Music education always & always looking forward.

Direct Modulation in Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love"


Of course we miss Aretha. By we, I mean, all musicians. One thing I was noticing as I was cruising through some of her oeuvre last week after the news of her death was that she does not get enough credit for her 80s work. Like many stars of the 1960s, the business had obviously changed, and Aretha had changed by the 1980s. But she didn't experience the same kind of bizarro musical mutation that say, Grace Slick did between the two decades. When you compare Slick's vocals from her biggest 1960s hit to her vocals on her biggest 1980s hit, it's almost impossible to tell that it is her performing on both tracks. Franklin, however, took her talents and made the 80s work for her. With her perfect pitch and nearly infallible capacity for ornamentation, Franklin made any modulation, which had become far more common in pop tunes the 80s, sound like nothing at all. 

I was listening to her hit duet with George Michael (although it almost seems like he should have gotten "featuring" credits, as she does almost all of the important vocal work there), "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me." I started to think of that song almost in a spiritual sense. It genuinely made me cry. Franklin's overall commercial appeal may have waned slightly in the 80s, but blame that on the PR folks. She was making good things happen all the while. 

She was the Queen, and the Queen in every decade. "Freeway of Love" might not be performed at her funeral, but it was a song that demonstrated how she managed to show off & show up in all corners of popular culture for so many years. 

Video link: Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love", official video. The video was filmed in Franklin's own Detroit and won several MTV Video Music Awards.

Intro: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, had an unmatched musical career. Synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement and an absolute groundbreaker for women in the music industry, her unforgettable performances and recordings are only matched by her incredible career stats.

More than 20 years into her career, "Freeway of Love" was a bonafied hit for Franklin. The song peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and topping the Hot R&B and Dance Club charts (the latter with a remixed version). It also charted in the Top Ten in Canada and Australia. The song earned Franklin a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. This single was one of an unmatched 77 songs of Aretha's to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. During her career, Franklin was honored as the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame, awarded 18 traditional Grammy Awards, the National Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2009 was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most awarded female musician of the modern era. She was awarded 12 honorary doctoral degrees. 

Analysis: Vocally, Franklin's line precedes the rest of the instrumentation, heralding in the modulation up a full step. The song begins in G major. After a sax solo by the brilliant Clarence Clemons, Franklin gear shifts (which matches with the lyrical themes) a full step up to A major, preparing the modulation herself and allowing the instrumentation to catch up. The shift occurs at 3:40 in the video recording linked above. 

Considerations for Teaching: There are some double entendres within the song, potentially making an extended metaphor between driving and coupling. But if the lyrics are not analyzed to a tremendous degree, you could pass this off as a listening example. The chorus section that surrounds the modulation is free of any potentially questionable lyrics. 


Additionally, I know this video has been shared multiple times, but only now have I personally realized that Aretha was already suffering from cancer when she made this appearance in 2015. She felt the need to be there for her dear friend & collaborator Carole King and to perform one last time for the Obamas, to whom she was a friend and major collaborator. Watch this again, and as the kids on the internet say, feel all of the feels. 

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