Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Whitney Houston Memorial List Of Pop Songs With Ascending String Scales In Them

I'm sure it won't have escaped your notice that Whitney Houston has passed away. She did this without consulting me, while I was on holiday in a part of the world that still hasn't discovered the internet, and rather inconveniently while I was in the middle of a four part series of posts critiquing the heterodoxy of her song lyrics.

Since Whitney has inspired so much of this blog, it seemed only fitting that I should, in some small way, mark the sad occasion of her demise. But how exactly to do so was a question that I wrestled with through many a long and sleepless night - until the answer rose up and hit me in the ear: Compile the Whitney Houston Memorial List of The Best Upward String Scales In A Pop Song.

I know exactly what you are thinking. You are thinking that the best way to mourn the passing of our beloved diva of the power ballad is with a list of downward string scales. Well, you'd be forgiven for thinking so, but I want to remember Whitney with the same joyful rising swoop that  her music first inspired in me, back when I was a spotty teenager listening to my brother's tape on a chunky personal stereo whilst doing my GCSE geography homework on the kitchen table.*

So, because Whitney is the Queen of the rapid rising string scale, here it is: in no particular order, ten of the best upward swooshes in pop history.** I know you are all busy, so the titles are linked to youtube with the scale all cued up for you. Yes, I really am that nice. Or just watch the whole embedded thing. Because a scale without a context is, um, a conscale. Or something.

I love this song, because it proves that there is a place for the humble violin in the pantheon of rock. If I'd known about this song back in the dark days when I was practising chromatic scales for my grade V exam, maybe I would have worked a little harder at them.
Scale type: Chromatic.
Scale range: One octave, E to E.
Scale genre: Angry rock.
Swoosh rating: 7/10.

This is exactly what scales are for. You think you've passed the emotional zenith of the song, you are just starting to relax, and then the strings run up behind you and shove you hard in the back.
Scale type: Eb Major.
Scale range: Major sixth, Bb to G.
Scale genre: New-style hot-chick country.
Swoosh rating: 9/10. It's only a sixth, but it's fast, and perfectly positioned.

3: Glen Campbell: If You Go Away

Yup, this made it into my top ten list of key changes too. BECAUSE IT IS BRILLIANT. It is a key change and a big damn scale and it comes just when you think the song has finished and it's also Glen Campbell, who is a whole world of excellence all by himself.
Scale type: C# Melodic Minor.
Scale range: Thirteenth, G# to E.
Scale genre: Old-style hunky-guy country.
Swoosh rating: 9.9/10. No room for fudging in this one; you can hear every note. Even the viola players will have had to get it right.

4: Kylie: Your Disco Needs You

No idea who this girl is, but she totally deserves to be famous, because this song is ace. It's quite hard to hear under all the other histrionics at the end, but there is a whole lot of scale going on - by my calculations somewhere in the region of an octave-and-a-half down and then two octaves back up again.
Scale type: E Melodic Minor?
Scale range (the ascending bit): Sixteenth, D# to E.
Scale genre: Post-ironic retro disco quasi-Russo-kitsch.
Swoosh rating: D.I.S/D.I.S.C.O

5: Britney: Shadow

Look! It's Britney! No, wait, it's that annoying moody teenager from the annoying moody vampire movies! No, wait, it's Britney again! Amazing! This is actually a rather clever video, and if you've never seen the annoying moody vampire movie in question, it will pretty much tell you all you need to know, but in a tiny fraction of the time... and with added Britney goodness. There is definitely a scale in there, but all my musical training couldn't help me figure out what it is. Anyone care to help?
Scale type: Britney Melodic Minor.
Scale range: Dawn to Dusk.
Scale genre: Britney Awesome.
Swoosh rating: 9.11/10 for the scale, but minus several million points for persistent incorrect use of the reflexive pronoun "yourself". In the damn chorus. SERIOUSLY.

