Theory & Arrangement | Zedd - Spectrum | Matt Donner

  |  Caiti VerBrugge  |  

“So it’s one idea - displayed multiple times, multiple ways”

Back due to popular demand, Pyramind’s Chief Academic Officer Matt Donner gives us another music theory breakdown. This time, he runs us through the songwriting & arranging techniques used in Zedd’s 2012 hit, “Spectrum”.

 
 

Before digging in, he wants you to keep this concept in mind - complexity equals simplicity. This concept was also the main theme in a video Matt did on Disclosure’s hit, “Latch”. In Spectrum, Zedd repeats a 10 chord progression - a relatively simple arrangement - with a surprise minor to major chord switch. This is where “complexity” comes in. Complex chord changes can really make a simple arrangement pop.


Matt dissects the chords, voicing, as well as the vocal melody. We have included helpful visuals of the progression and chord names so that you can build these chords yourself. This is a must watch for Zedd fans, and any music producer struggling with theory and arrangement techniques.


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Video Transcription:

Hey everybody, Matt here from Pyramind. Following up on a video I did a couple of weeks ago. I did a breakdown of sorts, kind of a chord, music theory, harmonic arrangement breakdown of Disclosure's Latch. It got some really awesome feedback from those of you who have seen it and enjoyed it. Thank you. Thank you very much for being nice. Really appreciate it. You never know how videos are going to be received on the internet. Everyone seemed to be really into what I did, and I really appreciate it, so, I'm back for more.

This is the second of the bunch, and I'll continue with this theme for a little while. The theme is complexity equals simplicity. What that meant in the last video is what it's going to mean today, when we break down the song called Spectrum by Zedd is that a single complex, or at least rich harmonic or chordal or music theory idea can be enough to carry an entire length of song. This came up recently in my producing and arranging class. Comes up every semester in my producing and arranging class, which is, why can I not arrange my song to be the length that I want, and why does it constantly run out of steam? Why am I always, I run out of ideas. I don't know what to do with the song. I don't know how to finish it. Sometimes the answer is because the singular harmonic or chord-based idea you have just simply may not be robust enough to carry the length of the song. One way to fix that is you sound design the hell out of it, and you layer it with multiple sounds to fill that. That may not even be enough to carry the song.

Today, when we look at Spectrum, you'll find that both of these techniques are being used. The song basically has one ten-chord progression. It's a lot of chords in a single progression. It's easier to digest because some of those chords repeat, and the process, or at least the phrasing of the progression repeats. You kind of know where it is and where it's going. Doesn't feel like ten chords. Feels like five or six because three or four of them repeat. The single ten-chord progression carries almost the entirety of the song, and Zedd delivers it in multiple styles, multiple sound design, multiple genres, multiple feels. It feels like a very complex song, but it's really one idea displayed in say, three or four ways. That's the theme still, complexity equaling simplicity. In other words, it's simple to spray out the song, or at least more simple to spray out the song over the length of time you want, because the single harmonic or chordal idea is rich. 

The theme of today's chordal idea is a little bit different from Disclosure's Latch. With Disclosure, what you had a sort of F Dorian minor progression in the left hand, and an E-flat major progression in the right hand in the melody. The melody was over here, and then the chords were over here, and one was sadder- It was actually this way. The melody was lower, but major and happy. The chords were higher and sad, and so this interesting progression, plus the chords were really spread out and thick.

With Spectrum, it's not quite so spread out and thick, although there's some very interesting stuff that he's doing to actually build the chords, because the chords aren't really chords. They're multiple single lines that compile and become chords. We're going to look at it from both a singular perspective, the chordal perspective, and then also from the melodic perspective. What Zedd's doing, which is different from Disclosure, is that he's doing something called major-minor, or at least that's one way to think of it. Another way to think of it is modal interchange, where he's going from one mode to another, all within the same key, and that's the trick. Everything we're going to do today is in the key of C. We're going to have C minor and then C major. Kind of like, "I'm really sad," and then somewhere in the song, "Whee," and then back. Hope you had fun with that one. That's kind of what's going on in this song. You've got ten chords, all but one of them are minor, and then one of them just goes, "Bing!" Major. Then right back down.

Let's dig in. This is my little mock-up of it. I did some YouTube scouring myself to kind of figure it out. I knew what the chords were, and I'll give you my impression of the chords first, and then I'll show you what YouTube taught me the actual layout is, which was kind of interesting. The same theme holds true. I have this piano sound here, and the thing we're looking for is C minor, or C natural minor, or C Aeolean. The notes are C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C. This is a C minor chord, and if you do this on the left hand and walked it down, it would sound- Sort of your typical, traditional sad or serious sound.

The bass of this Zedd progression starts, I'll play C minor in fact. C minor seven in the right hand. Notice the addition of B-flat. The bass notes are A-flat, then B-flat, C, E-flat, F, A-flat, B-flat, C. Now there, on the second C, major. Then back to F. "Breathing you." What is it? "Breathing you. Breathing you in when I want you out. Flying on a truth and a hope of doubt. Flying on a dying desperation." My little William Shatner jazz rendition notwithstanding. That is the song.

Melodically, it's still in C. Again, the bass, A-flat, B-flat, C, E-flat. That little four-chord or four-note progression, memorize that, because we're going to see it again, or at least the first three, which is flat six, flat seven, one minor. Then flat three, four, flat six, flat seven, one, four, five, one, or in this case, four, five, flat six. This is the one. One, two, three- flat three- One, two, three, four, five, flat six, flat seven. Every time we play A-flat, we're going to say flat six. Every time we say B-flat, we're going to say flat seven. Every time we say E-flat, we're going to say flat third.

