Music education always & always looking forward.

Nothing But Key Changes: Flattened Submediant & Direct Modulation in Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing"

Highly sophisticated key changes that present no problem for Queen Whitney.


I follow composer Julie Giroux closely on social media. In addition to being a fabulous composer who is starting to get the recognition she deserves in the band world, she has a biting wit and a lot of really great stories that few other people seem willing to tell about working as an orchestrator and arranger in the 1980s. One of my favorite bits that she's shared with followers was about working with Whitney. According to Giroux, there was no comparison between Whitney and any other. The Queen was the most professional, the most capable, and the most accomplished singer Giroux had ever worked with, in Hollywood or beyond. 

This sort of thing is obvious for Houston's fans, but it is still nice to see such accolades coming from a composer with a foot in the academic, Western high art world. Whitney's music was commercial, kid-friendly, radio palatable, and some may even compare her work to her yacht rock 1980s contemporaries, and thus sometimes Whitney's power and prowess is downplayed. Her legacy may be continually tainted by her personal struggles, but the body of work (especially noted after close listening to this song in particular) leaves no doubt as to the gift she shared with us.

Intro: Whitney Houston was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time. In 2009, the Guiness Book of World Records certified her as the most awarded female artist ever. She is the only female artist to attain seven consecutive number one singles in the US. Her legacy and inimitable voice remain, despite her tragic death and difficult life. She leaves behind a body of work that is impossible to replicate. At the height of her popularity, she starred in the film and recorded some of her signature songs for 1992's The Bodyguard Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The album won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1994 and between 1993-1995, it peaked at no. 1 on the album charts in 18 countries, including the US. On the American Billboard albums chart, the soundtrack topped the year-end charts for both 1992 and 1993. The soundtrack remains the top selling film soundtrack album of all time, and the fifth biggest selling album of all time. "I Have Nothing" was the second track on the soundtrack album, and the third single released from the album. It was a top ten hit for Houston and in the past 20 years has also become a staple of reality TV singing competitions. Whitney Houston passed away in 2012, and her life and legacy are continually celebrated by many facets of pop culture. 

Analysis: Not one, but several modulations. In the main framework of the song, the verses and chorus switch back and forth between G major and Bb major, creating a flattened submediant modulation. The first occurence of this (heard first at 1:20 in the video recording above) is prepared by three pick-up notes, the second of which is flattened, and prepares the new key. The song moves back to the original key of G major at 2:05. Though referred to as a flattened submediant, both moves could also be referred to as chromatic mediant modulations. The key moves again from G to Bb (after some stalling — cadential extension, perhaps?!) at 3:09.

The key makes a final move upward again, directly and half a step (from Bb to B) again at 3:40, as Houston shoots up an augmented second as it changes. Does the half step modulation appear more dramatic because it is preceded by the flattened submediant modulation? I don’t know. But the conveyance of drama is unsurpassed. Of note in the video — Houston’s face as she does the final modulation is the video is absolutely priceless.

In addition to the genius modulation, the song is also written in 6/8 time (symmetrical compound meter) with the addition of scattered measures of 3/8 time prior to key changes.

Shout out to Why This Song Is Great for some great background analysis on this song, and check out the comparison to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.

Considerations for Teaching: This song contains no profane or objectionable language or even any double entendres. It is totally appropriate for classroom use.

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