Music education always & always looking forward.

Aeolian Mode in Wham!'s "Careless Whisper"

George Michael left our world on Christmas Day, in the year of our lord 2016.  In a year that had already seen the before-their-time losses of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, Sharon Jones, and so many others, Michael's loss felt like yet another blow to music fans, and to some more than others.  He had a massive pop fan base, particularly comprised of young women (as he addressed in 1990's "Freedom", another smash hit of his, "I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy / and I guess that was enough for me") and was later an active and outspoken champion of LGBT rights worldwide and in his native UK.

It seems to me, however, that a lot of casual consumers of Michael's work have forgotten about one of his biggest hits.  While it has become a sort of cultural punchline, this song was everywhere in the mid-80s, and for what it seeks to be, it is a well-constructed and interesting song, especially with Michael's powerhouse vocals and its legendary saxophone intro.

Intro: Wham! was a British duo comprised of Andrew Ridgely and George Michael and one of the more commercially successful groups of the 1980s.  Only active between 1981 and 1986, they have sold 25 million albums worldwide. "Careless Whisper" was released both as a George Michael solo single and appeared on Wham!'s 1984 album Make It Big.  The song hit #1 in ten countries and became the top charting single on the US Billboard Hot 100 for the year 1985.  In the 30 years since its smash success, it has become a part of the worldwide pop cultural lexicon.  George Michael would go on to win three Brit awards and two Grammys as a solo artist prior to his death in 2016.

Analysis: Led by one of the most recognizable saxophone riffs in all of popular music, "Careless Whisper" is a study in seventh chords in the Aeolian Mode.  The primary chord progression harmonically supports the label of Aeolian mode, rather than being based on a harmonic or melodic minor scale.  The chord progression repeated through most of the song is Dmin (sometimes Dmin7 upon repetition) - Gmin7 - Amin7 - Bb maj 7, or to use Roman Numerals, i(7) - vi7 - v7 - bVI(maj)7.  Because the chord progression uses only the notes in the D Aeolian mode (based off of the F major scale), we don't hear a typical cadence.  (A V7 chord here would have to make use of C#, which would only be found in the harmonic/melodic scale, not the natural minor/Aeolian mode.)  That the song uses almost entirely 7th chords also increases harmonic interest.

Considerations for Teaching: Although this song discusses a duplicitous lover and the video contains some inappropriate scenes for a school setting, the song itself contains no objectionable content.  

Links: A guitarist teaches us a little bit about Aeolian mode.  

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