Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

Songwriting and Music Theory Vlog youtube-icon twitter-icon facebook guitarate guitar curriculum

Guitarist looking for something to play or teach? Visit our other site:

Get Updates:

Click Here for a List of the latest Songwriting and Music Theory Vlogs

"'Shake it Off', by Taylor Swift"

Hey everyone! Welcome to the Spotter Syncs Vlog. Today we’re going to take a real-time look at Taylor Swift’s new single “Shake it Off,” and why this song should probably be in the running for the most tightly crafted pop tune off all time.


Okay, starting of this lean-meat, pure-pop, gem is a 4-bar Intro, with a beat consisting of a Boom, a Kuh, and a Click. And, most of the time it goes like this: Boom, ka-boom, click-ka-boom-boom, ka, click-boom-ka-(boom/click). Now you’ll notice that the last notes here are in parenthesis, and that there’re two of them, one on top of the other, and that’s because sometimes the rhythm ends with a boom, and sometimes, it ends with a click.  So yeah, a little variety never hurt anyone right?


Actually, one of the main currents that runs through Taylor’s music, and the music of all good pop songwriters, is that they’ll start you off with some Consistency, to make you want to start with the shaking and that, but then, they also give you just enough variety to keep you interested, but not distracted, so that you’ll keep on “shaking it” for three or four minutes. I mean, it’s like, before we’re done here, you’re probably gonna want to be calling this song “shake it on and keep it on” not shake it off, seriously?


Speaking of Variety, let’s take a quick look at the Form: we got an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and then again we got your verse, pre-chorus, chorus; but then she adds this extra little hook here, before the two-part breakdown, or bridge. And then another chorus followed by a big fat outro rocking that newly introduced hook three times more. And yeah, I don’t know how often you pay attention to a song’s form, but most songs out there have like a verse, a chorus, maybe an intro and a bridge if there’s time. But what we see here, is that we not only have this extra pre-chorus thingy, but also an extra hook idea, and even the breakdown is split into two distinct sections, so that’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 distinct sections of music, or train cars, making up this tune train, on this tonal tune-train track.


Another thing to say about the form is that most sections can be divided by 4 measures, but the second section of the Breakdown has these two extra measures here that make 8 into 10. That gives you just enough time to catch your breath, and, just enough time for Taylor to belt out this little tastefully-short cadenza, or “run” as they sometimes call it in pop, to bring us back into it. Listen for it coming up here.


Alright now let’s skip back up to the chord loop. If we’re in the Key of G, the first chord, Am, is what we’d call a ii chord, in roman numerals here; and next, the C is a IV chord; and then, the G, is our ‘I’ chord, which lasts twice as long as the first two chords by the way. And, that’s actually one of the main indicators that we’re in the key of G: lasting twice as long makes it the most common chord. So, that’s a reason, and also because it’s the last chord of the loop, that points us to the key of G major as well.


Okay, three chord song, simple right? Well, not as simple as you think. Because when you add the melody, things destabilize a little. What wigs you out, or at least what wigged me out the first couple times I heard the song, is the fact that these chords start out only as implied chords, since all that’s happening is that the saxophone is playing their root notes. Just bass notes; that’s all: just ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba.


But yeah, what’s gnarly, is that on top of those implied changes, Taylor is singing the third note of the scale, B, which changes to what we call a “9” over an Am chord, and a “M7” over a C major chord. And yeah, since we only have roots, and we’re missing the other notes that usually come with chord triads, it’s just, kinda funky. The jury’s out. Listen again to these Intervals. Stable? I don’t think so.


Another thing to point out about the Melody is that for the first two full minutes of the song, Taylor is limiting herself to only the 5 notes of the Pentatonic Scale. And I’m telling you, that takes discipline, and a lot of skill--at least if you want to do it in a way that sells records. But yeah, all that discipline pays off later, because at 2:06 she introduces the hook, which uses a note not in the pentatonic scale, the 4^, or “fa” as some people call it. This way your ear is like, “Whoa, who is this new note, coming to the party? Fa huh? Okay Fa, I’ll party with you.”


Okay, but--do you know who is conspicuously absent from this party? That’s right, it’s the 7th note of the scale or “ti”. This ain’t a ti party folks, no ti’s allowed. Okay let’s talk about how this affects the music, and how it helps to keep spinning us around in circles. So, music geeks call this 7th note of the scale, the “leading tone”, and, since this “leading tone” never shows up, it can never lead us to a resolution our ear is 100% satisfied with. And why is that? Well, one thing you can’t have without the seventh note of the scale, is you can never use a D chord or a “V” chord. And yeah, In case you care to know, the V chord is the most popular chord in music after the root, and it also makes the strongest, what they call “Cadence”, and so the fact that this strongest of cadences never shows up also keeps you wanting more loops, because you’re expecting it. In your subconscious mind, you’re like, when’s the V chord getting to the party?


Okay, but then how do they end this infectious unstoppable loop if they don’t have the “lets-end this thing”, stronger “V to I” Cadence? Well, first off, the last chord they play here is the G, or the root chord of the key signature. So by that alone, we could be satisfied that the songs done. But, nope, sorry, the melody takes the period in this sentence and changes it to a comma once again. You know that last little melody that goes like “ah-ah ah ah”? It ends not on the key of G, but on a 6^, on “la”, which is the root of the minor key, not the major! And so then because of that last curveball you’re like—“Wait, did that that song just end in minor? Was that song in a minor key? Nah, I was sure it was in major, what’s going on here? I’d better investigate!”


And, there you go, you press the back button on your ipod cause you just had to investigate, and now you’re listening to it all over again. You’ve been caught my friend, caught shaking, in a sticky web of Taylor Swift’s geniusly crafted non-resolving, ever-flowing flows.


Okay, but yeah, let’s investigate. Ready to start the Sync? Here’s the version I got, looks like this, but as long as your version says it’s 3:39 seconds long, we should be Okay.


[Does the Sync}


Okay, well, that’s it. Thanks y’all and I hope you enjoyed this Tonal Trends “Spotter Syncs” songwriter’s lesson about “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift. I also hope this vlog may have served as a digestible intro to music theory and songwriting concepts, for those of you who may be thinking about dipping your toes in those waters. Until next time, make sure to like us, and follow us on all the websites if you like, and maybe even watch another songwriting vlog! Thanks again! Bye!