try this for yourself using the following chord charts. Play the C chord and then the F minor. Transition back and forth between these two chords. Could this sound fit into one of your own songs?
Some composers and songwriters choose to follow a minor iv chord with a major V chord, and then resolve to major I (IV-iv-V-I).
How is minor iv used in “Single Ladies”?
There are few moments in this song in which any instrumental harmonic accompaniment is used. The bridge offers some clear harmonic support, as does the second repetition of the chorus. This is our moment in question. Each time we hear the chorus, it is sung twice. The second time it is sung, a low and powerful bass line enters. This bass line only offers one note at a time, but this note implies a minor iv chord...
Let’s break it down. “Single Ladies” is in the key of E Major. The primary chords in E Major are E Major (E – G# - B), B Major (B – D# - F#), and A Major (A – C# - E), or, I, V, and IV, respectively.
How do we build the minor iv? We take Major IV (A – C# - E), and flat the third (A – C – E). During the second time through the chorus, the bass line enters on a B right on the word like (Cause if you like it then…). That B then switches to a C natural on the word shoulda (Cause if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it).
Again, we are only given one note in the bass line, but that note does not belong in the key of E Major, making it a borrowed note, a note happens to be the note that defines the minor iv chord!
While some theorists believe that this note suggests a Flat Major VI chord, thereby suggesting polytonality, there is evidence of the far simpler explanation of a minor iv chord. The melody descends from a B to an A in that moment, right when the bass line moves to C. Those two notes together, A and C, make a minor 3rd, and the two most important notes of the minor iv chord- the root (A) and the third (C). This is very clearly a minor chord (rather than the very complicated explanation of it being a flat Major IV), and A and C natural mean that it functions as a minor iv chord.
Even though there’s no guitar part in this song try strumming a funky rhythm with the following basic chords. Play a first position E chord up until the second chorus and then just hop it over to a first position A minor.
If you’d like to be more adventurous with your chords try these versions of E and Am up the neck. Notice that I’ve suggested that you shouldn’t play the 5th or 6th strings.
The most important element of any chord progression is how it affects the feeling of the listener. The minor iv is an effective tool that can add more emotional weight to your songs! Look for more posts about the minor iv and other interesting chord progressions here at videoguitarglossary.com.