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Uncertainty Emerges in a New Key: Chromatic Pivot Modulation (maybe?) in XTC's "Senses Working Overtime"

After a wild bridge, the song finds itself in a new key. Well, how does it get there?

If you find yourself a fan of this blog, you'll quickly find out that XTC is one of my favorite bands.  I learned about them as a teenager through the recommendation of a friend, and I borrowed and reviewed their 1999 album Apple Venus for a paper I wrote for at the time.  I loved the album, but didn't dig deeper into their prior work until I was well in college.  When they'd come up on my Launchcast radio  (ahh, the early days of online streaming music), friends would ask, "Where do you learn about all of this weird stuff from?"  

The good thing is that so many of their songs contain so many things I write about on this blog: unusual time signatures, epic modulations, crazy modes.  Not only that, but their lyrics were usually always up to par with their musical sensibilities.  Bands like XTC are much of why the 1980s were my favorite popular music decade.  It seems that today they are only really loved by older fans, younger hipsters (at least younger hipsters 10 years ago), and hardcore music geeks.  But sometimes it's nice to see something you love be underappreciated.  That means you get to claim it as your own.    

Senses Working Overtime” - XTC

Intro: Although they have not toured since 1982, when guitarist and songwriter Andy Partridge developed a nervous breakdown, XTC has seen over 20 years of prolific creation, evidenced by the release of 13 studio albums as well as work on side projects (i.e. Dukes of Stratosphear, Fuzzy Warbles box set). "Senses Working Overtime" appears on the band's 1982 album English Settlement, which reached #5 on the UK album charts and #48 on the Billboard 200 album charts, partially on the strength of this single. 

Analysis: Similar to many songs found on this list, the song starts in one key (E major), despite the song's first chord being g#min. The harmonic progression moves steadily toward solidifying the key of E major in the chorus. This pattern is repeated in the second verse and second statement of the pre-chorus and chorus. As the bridge begins (heard here at 2:35), the key starts to shift as non-diatonic chords begin to appear (starting with a G major chord, otherwise known as the flattened submediant). The alternation between G major and A major chords gives us the impression of a D major key. Further modulation occurs starting on the word “beautiful” (heard at 3:01) in the bridge, as D major and Bb major chords appear, starting to move toward the key of F. By the time the pre-chorus appears again (at 3:23), the song is fully in F major, resolving fully at the last appearance of the chorus (at 3:36), which starts on an F chord. Here, songwriter Andy Partridge masterfully creates what could have been a simple gear shift change, from one key to another a half step above, and instead uses borrowed chords and as mentioned, the flattened submediant of G, and even moving through D major to create a strong transition to the key a half step above the original. The most apt categorization to give this modulation might be an Altered Chromatic Chord, also known as a Chromatic Pivot Chord.

Considerations for Teaching: This song is a strong example of fully flushed out modulation, and it also contains no offensive subject matter or language. Some have postulated that the group's name is a reference to the drug ecstasy, but there is no evidence to prove the correlation, and thus, it is a safe listening example to play in the secondary music classroom.


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