What is added to lullaby versions of songs?
April 27, 2022 2:57 PM   Subscribe

I've been listening to some lullaby versions of various songs and have noticed there are sometimes some interesting chord or note changes. For example, in a recording of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" by Adelmar Borrego, at 0:25–0:28 there are a couple of extra notes added compared to how I usually think of the song. How do these notes relate to the rest of the melody? Is there a name for this? What makes it lullaby-y?
posted by grouse to Media & Arts (4 answers total)
Response by poster: Sorry, link is to Spotify—I couldn't find something on YouTube easily.
posted by grouse at 2:58 PM on April 27, 2022

It sounds to me like the melody doesn't change, but it's reharmonized — for a few notes, there are different chords under the melody than you'd expect.

This is a way to make a very repetitive melody more interesting.

You'll also hear it in classical music, especially theme-and-variations pieces, and in old-fashioned church organ playing where the congregation is singing the same hymn melody over and over. It's way less common in rock and pop. I think the classical and church associations probably contribute to making it sound peaceful here.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:23 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

You also might be hearing passing chords in some versions - they're there to provide an extra sense of "movement" between two chords. They kind of say "Hey! We're going somewhere else, but we're not there yet," before arriving at the destination (that destination being the next chord in the progression).

And as above, this makes a the chord progression more interesting as it moves under the melody, or the melody rests to accommodate this added dimension of the chord change.

These aren't specific to lullabyes, but when you have a slower tempo with lots of breathing room, these can really stand out.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:30 PM on April 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The "lullaby" part is really a combination of slower tempo plus a few other features - one that is common and stands out to me is descending melodic lines in the accompaniment.

As mandlin conspiracy says, the slower tempo allows time to do various things with the harmony. So these are not really characteristics of lullabies per se but can be general characteristics of slower moving music. Just for example, in Mozart sonatas, symphonies, concerti, etc the fast movements tend to have fast moving tempos, melodies and rhythms, but slow moving harmonic rhythm.

Whereas a slow movement will have a relatively slower tempo, melody, and general rhythm but much faster harmonic rhythm.

(Harmonic rhythm is the speed or rate at which the harmony changes.)

Just for example, a fast movement might have chord changes every measure or two. Whereas a slow movement might have four chord changes per measure.

So again that is not a specific characteristic of lullabies per se, but more a characteristic of how the various musical elements tend to balance out in a faster piece vs a slower one. If a musician takes a fast piece and slows it down, they're going to likely add in more, faster chord changes just because it will "sound better" and there is space to do so.

The performer or arranger is also likely to add more harmonic interest type things, like 7th chords or more colorful chords general, and various suspensions, passing tones, and other harmonic/melodic embellishments and color.

I'm hearing all of those in these arrangements.

Finally, anyone performing or recording an old classic is going to make it his/her own in various ways, including re-harmonizing it to one degree or another.

So what you're hearing at 25-28 seconds and the corresponding spot in the repeat is this:

- The "basic" arrangement of this tune would harmonically end the phrase here on the V chord, leading to the I chord in the new phrase. If we were in the key of C (we're not, but imagine) that would mean ending on a G major chord or G7 or similar variation of G7, and then starting the new phrase back on C major (where the first phrase started). In short: G7-C Major.

- Instead, this arrangement starts the new phrase in the relative minor! If we were in the Key of C major here, the relative minor is A minor. This slightly darkens the harmony (so perhaps lulluby-specific?), provides a nice small change, and also harmonizes just fine with the beginning note of the melody (which, the Key of C would be a C - thats the root of the C Major chord, CEG, but also the third of the a minor chord, ACE).

So, planning to start the next phrase on the relative minor tonic chord (A minor), instead of ending the preceding phrase on G7, the arrangement goes to G7 but then quickly slips in an E7! This is what you are not really expecting and hear as the really "colorful" chord right after the end of that phrase.

The "wrong notes" so to speak.

And in short: G7-E7-A minor.

It does sound a bit unexpected because E7 is not all that closely related to G7, nor a common place to go from C7. But E7 makes total sense to where we are going next, because is it the V7 of A minor - our relative minor.

This is what is called a "secondary dominant". G7 would be our "normal" dominant in the key of C major. But if we were, say, going to an E minor chord within C major and just before the E minor we slipped in a B7 chord (B7 being the dominant 7th of the key of E minor) that is a "secondary dominant". It gives us a fleeting feeling of being in the key of E minor - something we would not get if we just went to an E minor chord without going to B7 first. So it's a way of adding a bit of harmonic color to a chord progression.

So that is exactly what we are doing here. Instead of just going G7-C Major we are going G7-E7-A minor - inserting that E7 chord which is a secondary dominant to the A minor chord.

If all that sounds like gibberish to you, the takeaway is that the composer/arranger has re-harmonized that little bit of the tune to speed up the harmonic rhythm a bit at that a point and make it a little more colorful and interesting.

And has started the new phrase in the relative minor, which is indeed a bit more dark and subdued - and thus, lullaby-like - than doing the 'normal' chord progression and just going back to C major at that point.

(And now you know what music majors and specifically music theorists and musicologists do all day long. You can easily write 10 pages about a couple of measures and, if done right, it can all be interesting. And that is before you even get to the arguments about whose 10-page interpretation of those two measures is the "correct" one.)
posted by flug at 12:58 PM on April 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

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