Music education always & always looking forward.

Classic Teaching Example: Direct Modulation and Descending Major Sixth in Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror"

A key change for the ages and a descending interval example that kids really embrace.

Before Jackson's death in 2009, I had a student who was completely obsessed with him.  She was an eighth grader at the time, and had just started band, but already a pianist, she showed tremendous potential and throughout the remainder of his illustrious band career, she succeeded on any instrument she picked up.  For the end of the year concert that year, she asked if she could play a piano arrangement of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There."  This was a true teenage musical fangirl, and no less a fangirl of a performer who was not nearly as relevant as he had been in my youth.  She was the first person I thought of the following summer when he passed away.

After his death, kids sort of swarmed to his music.  They all believed themselves to be obsessed, and huge fans.  I always think back to that student, though, who turned out to be a pretty big band rock star in her own right, who was a huge fan when it was really not cool to be, and I admire her for it.

Either way, if you play this song for any room of kids, they'll go bonkers.

"Man in the Mirror" - Michael Jackson

Intro: Quite possibly the most famous American performer of the 20th century, the man known as the King of Pop was unusual also in that the second act of his career was even larger than the first, even with the massive success of the Jackson 5. This song was a Billboard #1 song in the US, the fourth of such from his album Bad, and nominated for a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1988. After Jackson's death in 2009, it re-charted in the UK, reaching #2 there, and has sold 1.3 million digital copies in the US. It has been said that this was Jackson's favorite song out of those he recorded. 

Analysis: In a song that already demonstrates Jackson's vocal range and prowess, as well as a very serious subject matter, the central theme of the song lines up lyrically exactly with the shift of keys. In what is a standard pop song, the key change occurs shortly after the 2/3 mark of the song, in what should be a resolution chord, instead, a large gospel choir sings the word “Change!”, introducing the new key.  The song was originally published in G major, and on the word "Change!", the cadence resolves instead to G# major, a half step up, by way of Direct Modulation with no common chords.  This is often referred to as Truck Driver or Gear Shift modulation, and is very common in popular songs.

Additionally, the song can be used as an ear-training device for teaching the descending major sixth. Notably as Jackson begins to sing on the chorus, he begins on the highest note thus far in the song on “I'm” and travels down a major sixth on the next syllable, here the first syllable of “starting”, moving up in a stepwise motion from “starting.” The musical effect here is that the word “I'm” is highlighted, indicating Jackson's belief that it is his job to initiate change. Then travelling down the major sixth and back up the scale beginning on the word “starting” gives the idea that beginning to create the change is a process that must occur step by step (as the melody here literally moves one scale step at a time).

Considerations for Teaching: Many of Jackson's songs were used for educational presentations in the 1990s, and this song fits in that canon. The song contains no profanity or offensive language. It contains a message of hope for the future and personal responsibility, and was said to have been among Jackson's favorite songs of his own.

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