Music education always & always looking forward.

More Than Halfway There: Common Tone/Flattened Submediant Modulation in Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer"

This modulation is even more monstrous than it sounds and it gave me a bad headache analyzing it.

Two confessions here:

1) I love music theory.  But I'm not (currently) part of any academic institution where I can bounce ideas off of other theorists, much less other musicians.  I've always been the only music teacher at my school, so I only get to bounce music theory ideas off of my teacher friends in group chats and anyone who wants to chat theory on twitter.  So I'm going to make mistakes.  There are some deeply incomplete analyses in the early entries on this blog that warrant further re-writing.  I HOPE that you comment with other interpretations or other arguments.  That being said...

2) Modulation analysis is not even my strong point.  I can pick out features of songs, but identifying the type of modulation has never been my best theory skill.  That said, Bon Jovi really kicked my butt with this song.  I know it's legendary, even my students love it (although it was released more than 30 years ago), but the slight harmonic ambiguity of this song really messed with my head.  It's worse than realizing how deeply wrong I was about that one Ace of Base key change (you know the one).  

3) There's a third thing!  There's a reason we call it music "theory."  No matter what Vox tries to tell you, this is not science.  The mechanics of music theory are much more akin to grammar (unless we're talking 12-tone rows & set theory, and I would pay all of the money to hear a serial Bon Jovi composition) and the larger scale theoretical analysis can be compared to literary theory.  And we all know there's a lot of that out there.  This is my interepretation.  From a teaching perspective, I think this song is a great one to analyze, to really dig into, because a couple of different theories regarding THAT key change in THIS song could all be correct.  

Alright.  I can't believe it took me this long to write this all out.  I hope you enjoy.  

ALSO if you're thinking of theory goodies, Bon Jovi uses their signature triplet cross-rhythm in the sung melody throughout this song.  So, yeah.  

“Livin' on a Prayer” - Bon Jovi

Intro: The band Bon Jovi is synonomous with rock in the 1980s, appealing to both softer metal fans and mainstream pop music fans simultaneously. This tune, an ode to a working class couple, presumably living in Bon Jovi's home state of New Jersey, was released as the band's second single from their 1986 album Slippery When Wet. The song became a Billboard #1, and topped the Hot Mainstream Rock Charts as well. In 2006, VH1 online voters named this song as the top song of the 1980s. As of 2013, the song has been certified triple-platinum, selling three million copies as a digital download.

Analysis: An unusual harmonic path is forged in this song, moving from E minor to Bb major (as per my interpretation). The switch from minor to major is significant enough, but the fact that there is no relationship between these two keys (and only a few common tones between them) makes it even more interesting. The chord changes in the chorus do flirt with G major, however, and if analyzed in that way, Bb serves as the flattened submediant key of G major (flattened submediant changes being very common in pop writing). 

The song begins in E minor, with a chord progression of i-VI-VII, followed by a pre-chorus progression of VI-VII-i. The chorus finally gives listeners a G major chord, with a progression of i-VI-VII-III-VI-VII. This could possibly be interepreted as a foray into G major, with the Roman Numeral chords reading instead as vi-IV-V-I-IV-V. However, the first chord after the chorus (heard under a repetition of the song's signature instrumental motif) returns to E minor, establishing itself as the continued tonic. The same harmonic pattern follows, throughout another repetition of the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus, and then an instrumental break (the chord progression there the same as the chorus). Another round of i-VI-VII-i-VII-VI-VII is heard with the pre-chorus section, with the last half of the pre-chorus sung on higher notes, pushing the tessitura up in preparation for the key change. For the third repetition of the chorus, a totally new key is established -- Bb major. This could be interpreted as a pivot note (common tone) modulation; D, the root of the VII chord, then becomes the third of the next chord, a Bb major chord, establishing the new key (as a I). This moves up the key a tritone, which is an extremely rare harmonic move in a pop song, but if interpreted as a flattened submediant shift, it makes more sense in a pop context. The key change also distinguishes itself by moving from minor to major as well as by shifting the sung melody up in an even higher range, creating an undeniable musical effect.

If interpreted in G major, the D chord giving way to the new Bb major chord could also be interpreted as a deceptive cadence.  

Considerations for Teaching: This song contains no profanity, offensive language or themes, or anything that would exclude it from a classroom curriculum. Because of this song's prominent place in pop culture, having been used in many other movies and television shows, many students may already know the song, leading them to learn something new about music they already think they known well.

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