Today I will analyze the song „Blank Space“ by Tylor Swift in terms of music theory and its harmonic content. The idea is to bring the dry topic of music theory to the real world and help you understand why songs like „Blank Space“ work and sound like they do. So let’s get started…
The song was written by the Swedish team Max Martin and Shellback together with Taylor Swift. It is in the key of F major throughout and follows a very traditional pop song form. Everything is based on multiples of 8 bars — no experiments here. The chords change consistently every two measures and thus the harmonic rhythm of the song always stays the same. Taylor Swift is making fun of her own image in the media and so this very traditional song form can be understood as a nice kind of irony. Now let’s get started with the verse…
Verse — „nice to meet you…“
After a very short and intentionally simple intro, the verse starts on the tonic F major. It then progresses in a very traditional pop song manner by using the most ubiquitous changes in pop today: I-vi-IV-V or F Dm Bb C. This progression is repeated before we go to the chorus.
I-vi-IV-V sounds so familiar, because a) we’ve heared in a million songs and b) it is a pleasing progression without any surprises. From the stable tonic F it moves to it’s parallel minor chord Dm, which makes for a rather unpretentious movement. Then follows another move down a third to the pleasing subdominant, which at the same time acts as the beginning of a classical cadence Bb C F — from subdominant (some tension) over dominant (a lot of tension) to tonic (total resolution).
The verse also uses the tool of the pedal point to hold back until the chorus. A pedal point originally was a bass note that stayed on one note, while the harmonies above it changed. This builds suspense and holds back, until the bass starts to move with the harmonies, which finally creates a sense of unhindered movement. In “Blank Space”, the simple melody outlining an F major triad acts as that static, pedal-point-like element here, that stays the same throughout the verse. This also makes the final chords Bb and C technically correct F/Bb and F/C, but that does not distract the ear from hearing the I-vi-IV-V progression.
The blatant use of the most overused chord progression is yet another ironic tool that Taylor Swift uses. You can almost see the outstretched middle finger shown to the press. Irony can be a great tool that is not only available in the writing of words, but also in the writing of music. Use this musical irony to criticize or make fun of things. You should not take yourself or your music too seriously — people will love it, if you can make fun of yourself and use very simple chord changes intentionally. In „Blank Space“ this irony continues in the chorus…
Chorus — „so it’s gonna be forever…“
After a short break of one measure without any harmony at the end of the verse, the chorus comes in. The chorus continues in the fashion of very predictable and traditional chord progressions. It starts on the tonic F, which is the chord the listener expects after the dominant (C) at the end of the verse. The following movement to the parallel minor chord is familar from the verse’s changes.
From Dm the song moves to Gm7. This deviation from the verse chords can be interpreted in two ways:
- Gm7 is a substitute chord for Bb (which is the chord that was at this position in the progression of the verse). As the minor chord a minor third below its relative major chord it fulfills the same harmonical role and shares almost all chord tones. In fact, since this is Gm7 with the seventh, it shares all chord tones with Bb. The only difference between Bb and Gm7 here is the bass note.
- Gm7 can also be seen as the next chord in the cycle of falling fifth starting at Dm. The cycle of falling fifth is probably the most driving force in music theory — all cadences and progressions can be derived from it. So it is very natural for a D chord to resolve down a fifth to a G chord like here.
The following Bb major chord is probably the only minor surprise in the changes of „Blank Space“. Although it is not really unexpected or out of place, the more natural movement would have been to coninue the cycle of fifth to a C dominant chord. This would also have turned Gm7 C and the following F into a traditional ii-V-I jazz cadence. But Taylor Swift avoids this and moves to the less tense subdominant to continue the chorus. Not surprisingly, this minor surprise coincides exactly with the appearance of the song title in the lyrics: „But I’ve got a blank space, baby“. You should always use some element that stands out to mark the parts of the song you want people to remember or to listen to attentively.
After a short interlude of two bars (that is the same as the intro), the song transitions back to another verse and chorus. After the second chorus we move — very traditionally — into the bridge…
Bridge — „boys only want love if it’s torture…“
The bridge lasts 8 bars and has no harmonic content. Dropping all arrangement but beat and vocals creates some contrast to the rest of the song. The melody descends down the F major scale in an almost childish manner — yet another middle finge going up… . Again: don’t be afraid to use irony and employ very simplistic melodies or harmonies in your song!
Ending — „…and I’ll write your name“
The song ends abrubptly after the last chorus. Harmonically it ends on the subdominant Bb and avoids the expected resolution to the tonic F. Again, this is a very standard trick in pop music to leave the listener longing for more. The lack of an outro also tells the listener, that all has been said and there’s nothing left to add — another grin by Taylor Swift in the direction of the press.
You can use abrupt endings without a resolution, too, to leave the listener longing for more. A simple, yet effective psychological trick, so they want to go back and listen again to resolve the tension with which you left them. It’s just like Roger Rabbit’s „shave and a haircut trick“. To increase the effect, stop right where the harmonic progression would resolve back to the tonic — most likely on the dominant. If you have established a strong line or progression in your song, simply cut it off in mid-sentence at the end.
„Blank Space“ by Taylor Swift lives from the irony of using very traditional pop song elements. We can learn from these elements whether we want to write standard pop songs, want to avoid these blatant clichés or — like Taylor Swift —want to make fun of them:
- Use a pedal point or some static element to hold back and build suspense
- Irony can also be used in song form, melody and harmony
- A parallel minor chord can substitute it’s relative major chord
- The cycle of falling fifth is probably the most driving force in music theory
- use some element that stands out to mark the parts of the song you want people to remember or to listen to attentively
- use abrupt endings without a resolution, too, to leave the listener longing for more
To get a better impression of these tools, you can also watch my accompanying video on YouTube.
I hope this article and its conclusions can help you in your own musical work. If you’d like to learn more about real world music theory, sign up for my mailing list. I would also be very happy if you could give me some applause by sharing this article with your friends and colleagues.