BØRNS, ‘I Don’t Want U Back’ | Music Theory Behind Pop
What makes BØRNS single “I Don’t Want U Back” so good? Besides alluring production, strong songwriting, and epic vocals, there’s some compelling music theory behind it.
BØRNS is the man. He shines on “I Don’t Want U Back”, one of the promo singles from his sophomore album, Blue Madonna. His breathy, expressive, high-pitched vocals are more than enough to solidify the win on the record. That said, musically, there are some notable theoretical and compositional attributes that makes “I Don’t Want U Back” a gem. Theoretically, the biggest selling point is the harmonic progression. While “I Don’t Want U Back” doesn’t do anything extremely crazy, it is interesting how things go down. Let’s dive into a little music theory!
Set in a major key (Ab), this is a bright, shimmering number. The key of Ab major has four flats (b) in its key signature: Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db. An Ab major scale looks something like this: Ab-Bb- C- Db- Eb- F- G (Ab). Each pitch has its own number (scale degree), beginning with Ab (1), Bb (2), etc. Similarly, each chord built in an Ab major scale is assigned a number, expressed in Roman numerals (Ab is “I,” Bb is “ii,” etc.). Uppercase Roman numerals express major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals express minor and diminished chords.
Enough background. Notably, within the harmonic progression for “I Don’t Want U Back,” there is a lot of the IV chord (Db Major, spelled Db-F-Ab). While there’s always the feeling that this song is in Ab major, there’s not much emphasis on the I chord (Ab, the tonic, spelled Ab- C-Eb). The verses begin on the IV chord, the subdominant, eventually resolving to the dominant (V, or Eb major, spelled Eb-G-Bb). Nothing wacky. At the end of the respective phrases within the first verse, the dominant chord doesn’t resolve to I chord (Ab, the tonic) as expected, Instead, resolving surprisingly to ii (Eb major to Bb minor, spelled Bb-Db-F). Nice quirk.
The pre-chorus section adds some wrinkles, first with IV descending to I6 (Ab major chord inverted with the “C” in the bass, spelled C-Eb -Ab) then resolving to V. It then changes to IV- I6-vi (Db major to Ab major / C [bass] to f minor, spelled F-A b -C). Even the second half of the pre-chorus adds an additional variation. Instead of copycatting the IV-I6-V-IV-I6-vi, the third chord (V) arrives inverted, adding contrast and more character at the same time. The progression looks like this:
IV (Db) – I6 (Ab major / C [bass]) – V (Eb major chord in second inversion, spelled Bb-Eb-G)
IV (Db) – I6 (Ab major / C [bass]) – vi
The First Chorus
On the chorus, we finally get the feeling of home – the tonic. BØRNS emphasizes the Ab melodically. Still, there are some quirks. He also ascends includes scale degree 2, B b in the melody, which gives some 9th flavoring. Furthermore, while A b is dominant, there’s some other chords going down, anchored by the A b bass, which keeps things interesting as well.
Oh, so much more could be said about “I Don’t Want U Back,” but what’s clear is the harmonic progression plays a huge rule in the greatness of this song, in addition to the lush production, stellar vocals, and great songwriting by BØRNS and Tommy English. Brent Faulkner, the nerdy music theorist OUT!