6: Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted To You

Not strictly a pop song, I know. But it's so nice. And look, I found you a clip where Olivia Newton-John is mysteriously Spanish when she converses, but English when she sings. Again, if someone had explained to me the link between practising scales and girls singing in their nighties, maybe I'd be a better violinist now. On the other hand, it's about as dowdy a nightdress as you're likely to see in a movie. And now I have a sudden urge to compile a list of the top ten dowdy nightdresses in a movie musical number. Must make a note of that.
Scale type: Eb Melodic Minor.
Scale range: One octave for the swoosh, but slowly climbs another fifth straight afterwards. Genius.
Scale genre: Vintage Nightwear Chic.
Swoosh rating: 8/10, plus 6 bonus points for the extra fifth. (Why not 5 bonus points? I have my reasons.***)

7: The Little Mermaid: Part Of Your World (Reprise)

I don't care if you mock me for this one, there was no way it wasn't going in the list. This is exactly what scales are for. If the slow, inexorable climb right up to the incredible breaking-wave climax doesn't make your heart want to burst then YOU ARE NOT HUMAN.
Sometimes (okay, every time) when I find myself in the sea, I like to sing this, and try to time the waves to hit at the right point. They never do. (If you think that sounds like a rather girly activity for a guy to indulge in, bear in mind that I can't actually swim. That makes it pretty much an extreme sport, in my view.)
Scale type: F Major.
Scale range: Twelfth, F to C.
Scale genre: Disney.
Splash rating: 10/10.

8: Dexy's Midnight Runners: Come On Eileen

This gets a mention because this song took the humble scale, and elevated it (bonus pun) from the role of mere exercise, or swoosh, and into actual melody. Yup, the tune for the bit where they sing "Toora loora toora loo rye aye" is, plain and simple, a straight one octave C major scale. And there's a violin accompanying, a third above, thus officially making this a pop song with an ascending string scale.
Scale type: C Major.
Scale range: One octave, F to F.
Scale genre: Dungaree Folk Rock. (DungaFrock?)
Swoosh rating: 5/10. It doesn't really swoosh. But it has its own special charm.

9: Kate Bush: Experiment IV

If you are a regular to these pages, you may have noticed by now that I have a deep and somewhat shameful love of Whitney, Britney, and country princess Kellie Pickler. But what you may not know is that these are but fleeting infatuations compared to my eternal, consuming passion for Kate Bush. When real life finally turns into a Tolkein novel, Kate Bush will be some sort of all-powerful Elven Queen, and Whitters, Britters and Pickles will be naught but her simpering lackeys. Kate Bush, if you are reading this, please remember me when you come into power. I have loved you unfailingly for fifteen years. Anyway, here she is, being weird, and killing House.
Scale type: Glissando.
Scale range: Two octaves, Bb to Bb (I think).
Scale genre: No one puts Kate Bush in a box, fool.
Swoosh rating: The meters are over in the red.

Obviously, I had to end with Whitney. Here she is demonstrating to the world how it is done. I didn't cue the link up for this one because I couldn't choose which of the FOUR (at least) scales to pick. You'll just have to listen to the whole thing. The fourth scale is a pretty standard, if magnificently long, swoosh, but the third scale happens, like the Glen Campbell, at a key change - and the first two scales change key half way through. This song is in a class all of its own.

Scale type: Bb Major modulating to Db Major (x2), D Major (x2)
Scale range: Major sixth + major seventh (C to A, then Gb to F) for the first two scales, then a seventeenth (two octaves and a third!!), D to F#, for the second pair.
Scale genre: Extreme Power Ballad.
Swoosh rating: Like, infinity.

So there you have it. My small tribute to one of the all-time finest purveyors of 80s power ballads, a woman whose music made a staple pop technique out of the rapidly ascending string scale. We'll never see her like again.

Good night.

* Not on the table itself. I used an exercise book. The 80s were crazy, but we still used paper.
** Ten of the best. Not necessarily the best ten. I wanted to pick the best ten, but after several painstaking weeks spent trying to listen to every pop song ever recorded, I gave up, and plumped for the first ten I could actually think of. I feel like I've let you, and Whitney, down, so if you can think of any better examples, please leave them in a comment.
*** The A natural, naturally. Why did you even need to ask?


  1. You should at least give us the timings of the four string swooshes in the Whitney song. It's what she would have wanted.

    1. On my ipod they are at 1:17, 2:52, 3:30 and 3:48, but I believe the youtube clip is about a second behind that. I think there's another one right at the end of the fade-out, but it's very quiet. Anything else I can help you with...?

    2. You could finish some of your other blog post series... ;^)

    3. Well, I was working on that, and then *someone* told me that I really ought to mark Whitney's demise somehow...

  2. Dave, do you remember my lodger? He tuned Kate Bush's piano. At her house.

    Also: fifteen years? You lightweight! Get to the back of the queue ;-)

    1. Yes, I was a late developer. But I like to think I made up for it by the obsessive nature of my all-consuming love for her since then...
      And now it turns out that I know someone who lived with someone who tuned her piano! Awesome.