Weekly Billboard Theory — No Tears Left To Cry

Robert Joffred
May 10, 2018 · 6 min read

Ah, it’s that time of week again. That time where I put off writing about one of the top songs in the country until the night before I post them. Whoops. Things tend to work out alright, it’ll be fine. Anyways! Let’s not waste any more time! New Ariana Grande!

Gotta give it up to Ariana for one of the first top 40 projection mapping performances that I’ve seen

No Tears Left To Cry

Ariana Grande

Key: C Major

Tempo: 122 BPM

“No Tears Left To Cry” makes a lot of interesting choices. We’ll start by looking at the intro to the song because it’s the beginning (duh) and there’s a ton to unpack. The initial chord progressions starts vi-V-IV-V. Super common, nothing special. This repeats. BUT THEN! The progression switches to I-ii-vi. This isn’t unheard of but it’s certainly not a common progression. Since we’re halfway through a section of the song (the intro), it’s safe to assume that the first part of the progression will come back to make this AABA form or we’ll repeat the second part and have AABB. Guess what! Neither of those happens, baybay! Instead of either of these options, we ride out the I chord until the verse begins. This is a very rare case (in top 40 music) where we hear a long-form progression. Long-form progression isn’t a real term that you’ll hear anywhere else but I feel the term sums a chord progression lasts longer than a four-chord pattern. For another example of this, check out the chorus of Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding (holy cow, this song has 1.7 billion views on YouTube).

So that’s a pretty cool idea in the introduction! Ya know what though? There’s still more! I think it’s been over a year at this point so I’ll go over the concept for those of you that have started reading this series more recently. The intro utilizes text painting. Text painting is when the music reflects a concept that occurs in the lyrics. I mentioned a couple of examples in this write-up but literally, any time that you’ve heard a song mention time running out and you hear a clock ticking, there you go. My favorite example is probably the bed creak in “Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay”. SO! You can probably figure out the text painting in the intro of “No Tears Left To Cry”. If you look at the tempo I wrote above you might notice that the song feels a lot slower than 122. That’s because it is, at least in the beginning. The tempo PICKS UP as Ariana sings that she’s “picking it up”. The music accelerates with these lyrics and voilà! Text painting.

That’s a long chorus!

One last short thing about the chorus. Sorry, I meant the introduction. Oh wait, that’s right. The chorus IS the introduction. Again, this isn’t something that we never see but it is a little left of center. Especially because of the tempo change. This is a great way to get extra mileage out of an initial idea while keeping it fresh later. If you’re looking at the lyrics on Genius it appears as though we only have three choruses. In reality, we have four because of the introduction but we don’t tire of it because of the different tone. Nicely done.

Okay, let’s talk about the coolest part of the song: the verse chord progression. We haven’t heard anything like this in other songs that we’ve discussed. Usually, we see chord progressions that are entirely diatonic. In a major scale most often we say I, IV, V, and vi. Occasionally, we’ve looked at some songs that use secondary function chords like V/V or V/vi. However, the chords in the verse don’t quite fall into either of these categories. Look below to see the notes in that make up the chords.

Woah, so funky

First thing to notice is that you’ll see four pitches in the chord rather than the typical three. Yes, there are 5 notes in line with each other for those of you that don’t read music but the one on the bottom is just doubling one from above. So when building a scale we have the first note (the root), the third, and the fifth. If you take a note and you skip to the next line or space and do that again, you’ve got a chord. However, up above we have a root, another note, a third, and a fifth. What do we think that note that is in between the first and third could be called? The second? Yep, sure. Often times we’ll call it the ninth because it would be stacked on top of the seventh of the chord but in this case ,we don’t have a seventh so when notating we can just say (name of chord) add 2. People will understand.

“Okay, so they’re extended chords. We’ve talked about that before, it’s nothing THAT special.” You’re right but look at that first chord. That little hashtag there isn’t a hashtag but a sharp, which makes that vi add2 chord actually a VI add2 chord. This is what gives us such a crazy sound and changes the progression from a pretty standard vi-IV-V to a wild VI-IV-V. This immediately stood out to me the first time I heard “No More Tears Left To Cry” and I’m very happy that I got to analyze this moment. Now, like I said we often see diatonic progressions. This isn’t one of those because of the accidental. Occasionally we see secondary function chords in our progressions. This isn’t one of those because that major chord on A wouldn’t relate in any meaningful way to the IV or V chords. So what is this? Modal mixture baybay! Well, kinda. I think that I had linked to this video before about modal interchange and I’m going to do it again because it’s such a dang good resource. But upon rewatching and looking at how the modes line up, it appears that the VI doesn’t fit anywhere really. It seems like it might simply be a case of “we tried this and it sounded cool” and ya know what? That’s totally great! I could also be totally wrong! And that’s a little less fine! Whoops! But for real, I can’t think of any fundamental reason that this works other than it just does. Maybe I’m just tired or maybe things don’t necessarily need to have a reason. Maybe the writers thought “this sounds a little sad, what happens if we make this first chord major instead of the usual minor?”. Who knows. This song is way more interesting for it.

I may or may not be low key in love with Ariana

This is completely unrelated listening but I recorded bass years ago for an EP that my friends finally put it out. You should listen to it despite it sounding nothing like Ariana Grande. Check it out on Bandcamp or any streaming stuff!

Looking towards next week and Drake is still at numero uno. Looks like Post Malone jumped backed up because of his new album but we’ve got something new to write about at number six with Camilla Cabello’s “Never Be The Same”. Will we be the same after hearing it? Find out next week!

That Good You Need

Keeping you caught up on what counts. Knowledge about what you don't know, and jokes about what you do.

Robert Joffred

Written by

Music / Sometimes Other Stuff Too

That Good You Need

Keeping you caught up on what counts. Knowledge about what you don't know, and jokes about what you do.

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