Pleading the Sixth

In his idiosyncratic landmark survey American Popular Song (one of the inspirations for this blog, in fact), Alec Wilder notes the "mysterious" and "hypnotic" lure of the major sixth interval, shown here in the key of C:

It's not hard to understand why it's a haunting, almost-resolved sound, though: It's really a relative minor spelled differently. Move the top A below the C on the bottom, and you have an A minor. Keep it on top and it's a chord with a yearning, major-minor feel.

Its most famous use, of course, was in Weill and Brecht's standard (sung here by Dave Van Ronk):

That last note may be the most famous sixth in popular music, but what's easy to forget is that the song also resolves on that sorry-grateful chord (I believe this is Brecht himself on vocals):

It's also the final cadence of "Surabaya-Johnny":

The sixth chord is such a shorthand for the Weimar era, in fact, that it's the first chord you hear in Cabaret:

And surely it's no mistake that it features heavily amid the corrupted splendor of postwar Vienna in The Third Man:

Stateside, the sixth is a staple of jazz, such that when a jazz singer does "Mack the Knife," she enters on it:

"Too jazzy" was apparently George Martin's objection to this iconic choral flourish (he was, thankfully, overruled by the lads):

The Fabs liked this effect a lot:

One of the Beatles' songwriting heirs, Elvis Costello, has internalized the appeal of the sixth to such an extent that he's turned it into a kind of vocal tic. Sometimes he puts it clearly and unambiguously in the melody, as in the last note of "Sunday's Best":

More often, though, he uses it as a kind of extension or subversion of what our ear hears as the "natural" melody, as in "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes." On the last note of the word "refuse," hear how he slides up to the C# over the E chord, where a B would be the more obvious choice:

Same with the title line, in which, over the A chord, he could easily repeat the E note of "red" but can't seem to resist kicking "shoes" up to the F#:

To demonstrate why I think this is a vocal tic as much as a compositional choice, consider "Secondary Modern," in which the last note of the title line, a D over an F chord, really wants to slide back to the C that the phrase started on, but Elvis teasingly withholds resolution:

Whereas, in a later live recording, he gives in to the chord's pull:

Lest you think the sixth is some pretentious affectation of effete pop snobs, I'll leave you with a considerably sunnier application, courtesy Mr. Hank Williams (via):


Popular Posts