The Truth on the Gotye Interval and Why Two Chords Can Be so Effective

Gotye, Enrique Iglesias, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars have more in common than you might think.

And no, I’m not talking about stellar album sales nor popularity nor wealth.

It seems they all used the same motif, at least once.

A video mashup of their songs went viral a couple of years ago. It’s impossible not to notice the similarities while watching the five artists singing one after another the same passage.

The section that repeats itself even got an official name: “Gotye Interval”, because Gotye published “Somebody that I used to know” before the other singers.

In case you are wondering, the other four songs are:

  • “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
  • “Heart Attack” by Enrique Iglesias
  • “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars

So what? Pop music — just like every other kind of music — is built upon on a relatively small number of harmonic structures. It’s easy to find entire passages that sound similar, or even exactly the same.

In fact, according to research by the Spanish National Research Council “diversity of [note combinations] has consistently diminished in the last 50 years”.

Music is built upon on a relatively small number of harmonic structures — it’s easy to find songs that sound similar.

So is this true? Do we always listen to the same chords?

This is mostly true. Many Pop hits are indeed built around the same chords.

The Axis of Awesome joked about this years ago, in video that has become a classic, “The Four Chord Song”:

Case closed? No, wait: there’s much more than similar chords in the Gotye Interval affair.

Music and the Chain of Expectations

Why this interval proved to be so powerful is probably explained by its particular structure.

In music, structure is the fundamental building block. It can trigger a complex system of expectations in our minds and hearts.

At first glance, Gotye just seems to make good use of the suspension associated to sixth chords.

The minor sixth I’m talking about is the penultimate chord, the one you hear when the melody moves upwards.

At least to our Western ear this kind of chords sounds incomplete and triggers the need for another, conclusive chord.

Try to imagine how you would feel if a song ended like this:

If you are feeling uneasy, that’s normal. There’s tension in the air.

Your ear has been trained by countless songs and is not gonna be fooled: the song can't end this way. There must be something more to come. And sure enough a new chord resolves the expectation.

No matter what kind of music we are talking about, it always works this way: there’s a chain of expectations, which can be confirmed or denied.

Oversimplifying, it’s common practice to divide music in two categories:

  1. Easy music — such as pop, country or film music — is the one that always gives us the answers that we are expecting;
  2. Complex music — such as jazz, modern classical or experimental — most often finds solutions that are not so obvious (and sometimes, sadly, is intentionally focused on finding them);

Yet, as Mark Twain once said, every generalization, including this one, is false.

What matters is a functional chord progression.

A composer has to always keep in mind the importance of expectations.

As the composition unfolds, it keeps creating expectations at every turn. It’s up to the composer to decide whether to respond with a predictable and reassuring resolution or not.

There are no right nor wrong choices: it all depends on the context and the purpose of the song or musical piece.

Delving deeper in Gotye’s interval, there are at least two reasons why it’s not so obvious as you would expect from a successful pop song.

1) This interval is not just a simple progression between two chords. Let’s have a look at a simplified transcription of what we've heard so far:

Simplified transcription of the interval.
Simplified transcription of the interval.

Take a closer look at that G sharp, left all alone between the two chords. The note gets repeated in the next chord, belongs to the next chord, but is played right before, anticipating it.

In musical language, when a note is played immediately before the chord to which it belongs we call this anticipation.

In all the five songs we do not just listen to a repetition of the same chords, there’s an anticipation. This makes them look more like a motif than a simple progression.

2) All the songs use this interval in the same way. As a musical and emotive device. It’s not just repeated, it always lands on the most emotionally intense moment of each song.

In each one of the five songs, the interval is placed at the pivot around which everything revolves. An effective device that becomes irresistible, or at least interesting, even for those who despise the songs as a whole.

Takeaway: what’s this Gotye Interval thing?

  1. Despite having harmonic characteristics quite common in Pop music, it’s closer to a motif (or fragment of a motif) rather than an ordinary chord progression.
  2. It’s also an excellent example of how music works according to a scheme of calls and answers. Every chord leads us to infer on what the next one will be, and our expectations can be confirmed or frustrated by the development of the song. Either way, it works as a device that engages listener and entices participation.

Although Gotye was almost certainly not the first musician to make use of it, the “Gotye Interval” name may be an accurate description, given its success and popularity.

Follow Susanna on Twitter: @SusannaQua

(This article was originally published on Musica-Digitale.it, March 23rd 2014.)

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