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Topping Out with Key Changes: Direct Modulation (Multiple Times!) in Beyoncé 's "Love On Top"

All hail Bey & the way she continually tops herself with these key changes.

Gonna come right out and say this: yes, Beyoncé has a place in our schools.  Yes, Beyoncé has a place in our musical curriculum.  Yes,  Beyoncé has a place in music theory curriculum.  This song in particular is a juicy piece of pop writing genius.  

Yes, Beyoncé .

Also, welcome to Modulation Week on the Rebel Music Teacher blog!!

“Love on Top” - Beyoncé 

Intro: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is one of the most popular recording artists of the 21st century and one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary pop culture. She has won 22 Grammy Awards, including a Best Traditional R&B Grammy for the song “Love on Top.” The song appears on her 2011 album 4, which was her fourth album to debut at #1 on the Billboard Charts (her two subsequent albums achieved the same feat in 2013 & 2016, making her the only artist in history to have her first six solo albums debut at #1). Additionally, Mrs. Knowles-Carter's musical style has continually evolved throughout her career, making her an excellent topic for classroom discussion. Between her stint in Destiny's Child and her solo career, Beyoncé has sold 160 million albums and as of 2015 was the highest paid black musician in history.

Analysis: The upbeat tune, which many critics have compared with classic 80s R&B, features brass licks, synth sounds, and complex harmonic language that invite such a comparison. What sets this song apart, however, is the key changes that begin in the coda. In this song that she co-wrote, Beyoncé repeats the chorus in an astounding five separate keys. The first key change, a direct modulation between C major and Db major, occurs a full three minutes into the song (album version; in the video recording seen above, the first key change occurs prior to two minutes in), shifting up a half step higher and with three subsequent changes to follow. The initial key change comes after the use of a number of non-diatonic chords in the chorus section, with the last four chords leading up to the first change being F#7#11, F, Abmaj7, and G7sus, before arriving at a new tonic chord on the final repetition of the word "top" (the first time through, a Db). This pattern continues throughout the next three key changes, and could be interpreted by Roman numerals #IV#7+11 - IV - bVI7 - V7sus - I. (Whoa.) The continual upward chromatic (often referred to as a "gear change") harmonic motion leads her to further high notes demonstrating her range in full glory. This somewhat mirrors the lyrics, as Beyonce continues to “top” herself until the song fades out.

Considerations for Teaching: While many cultural and academic critics have had a great deal to say about Beyoncé and her influence over young people, this song on its own does not contain any specifically offensive material. The song details a relationship, and in the lyrics, Beyoncé praises her partner (possibly real life husband, rapper Jay-Z) for making their relationship a priority after previous struggles. Because of its multiple key changes, often unusual in a pop song, and positive message, it would make for an exemplary teaching tool.

PDF Sheet Music for "Love on Top" 

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