Music education always & always looking forward.

Direct Modulation in Stevie Wonder's "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away"

If modulation became a standard songwriting device in the 1970s, there were some musicians who used key changes in ways that never sounded standard.  Really though, nothing Stevie Wonder has done has ever sounded standard.  As an artist, Wonder has always made tremendous use of harmonic language and rhythmic complexity.  This particular song is no exception, and considering all that we're seeing occur in our world recently, it seems an appropriate listen.

That being said: we are in 2016, and I am sort of hoping that Stevie spends the rest of the year in a bomb shelter wrapped in bubble wrap.  We need him now.

“Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” - Stevie Wonder

Intro: Stevie Wonder has had an unimagineable career, spanning five decades. He was signed to Motown Records at age 11 as “Little Stevie Wonder” and released his debut album in 1962 at the age of 12 years old. His most commercially and critically successful period was the 1970s and released Fullfillingness' First Finale in 1974, on which “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” appears. The album was his first to top the Billboard Pop Albums chart and won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1975. Wonder has won 25 Grammys overall, more than any solo artist in history, and an additional Grammy lifetime acheivement award in 1996. He is in the Rock & Roll as well as Songwriters' Hall of Fame, has won the Gershwin prize for popular song, one Academy Award, was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations in 2009, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Analysis: Starting in F major, the song utilizes direct modulation at 2:50 in the video recording heard here. The song goes through two verses and two repetitions of a brief chorus (which only lasts two lines) and then a vocal bridge, after which they key very subtly shifts up a half step to F# major. Although they do not service the key change, there are many non-diatonic chords included in the song, consistent with Wonder's compositional style.

Considerations for Teaching: As with many of Stevie Wonder's songs, this particular track contains no inappropriate language or subject matter, but rather the sort of socially conscious subject matter pervasive through many of Wonder's songs that led the United Nations to name him a Messenger of Peace. Because of Wonder's wide cultural reach and compositional skill, he is essential for classroom listening.

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