Music education always & always looking forward.

Not at All the Change You Expect: Minor to Major Modulation in Ace of Base's "The Sign"

I had been certain about that key change in the third chorus since I was in elementary school. Turns out I was wrong.

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Time to break out your leather chokers and slip dresses -- that's right, it's 90s week!  

The 1990s were important to me.  I was seven years old as they began and seventeen as they ended, giving way to a new century, a new millennium, and many new challenges regarding the production and distribution of music.  Being born in the 80s, I have an affinity for a great deal of 80s pop culture, but the 90s were when I came of age and began to really absorb what was around me.  A lot of folks of my generation find themselves overly attached to 90s pop culture, and sometimes I count myself among them.  The 90s were sort of a wild west of music and television, before federal legislation and corporate mergers made some the strange and wonderful things that informed my adolescence harder to access.  I also know that 90s nostalgia seems to be running full swing right now -- just as 80s nostalgia ran deep in the mid 00s and 70s nostalgia ran deep in the 90s.  It's all cyclical.  

Onto this song, which is inextricably linked to the 90s.  It's simplicity is deceptive and it really is a genius pop song, which is why it was so ridiculously popular at the time.  It teases a key change about 75% of the way through the song, when in actuality, the song had been changing keys between parallel minor and majors all the way through.  And it heavily borrows from reggae as filtered through Scandinavians.  Is this sort of analysis changing the lens through which you view your childhood?  It is for me.

Also: I am pretty sure I spent all of 1996 in ribbed striped mock turtlenecks, as seen in the video above.

“The Sign” - Ace of Base

Intro: At the height of grunge's popularity in the U.S., this sunny, dancehall-influenced Swedish pop band hit American shores and dominated the charts. This song was the follow-up to the band's first single, “All That She Wants”, but it stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for six non-consecutive weeks, was named the #1 single of the year 1994, and later named #51 on the list of Billboard hits for the first 50 years of the Billboard chart. It also reached #1 in Canada, Germany, Finland, New Zealand, and Spain. The song was nominated for a Grammy and helped Ace of Base to also garner Grammy nominations for the album The Sign and for Best New Artist, all in 1995. The song is listed on the all-time Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, reigning at #60. 

Analysis: The song is deceptively simple in both structure and harmonic features. The main instrumental riff occurs in G minor, followed immediately by the first verse and chorus in G major, shifting between parallel minor and major keys. The appearance of the first G major (I) chord occurs at 0:40 in the video recording appearing here. The switch back to G minor occurs at 1:22, featuring the instrumental riff again, followed by a shift back to G major at 1:32 as the second verse and second repetition of the chorus begin. A change back to G minor occurs at 2:14, followed by a shift back to G major at 2:34. A change in the vocal melody line and lack of chordal accompaniment almost leads the listener to believe that the last change back to G major is headed toward a different key, but the song remains in G major until the end. 

Considerations for Teaching: Because the song is very easy to digest, it would be well-used as a tool for identifying minor to major key changes. The subject matter of the song is in no way offensive and has been used in pop culture, even in the popular film Pitch Perfect. It would be an appropriate song to use as a teaching tool.

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