Absent-Tonic Choruses in 1960-1990 Popular Song

David Heetderks, University of North Texas

Many pop-music scholars associate the chorus section with tonal stability, identifying it as the formal region where tonal stability is initiated, sustained, or achieved. But some 1960s-1990s pop songs use absent-tonic choruses, which lack tonal resolution and transform from a region of arrival to one of frustration or puzzlement. Using a theory of formal defaults and deformations derived from Hepokoski and Darcy, combined with a corpus study of the McGill Billboard dataset as a normative repertory, my presentation examines R&B and rock songs that contain formal cues strongly indicating a verse, prechorus, and chorus while also suppressing tonic-functioning chords in the chorus. The songs show how pop songwriters can dialogue with normative formal models by creating by adopting some standard features but deviating from others, allowing an artist to define a particular style and inviting expressive interpretation from fans.