First you should notice, that Drake sampled an old recording from 1974 in the typical hip hop fashion. The sample comes from Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together“ and was speeded up and pitched a whole step higher. The key of Drake’s version is F major (or D minor).
The whole tune has as a melancholic vibe and a rather static feeling. Drake has just been left by his girl and now bemoans the loss, without really coming to a conclusion or doing something. The harmony really helps to establish this mood by employing a few tricks:
- The song centers around the subdominant or IV in the key of F major. The subdominant is a very emotional chord in a major key. If you want to create intense feelings, start or end your chorus on the subdominant.
- By definition, the scale of the subdominant in a major key is lydian. However, many songs don’t emphasize the lydian quality of the subdominant, but „Hotline Bling“ does. The important note differentiating a lydian chord from a regular major tonic chord (ionian) is the #11 — the fourth note of its scale. „Hotline Bling“ starts on and centers around the Bbmaj#11 lydian chord. The lydian chord has a pretty melancholic feel to it.
- The harmonic rhythm is slow and does not change throughout the song. The harmonic rhythm is how quickly chords change. In „Hotline Bling“ the chords change only once per measure — with the half-time feel of the song, this is rather slow. Even the bridge (see below) does not speed up or slow down this speed of changing chords.
- Neither real tension nor real resolution happen during the song. The tonic — the most stable chord on the first scale degree — is never stated. Likewise there is not much use of tensions and there is no dynamic arc. If you want the mood of your song to be like this, avoid strong tensions and stay clear of chord resolutions like the tonic.
- Chorus and verse only consist of two chords — with the exception of two other chords used as a turnaround at the end of the verse. The constant alternating back and forth between the two chords helps to establish the „no progress“ feel of the song.
Of course harmony is not the only device used to create this defined mood of the song. The beat, the production and the lyrics are other elements emphasizing this feel. But let’s stick to the music theory of this song here and start with the verse…
Verse — „ever since I left the city you…“
The verse starts on the very emotional subdominant (IV) — Bbmaj. This chord hangs somewhere in between the tension of a dominant (V) and the resolution of a tonic (I). It is a great chord to begin a verse or chorus. The melody lands on the third of this chord on the downbeat (a D), which is probably the most euphonious and safe choice among all chord tones.
Next the verse moves from the subdominant down a half step to Am7. Technically this is a phrygian chord (iii), but the phrygian nature of it (the Bb, the second note of the scale) is not emphasized. The Am7 feels like a small resolution from the Bbmaj chord before it, but not by much. It still hangs there and you could identify it as either a substitute for the tonic (the minor chord a major third above the tonic F) or a substitute for the dominant (the minor chord a minor third below the dominant C).
The Am7 also helps to clarify the function of the previous Bbmaj as a subdominant. By introducing the E — the natural fifth of Am7, it is now clear, that the preceding chord was a subdominant and not a tonic.
As a listener I would expect the progression to move down further diatonically to the ii chord (making it IV-iii-ii or Bbmaj Am7 Gm7) — stepwise bass motion creates that effect. But the song disappoints this expectation of forward movement and instead returns to the initial chord, the Bbmaj. If you want to create a pull forward, you can use stepwise bass motion, especially downwards. If you want to create the opposite effect of standing still — like Drake — you should refrain from letting the bass walk down further in a stepwise motion.
The verse keeps alternating between the two chords of Bbmaj7 and Am7 until right before the chorus. The last two chords of the verse are different: Gm11 and A7sus4. This is the only place in the song where some real movement is created by a kind of cadence. The Gm11 is the ii chord we were expecting all the time due to the stepwise bass motion (see above). The ii chord is also the starting point of the very traditional jazz cadence ii-V-I. Or, if you interpret the key of the song as D minor rather than F major, the Gm11 is the starting point of a classical progression of iv-v-i. However you interpret it, this creates some sense of finally moving forward and coming to an important conclusion in the song.
The following A7sus4 (sometimes stated as D major by some authors) is the final dominant of the cadence. The distinctly major quality of this chord sounds slighlty out of place and hints at a happy resolution to a D major chord. The surprise element of switching modes (here from D minor to D major) also creates interest and makes the listeners turn their heads. If you want to create attention for an important part in your song (like the chorus in „Hotline Bling“), briefly break out of the diatonic harmonic setting of the song. Don’t overuse this effect — it works best if employed sparsely at the pivotal moments of a song.
