Deconstructing "River Song"
As a child, I remember sitting in a darkened movie theater in Hollywood, California watching the opening titles of "Tom Sawyer" and thinking to myself "that's the most amazing piece of music I've ever heard." For years, the tune haunted me and I hunted it down all over the place until, finally, I found the soundtrack online. Nominated for a 1973 Golden Globe for Best Score and later nominated for Best Music, Best Scoring and Best Original Song Score or Adapation Oscars to honor songwriters Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman alongside composer John Williams. The opening and closing tune, "River Song" was sung by country great Charley Pride and that's the tune that stuck with me for years.
It's filled with that simple Sherman Brothers magic and Williams' arrangement in the extended clip above is him at his color-weaving best. I've been of a mood lately to deconstruct pieces of music to see what makes them have the emotional punch that they possess, so it's no wonder that I'm now looking at the works of the Sherman Brothers. Those guys really knew how to tug on your heartstrings.
I got so into this deconstruction that I actually reconstructed it and made a little demo to see if some of the very basic chord changes would retain that familiar Sherman brothers "lift." But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. Let's start with the key(s) of the tune.
It didn't take much to suss out that our piece begins in C proper with the ensemble choir before modulating to Ab when Charley begins singing. Then, it modulates again to the key of A. Since I'm working on this tune to include in my performances, I decided to round it off starting where Pride does - in the key of Ab (which is actually my optimal key for singing. Nice.)
Real quick - here are the words:
River runs warm in the summer sun
river runs cold when the summer's done
but a boy's just a dreamer by the riverside
cause the water's too fast and the water's too wide
then the world turns around and the boy grows tall
he hears the song of the river call
the river song sings "travel on, travel on"
you blink away a tear and the boy is gone
oh a river's gonna flow cross the land, cross the land
oh a river's gonna flow to the sea
and a boy is gonna grow to a man, to a man
only once in his life is he free
only one golden time in his life is he free
(Beautiful stuff, isn't it? Robert sure know how to turn a phrase. Richard was the tune guy.)
Here's the chord rundown:
Ab - Bb - C - Db - Eb - F - G
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°
Which would naturally give us
Ab - Bbm - Cm - Db - Eb - Fm - Gdim
I sat down at the piano and knew this wasn't going to be an easy case of following the passing tones, because I've never been able to easily figure out any Sherman Brothers tune. I was determined, however, to dig in and really get to the root of the two big changes that have the most punch. So, I began to listen to the track (extracted into a MP3 which I then introduced into Transcribe! so I could slow it down, isolate sections, analyze data and so forth.) The first verse is pretty easy:
Ab - Fm
Ab - Fm - Bbm - Eb
Ab - Fm
Db - Ab - Bbm - Eb - Ab
So far, so good - it follows the pattern of major and minor chords to a "t". But then comes the key change to A - and the chord that connects the two keys is:
(I once met Richard M. Sherman and told him, half-jokingly, that he and his brother had "taught me that seventh chords" were "the center of the universe." He got a kick out of that.)
Just a quick look at the rundown for the key of A:
A - B - C# - D - E - F# - G#
I - ii - iii - IV V - vi - vii°
Which gives us:
A - Bm - C#m - D - E - F#m - G#dim
Then, we move on with "then the world turns around...":
A - F#m
A - Bm - E7
And now, I began to prep myself for the first major deconstruction - that wonderful Sherman Brothers lift at the end of the line "the river song sings 'travel on, travel ONNNNN'"
My first thought was another magical seventh chord with a different bass root, maybe a third or something like that. But my fumblings with it proved that that was not the case. And why? Because when I played the melody, it clashed with my chords. Something was amiss and I just wasn't hearing it. Knocking about with some more chord and root combos, I finally stumbled upon it:
A - D - F#m6/D# - A/E - Bm - E - A - G/A
Wow! That's so delicious! The key ingredient of that yumminess is the minor sixth chord, which already includes the raised fourth note that is doubled by the bass root. The second, third and fourth chords in that progression allow for a chromatic lift: D - D# - E and it was this particular kind of chord voicing that made The Sherman Brothers such an amazing songwriting team. It was all about the motion with these guys and not a note was wasted. By using first and second inversions, you can pay attention to ascending and descending lines in the melody, harmony and bass, attaining conflict and resolution with breathless skill. Quick review:
Normal 1-3-5 chord structure for a C chord: C - E - G
First inversion takes the third and puts it on the bottom: E - C - G
Second inversion takes the fifth and puts it on the bottom: G - C - E
Now, for the chorus:
D - A - Bm - E - A - G/A
Okay, here comes the next heart-stopping moment - "and a boy is gonna grow..."
D - A - C# - F#m - Dm6/F - A
Hello! I think my heart skipped a beat. Just listen to that movement; soaring, inspiring and ultimately bittersweet. The formula has been repeated in dozens of Sherman Brothers songs and by looking at the chords, I'm thinking I understand what's going on. They have returned to a minor sixth chord but this one has an even more heartbreaking flavor than the last; why is that? Well, first off - the root chord is not part of the scale like the F#m6. We should be looking at a D Major instead of a D minor (if we were following the rules, but playing by the rules does not yield goodness like this.) Underneath the D minor sixth, we've got an E root, part of our scale harmonization and, in this case, acting as a first inversion, placing the third on the bottom of the chord. Following the progression of F#m - Dm6/F - A can you hear the now-descending chromatic note leading? It's F# - F - E. Pure emotional stringing along, man - brilliant! Notes have emotional as well as physical properties; runs leading up sound buoyant and happy/hopeful - runs going down sound depressing, wistful, sad. Not all the time, depends on the notes, but in this case, along with the choices of chords, The Shermans have lifted us up and then taken us down a peg with a simple example of voice leading. Wrapping it up with some tasty stuff here:
A - Bm - C#m - D - Dm6/F - A/E - A+/F - D/F# - Esus4 - E - A
Ach! I'm spent. These guys...
So, what have we got for the finale? Those first four chords are just walking up the A scale harmonizations leading us to another wonderfully heartbreaking Dm6/F which then resolves into
ANOTHER climb with a chromatic lead-through (E - F - F#) that connects a lovely A augmented chord and a D first inversion before slapping a nice ending by way of conflicted and resolving E chord and finally, back home, absolutely loving the journey.
I had such fun digging around in this AND discovered the secret of so many of my favorite tunes. Transcribe! is a great program for doing this kind of dissection. I also used Band In A Box to assemble the chord progressions and put them together in a quick arrangement to see how it would do without all of the extras that Mr. Williams is using to really sell the changes. In fact, here is the MP3 file so you can hear how it works out with the above chords. Since Charley Pride is one of the greatest country singers ever, I decided that I'd update the style of the song with a bit of Nashville flavor, though I'm using very simple instruments to play the melody. Listen to how that melody winds in and around the changes - it's the main emotional tie that binds it all.
River Song - Exercise.mp3
Thanks for checking this out! I know I bounce back and forth between beginner stuff and then stuff like this - but I know the audience is out there for all of it. And it's never too soon to start thinking about the magic of music theory. Until next time.....