Music education always & always looking forward.

The Forbidden Key Change: Direct Modulation in Sisqo's "Thong Song"

Maybe don't play this for your students, but it has one heck of a modulation.


When I got my first go-ahead to do a project about music theory goodies in pop songs, I sat down among friends at a computer in the FSU Music Library (one of my favorite places in the world).  I started scouring the internet.  The very first idea I had was to mention the wildly changing meters in Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone", one of my very favorite songs.  

This song was my second idea.  

A quick search lead to one of my all-time favorite pieces of pop culture writing, found on the absolute gem of a website, which I only wish updated more often.  Written in 2009, not only is this a phenomenal piece of writing that fully encapsulates my personal philosophy of seemingly basic pop culture merging with high level academic music theory, but it invited commentary from other music theorists, discussing tritone substitution, two simultaneous modulations, and lots of other awesome possibilities.  

Amazing, amazing stuff.  And hey, if DJs or whoever played this song at EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL DANCE from January 2000 to May 2001, then we can teach it in our classrooms, right?  

JK April Fool's!  

“Thong Song” - Sisqo

Intro: The final single released in the 1990s and the first big hit of the 21st century, former Dru Hill member Sisqo's devotional to women's underwear is simple on the surface. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs, #3 on the Hot 100 chart, and reached #1 in New Zealand, also landing on the Top 20 in eleven other countries and #8 on the European charts. On a personal note, despite its deeply inappropriate nature for the occasion, this song was utterly inescapable for anyone who (like myself) attended any high school dances from 2000-2001.

Analysis: Sisqo's tremendous bravado through the song, however, does not seem to match the frivolousness of the subject – he is not asking the women he sings for any contact, any emotional investment – he simply wants to see their underpants. After 2000, popular songs in a minor mode became more common, and “Thong Song” followed this pattern. However, after the simplistic harmonic progression wears itself out (just two chords are used: F# minor and C# minor, or a iv-i progression, which is also in true Aeolian mode) we have our key change. 

From 3:08-3:16 in this video recording (the official artist's video), the key change occurs. Rather than a simple gear shift/direct modulation, the song settles on a C#min9 chord for a few seconds, as the bassline outlines that particular chord (even adding in a 13 for a little extra dramatic flair). In typical key change fashion, the bass line moves way up, creating tension and setting up a shift to a higher key. Instead of just moving up a half step from C# minor to solidify D minor, the first chord of the new key is Gmin9; however some notes from the last C#min chord move up a half step -- the G# gives way to an A, the A (13th of the chord?) moves to a Bb. This creates the sort of half step motion that is commonly heard in a gear shift direct modulation moving up chromatically, except the motion goes from the old i to the new iv chord. This could be considered the opposite of a deceptive cadence. Contrasted with the instantaneous key changes of many popular songs, “Thong Song” is epic in its modulation.

Considerations for Teaching: Of course, this tune is not appropriate to teach in a school setting. The song is flagged as “Explicit” on both Spotify & iTunes, and the subject matter is not workable for a school setting. Sisquo is asking the imagined woman (or collective women), “baby move your butt, butt, butt” repeatedly. Proceed at extreme risk to the secondary classroom.

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