A Music Theory Professor Explains “FourFiveSeconds”

“He’s trying to be taken a little bit more seriously, and that kind of works”

These days, New York University's Clive Davis Institute seems to be graduating a lot of our music crushes, including FADER cover star Arca, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Elle Varner, and rising rapper-producer London O'Connor. Founded in 2003 by renowned record producer and SONY Music's Chief Creative Officer Clive Davis, it's a competitive BFA program in all things music business, from songwriting and engineering to journalism and artist management.

As a department of TISCH, Clive Davis might be best understood as the pop music equivalent to that school's illustrious Film & Television program, which counts Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Jim Jarmusch as alumni. It's the kind of place where you can study music criticism with the likes of pioneering hip-hop critic Dan Charnas and “Dean of Rock Criticism" Robert Christgau; take a course on the Talking Heads that includes an actual artist visit by members of the '80s new wave outfit; or learn how to engineer a record with someone who co-produced and recorded Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. That man—Associate Chair Nicholas Sansano, who has been teaching at Clive Davis for 11 years—describes the unique character of the program as a function of its immersive, “try-your-hand-at-everything" approach: “The idea behind it is to have a very informed person, regardless of what you want to do within music and media," he told The FADER over the phone. “You have a sensitivity built up as to the difficulties of the artist, producer, writer, business manager, what have you. It's pretty rigorous."

Because a lot of us over here at The FADER are wishing we could live college all over again just to experience what it's like to go there, we asked Sansano to put us in touch with a professor from the program who could give us a short music theory lesson about one of the songs we've been talking a lot about lately. We nominated Rihanna's “FourFiveSeconds," with Kanye and Paul McCartney; he linked us with long-time faculty member Jeff Peretz, who teaches music theory to producers and is currently developing a course called "Originality in Music" for next fall (outside the academy, he's also a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has collaborated with the likes of Mark Ronson, Lana Del Ray, and Jay-Z). We asked Peretz to listen to the “FourFiveSeconds" and explain what, if anything, makes it innovative from a musical perspective. For a track backed by over four million plays and a nine-person, superstar writing team that includes West, McCartney, Ty Dolla Sign, and the Dirty Projectors's David Longstreth, the answer wasn't quite what we expected.

It's actually a pretty generic pop song

Peretz: "FourFiveSeconds" never leaves the key that it's written in, and it plays off probably one of the most common chord progressions: one, four, six, five. It starts in home base, and it moves on and then brings itself back to home base, very simply, when they sing three more seconds to Friday at the end of the verse. Which is great: many pop songs do that, and I would imagine that that was Paul McCartney's contribution, because I can't really see what else he had to do with it. There's no virtuosic bass playing on it, and I didn't hear his voice on it anywhere, though it does have a little "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" kind of vibe to it—the way the melody turns itself around. The chorus is the same chord progression as the verse, so when the bridge comes, they just put the G chord first. The song is in the key of D major, and it goes to the four chord (G major) and then it descends back to D Major. They flip the script. It sounds very fresh, there could be no more obvious place for the bridge to go. It doesn't seem like anyone is concerning themselves with not going to the obvious place—they're all cool with it. Pop being popular, if it goes somewhere interesting, you're going to lose a certain segment of the audience.

Although Rihanna's yelp makes it worthwhile

Peretz: I think that what makes this song popular is Rihanna's little AY! Otherwise, I think it's generic—a sort of 101-style pop song writing that doesn't really bring anything new to the table. I have the feeling that if it wasn't Rihanna and Kanye singing this song, it would've gone absolutely nowhere. When I say it's [the vocalists that make] it cool, I mean how it makes people feel like they're part of the story of Rihanna and Kanye's world. When they're talking about how hard it is for them with their week and how they can't wait for Friday to come—which is a little bit ridiculous coming from two billionaire superstars—it's like you're part of the party, you're a part of the club, you're in on the secret.

The production is unusually stripped-down

Peretz: It's funny, because when I first heard it, I was like, "Really? Is this a demo of the song?" Because all it is is that acoustic guitar. But then I listened to the vocal production, and all the layering and all the wet pop vocal treatment [made me realize], "No, this is what they're really putting out." I thought that maybe they were getting lazy and that they couldn't be bothered to actually make a track for it, but then I thought maybe they're going for this kind of intimate, unplugged vibe. It's Rihanna and Kanye kind of out of their—well, not really out of their comfort zone, because anybody would be comfortable singing on a four-chord pop song like that. But that's what's interesting to me about it: it's not over-produced.

But praise be to Kanye for easing off the Auto-Tune

Peretz: Kanye singing through the vocal pitch correction is not as obnoxious as it's been in the past, so I guess he's trying to be taken a little bit more seriously as a vocalist, and that kind of works. And the more time I spent with it, transcribing it and literally writing it down, I do like the simplicity—that Beatles-esque, Vaudevillian simplicity that Paul writes with. The melody is very simple in that, when they sing three more seconds to Friday, it comes back to the tonic, it comes back to one—like in "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" or "Hey Jude." Those songs are way more sophisticated harmonically than this, but he does bring it home in a similar way, and that feels good to hear. The last thing it has in its favor is when the bridge comes Rihanna belts it out a little bit and that's cool. She can sing, and she does demonstrate that on the bridge.

A Music Theory Professor Explains “FourFiveSeconds”