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Please Please Please

by Sabrina Carpenter

It’s rare enough for chart songs these days to change key at all, and the few songs that do tend to fall into one of two buckets:

  • Songs with a Trucker’s Gear Shift (ie. a typically cheesy step-up modulation for the final choruses)
  • Songs with some recurring section in different key – as in Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’, for instance, with its verses in C minor and choruses in Ab major.

With that in mind, this Sabrina Carpenter song is a genuine breath of fresh air, delivering a modulation stunt I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in the charts before: putting the first verse (at 0:18) and second verse (at 1:29) into different keys – the former in A major and the latter in C major. And, like all the greatest production decisions, its effectiveness seems somehow obvious with the benefit of hindsight, because the key change re-engages our attention for the arrival of a musical section that we’d normally have, to an extent, taken for granted. We’ve already heard the verse’s musical material first time round, after all, so hearing it again in the same key wouldn’t have been much of a shock, and anyone steeped in pop-structure convention (as most modern listeners are) would also understandably be expecting that material to recur pretty much unchanged after the first chorus. By changing the key of the second verse, the music rouses us listeners from our complacency with a jolt of novelty, but without any risk of rendering the verse’s underlying musical content less memorable. A poptastic win-win, in other words!

The success of any modulation, though, depends on how you get back and forth to the new key, and here too this song scores highly. Given that the modulation is meant to be an attention-grabbing feature, it makes sense that the songwriters have chosen to jump without warning into a comparatively remote key. Let me explain what I mean by this. Notice that the final chord of the first chorus is an E dominant chord, a chord which has thus far in the song always resolved traditionally in a perfect cadence back to the A tonic chord at the start of each new eight-bar section – ie. four times in total. So when the second verse’s initial C chord frustrates this well-prepared expectation, it naturally surprises the ear, because there’s been no kind of ‘warning’ preamble moving towards C major to get us ready for that chord, and neither does the C chord exist within the verse’s key of A major (the closest thing in A major would be a C# chord, which only shares one note with C major). In addition, there’s a three-sharp difference between the key signatures of the chorus (in A major, with three sharps) and the second verse (in C major, with none) – which is what I mean by the keys being ‘comparatively remote’ from each other.

For the return to the chorus, though, the idea of shocking the listener becomes a little less musically appropriate, in my opinion. The chorus is the musical ‘home plate’ of the song, so I think it stands to reason that you’d want there to be a little more harmonic logic underpinning our arrival there. Which is why it’s quite canny that the dominant G7 chord at the end of the second verse does actually resolve relatively smoothly into the opening A chord of the following chorus. Granted, it doesn’t resolve to a C chord to deliver the perfect cadence we’d most strongly expect, but the dissonant diminished-fifth interval between its leading-note B and seventh F does still resolve inwards (the B rising to C# and the F falling to E) in a similar manner that’s perfectly acceptable within the conventions of traditional harmonic theory, which gives the progression a certain harmonic logic.

Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that this second-verse modulation doesn’t occur in a vacuum either, because the verse has a whiff of key change to it too, with the VI-ii motion in the second and third bars of the verse progression sounding an awful lot like a perfect cadence into B minor, albeit only briefly before the following D pivot chord takes us back into A major a few bars later.

All this good stuff notwithstanding, I do have a couple of harmonic niggles with the vocal arrangement during the outro section (from 2:23), because it feels like it’s working rather at odds with the song’s underlying chord progressions there. The first moment is at 2:31, where the lead vocal holds an A against the underlying chord of C#, which for me undermines the powerful harmonic momentum of this chromatically altered mediant chord. Either a G# or a B would have been a better choice there, I’d say. (Thankfully, she sings a much more appropriate E#-C#-B-E# figure when the chord returns at 2:39.) And my second quibble is with the clearly audible backing-vocal F# note that weakens the song’s closing IV-iv-I progression by clashing with the backing-track iv chord’s minor third. I’d have either melodyned that vocal F# down to an F, or I’d have removed any shadow of the F# from the backing track to make the ending a simple IV-I cadence – whereas currently it sounds like it’s falling between two stools to me.