Music education always & always looking forward.

Extremely Early Warning: Direct Modulation in The Breeders' "Cannonball"

Possibly the earliest modulation in a radio friendly unit shifter?


It's apparently Unintentional Kim week here on the blog. Or maybe alternative rock queens named Kim who play bass just travel in packs. Either way, this song contains one of the most unexpected modulations in rock (in keeping with the irreverent early 90s).

I watched this music video the other day and it make me so grateful for the music I grew up with. All the talk I heard throughout the 90s, before I knew any better, was older folks berating the music of my generation. And now, in every corner of the internet, 90s music (of nearly every genre) is hailed as the golden standard. 

I'm not here to say that the music I grew up with is technically superior to that of any other decade. (Newsflash: it's not.) I'm just so grateful that it shaped me as it did, and that women like Kim & Kelly Deal and Tanya Donnelly (in any number of bands) exerted such influence on my childhood.

Intro: The Breeders formed in the early 90s as Kim Deal, then bassist for the Pixies, began to collaborate while on tour with Throwing Muses's Tonya Donnelly. After a shifting line-up, Deal recruited her sister, Kelly, to play in the band. “Cannonball” was an inescapable alternative rock track from the early 90s, receiving a great deal of airplay on radio stations and a huge amount of attention from MTV.

Analysis: Unlike most modulation, The Breeders “radio friendly unit shifter” from 1993 changes keys after only about 10 notes. Kim Deal opens the band's signature song with muted “aaaaoooooooowaahhhh” vocals, imitating a submarine, followed by the opening bassline. The key change here takes place entirely in the bass, shifting up a fret or a single half step, from D major to Eb major (heard here at :29). The Breeders almost fool us throughout the song, in making us believe there will be a second modulation after a dramatic pause, but it does not come to be. These multiple dramatic pauses & dynamic changes in the verses follow the “loud-quiet-loud” style, for which Deal's band The Pixies were well known in the late 80s and early 90s. This stylistic feature came to be a hallmark of 90s alternative rock.

Considerations for Teaching: There is no inappropriate subject matter in the song, although the lyrics are somewhat militaristic in nature (submarine vocals in the opening, discussions of cannonballs). In the spirit of early 1990s alternative rock, the lyrics are slightly non-sensical and generally unoffensive, although there is one use of the word "hell" in the lyrics (albeit almost unintelligible). 

To that one usher, at that one place, that one time

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