The A7sus4 probably creates the biggest tension in the whole song and throws us right into the chorus…
Chorus — „you used to call me on my cell phone“
The chorus dissapoints the expectation from the turnaround at the end of the verse: instead of resolving to the tonic F, it resolves up a half step to the same lydian Bbmaj7 chord. So we’re back at the beginning harmonically — no progress made. And this is exactly what the song’s mood is.
But the melody is different from the verse and lands on the E, the #11 of the Bbmaj#11 chord. This choice of melody note has two effects:
- It strongly establishes the lydian nature of the chord. This also emphasizes the melancholic feeling of the song.
- Putting a non-chord tone like #11 on a downbeat creates some tension and makes people listen. This emphasizes the importance of the chorus even more.
So if you want to create a melancholic feel, emphasize the #11 to bring out the lydian quality. And use interesting tensions at the important parts of your song to make them stand out.
After this first, attention grabbing chord, the chorus progresses in the same way the verse did. This further establishes the static mood of the song. Harmonically this was it for the chorus — just two chords. Transitioning back to the verse happens without any further harmonic support. From the third chorus, the song moves into the bridge…
Bridge — „these days all I do is…“
The structure of the song is that of a very traditional pop song:
After an intro Drake briefly states the chorus, followed by the first verse. This leads to the second chorus and the second verse. After the third chorus we need some change and insert a bridge, before we return to another chorus and end the song.
The harmonic purpose of a bridge is to provide some contrast to the previous parts of the song. A bridge can establish a new angle — harmonically, rhythmically and lyrically. The bridge can also act as a point of rest, where the music can breathe and the listener can reflect on what she heared until now.
„Hotline Bling“ introduces two new chords in this section — which, given the few chords used so far, is quite a lot. First the bridge begins on the same chord as the verse and chorus — the „change“ at this point (the listener feels that something new is happening) is only established through melody, arrangement and rhythm (moving to a very slow half-time feel). Harmonically there is no surprise on the first chord of the bridge. Harmony rather acts like an anchor to relate this part to the rest of the song and not change to many aspects at once.
Harmony then takes over on the second chord, which is a D minor. This aeolian chord (vi) is very closely related to the Bbmaj preceding it — almost all chord tones are the same. Such a movement a third up or down to a diatonic chord is considered a very weak progression in music theory. Not much changes except for the bass note (from Bb to D).
From there the song moves down to the C major chord, the dominant (V) in the key of F. However, it refrains from strongly establishing it as a dominant by avoiding the defining seventh (Bb) and by resolving it only half-heartedly down to the subdominant instead of the tonic. The bridge repeats this sequence twice and then, without too much tension or sense of progress, returns to the last chorus.
Ending — „ever since I left the city…“
The ending of „Hotline Bling“ is very open. Drake transitions to it by stating the beginning of the verse again, but then stopping in mid sentence and letting it linger in suspense. The last note is an A, which would be the major seventh of the subdominant Bbmaj, although a chord is not stated anymore. Ending on the major seventh creates a soft and harmonically sound ending. After that the outro continues for almost one minute without any harmonic information and finally fades out.
„Hotline Bling“ by Drake can teach us quite a lot about real world music theory:
- The subdominant is a very emotional chord in a major key
- The lydian chord has a pretty melancholic feel to it
- Slow and steady harmonic rhythm establishes a static mood
- Avoid intense tensions or strong resolutions to create an undecided, lingering, non-progressing feel
- Use only a few chords to establish a non-progressing feel
- Stepwise bass motion creates a strong pull forward
- Break out of the diatonic harmonic setting to create attention
- Use tensions on the downbeat to draw attention to a note, word or line
- A movement a diatonic third up or down is rather weak
- Don’t be afraid to use the traditional pop song form
I hope this article and its conclusions can help you in your own musical work. To listen to how all that sounds, watch my video accompanying this article on YouTube. 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.
I am a piano and keyboard player touring in Germany as well as a music theory enthusiast. Ever since I started making music at the age of three I have been playing, creating, analyzing, understanding, teaching and enjoying music. Feel free to contact me with any question related to music theory!