I can move the key to G, and it's still one, two, flat three, four, five, flat six, flat seven. That's why I use those flat six, flat seven terms. I can move the root position of the scale from C to any note, and the relationships stay the same. The minor relationship, one, two, flat three, four, five, flat six, flat seven. That's what we have to deal with. The progression here is flat six, flat seven, one, flat three, four, repeat flat six, flat seven, then on the second one, magic time. Major. Otherwise, minor, minor, minor, minor, minor. Notice how these notes don't change. Minor, minor, minor, minor, major. That little smile, that little major smile in the middle of my otherwise pretty intense song, is kind of what makes the complexity. That's what makes this Spectrum track pretty awesome. That's a very common move. If you're familiar with, you probably have heard things like that before, like say, I don't know. Deadmau5, some chords, or Pearl Jam. "Jeremy spoke in class today." Pearl Jam, or "La-da-da, da-da da-da da-la, la-da-da." Seal. 

The trivia question is, what do Seal, Deadmau5, Eddie Vedder, and Zedd all have in common? Minor, minor, minor, minor, minor, minor, minor, major. Minor, minor, repeat. That's the whole song. That's the sort of overarching music theory view of what is complexity in Zedd's Spectrum. The way he's actually delivering the notes is a little more intricate. If you look at the mini-clip here, you will find that that's really tough to play. I'm not the world's best piano player, but I can tell you, it's going to be tough to play this this way. What's really going on is you have to think of this as three groups of notes. You see up here, and then over here. That's kind of the upper voice. Down here in the middle, you have. Something along those lines, I think, specifically it's- And then down here.

You can hear how kind of those two melodies are playing at the same time, one in the fifth voice, or in this case, the flat seven to five. We're hovering around the fifth. Another one hovering around here, and then the one is actually played down here, and I have that solo. That's the bass line, which is really ugly voicing in my opinion, but that's the major note. That's this note over here played in the bass. Whatever. That's how he's doing it.

If we don't worry about that one, come back over here, you get the exact same thing. Let me pull off the bass, and for the first half, I guess what I'll do is take all these notes, temporarily disable them, you will get- There's the rest of it. That's the upper voice. Let's mute those and see if we can take these lower voices, mute them. If you're not familiar, I'm just hitting the number zero to mute those voices. They'll come back in. That's the first half. I'm just showing you how this chord breaks down into individual notes. The piano says- But [inaudible 00:12:30] out of here, he's actually doing it. It's working. If I were just playing it as a right hand, it would be, key being again major seven, you get. That's where the major seven is, and then you get interesting breakdowns.

That's what Zedd did. Three individual melodic lines compiling to make chords, zooming out and looking at it from the piano perspective, it's the same thing. Flat six, flat seven, one, flat three, four, five, flat six, flat seven, one major. Otherwise it's a minor chord the whole way. That's the complexity. That's the chord progression. It pretty much does that throughout the song. This is what it sounds like when it's all put together, and I'll add the bass back in. Sounds pretty much like what it's supposed to sound like. That's what's going on in this song. That ten-chord progression is on [plux 00:13:56] and that is done in big chord stabs, doo-doo-doo. That's the song. It's the same progression, and when Matthew does, "We'll run, we'll ah-doo-doo-doo." Same progression. There's a riser, breaks down again, does a little electro section. Same progression. Breaks down again, comes back to plux, same progression. Plays, I think, last count I did, nine times in the song. The song is basically nine renditions of that ten-chord progression with two or three builds and risers, and one slightly different section, but pretty much the same chords. In fact, I think [inaudible 00:14:36] plays it just hovers on flat six, flat seven, one, and then [bsh bsh 00:14:45] back to this.

It's one idea displayed multiple times, multiple ways. It's even more complex than just one idea by being ten chords long, which is a very long progression, mostly minor with a big fat major smile in the middle, multiple melodic lines playing together as point and counterpoint to make the chord. While this is doing its thing, the melody is doing its thing. Let's take a hot look at the melody, or at least the main structure of the melody, the intro structure of the melody, and I'll play along with. I think I'll play it in this register just so you can hear the notes. It's again C minor. The one note that doesn't belong is E. Remember, C minor. One, two, flat three. Not three. He borrows this note while the one chord is doing. In that one moment, he's borrowing. You see a beautiful chromatic motion you get as he walks from this fourth through the major to the minor. Sounds like this.

That upper portion, he never bothers hitting the three or flat three, so it doesn't matter. It's, "oh, the lights won't chase us. Hide where love can save us. I will never let you go." This is the fifth. It's common to the minor and to the major. Very safe note. It's beautiful. It's really well crafted. Matthew does a great job on his vocal. Obviously his voice is just from the gods, and he sings it straight. He sings it beautifully, nice and clean. In the first half, borrowing that major note to remind you, hit it a little extra hard that it's major in that moment. He goes major when the chords go major. The chords go major, that one moment in the progression towards the back half of the progression, just when you're ready for something to change, it does. It goes from sad to happy. It opens wide up, and then [foom 00:17:51] falls right back down, and man, you are just ready to hear that again. Luckily, he will give it to you again about eight more times.

That's Zedd's Spectrum. That's how he's being complex and that's how he is taking a fairly long and somewhat intricate harmonic idea and using it to spread the song over the life span of the song. Let me know what you think about this one.