Nick Jonas – Levels

A turning point in the way I experience music was when I realized that I actually enjoyed listening to the Jonas Brothers. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, and it taught me to not trust too much what other people say about artists more known for stealing the hearts of little girls than for their music¹. But despite I had a soft spot for the three guys since 2009, I never managed to enjoy their attempts at solo ventures. Nick and Prince’s backup band? Suspiciously country-sounding. Joe? What a letdown of a chorus. Not even Jealous, which is probably the thing the world liked more from any of the three since 2008, managed to win me over and to me existed only to giggle about Nick’s falsetto and the ridiculously forced rhyme hellish/jealous.

But this, man. I first heard it on the radio during my first days in Montreal, when the airwaves almost managed to make me hate music by overplaying the same songs over and over again. It was a relief every time it came on. Then I Shazam’d it and WHAT? IT’S NICK JONAS? WAY TO GO PAL! There’s probably something about a cappella bass lines that is funny to me in a good way, and now that I think of it that element was probably inspired by the song everybody was inspired by this year, but Levels doesn’t feel at all like a ripoff. And don’t get me started on how the chromatic up-and-down melody totally fits the whole levels/elevator metaphor, I just love when songs make an effort to reinforce the lyrics with musical choices—and I’m starting to think that the synth pluck sound that appears on the first off-beat from the second part of the verse is meant to mimic an elevator bell. Actually, why don’t I just drop a score on you just to make the whole thing look cooler?

Score of Levels' bass line
Fig. 1: Can you see the levels?!? #overexcited

By the way, I just realized that this song employs modality, which is always a nice thing. The song as a whole stays grounded in the key of F, but uses different modes of the F key throughout to keep things interesting. The verses use the Mixolydian mode, that sounds just like a major scale but with a flattened 7th pitch, removing much of the tension that usually comes with what would otherwise be called the leading tone (being just a semitone away from the tonic, it tends to resolve towards it) and giving the scale some of the character of a minor mode while keeping the characteristic major third interval between pitch 1 and 3.

Score of Levels' verse
Fig. 2: I always wonder why nobody bothers to transcribe vocal ornaments, so I did it! To me, they’re just as important as the main melody, and songs just don’t sound the same without them. Well, ornaments are a performance detail and two people singing the same song won’t use the same embellishments, but here I’m transcribing Nick Jonas’ version and to omit his embellishments is making it look and sound dumber.

The chorus, on the other hand, switches to F minor (or, if we want to keep speaking in terms of modes, F Aeolian) with a twist: the underlying chord progression is made entirely of major chords—F, E♭, D♭, B♭ and A♭—whereas a minor progression without borrowed chords would require minor tonic, dominant and subdominant triads. The chords that don’t belong in F minor are F major and B♭ major, which are the tonic and subdominant function respectively². The vocal line underlines this by starting off the chorus on the third degree of the underlying F major chord, the pitch that makes a major chord major.

Lead sheet of Levels' chorus
Fig. 3: Transcription of the chorus.

Hey, I just wanted to say how groovy this song is and I ended up doing a compositional dissertation!

¹ That’s one of the reasons I didn’t jump on the Justin Bieber hate bandwagon when he first emerged before actually listening to his music. When I did listen to it, I didn’t fall in love but I didn’t find it bad either, and that was my opinion of him until he started being an entitled asshole in his public relations and Skrillex started doing “expensive sounding” things with his voice. He even managed to save a song! Yeah, I’m conflicted about him. Sounds like a fine singer, but such a dick in real life. Oh, like my ex-favourite producer

² There are no dominant chords in this song, which is entirely built on plagal cadences that, just like the flattened seventh of the Mixolydian mode, prevent any possibility of leading tone tension. It’s important to note that the “imperfect” nature of the plagal cadence the Wikipedia article refers to is such only in the context of classical music: it’s been used so much in the popular music of the last century that it sounds just as resolutive as a so-called perfect cadence (V-I) to most people. In fact, one could make the point that blues-derived genres like R&B and hip hop (rock and especially jazz music witnessed a greater influence from Western art music idioms so for them the point is not as strong) are based more on the contrast between I and IV than I and V, as seen in the 12-bar blues chord progression.