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Wow In Music – Cannonball

Wow In Music – Cannonball

| On 06, Aug 2018

Darrell Mann

In eager anticipation (on my part at least) for the new Breeders album and tour, this month we pay tribute to the bands’ 1993 classic, ‘Cannonball’.  The song comes from their 1993 album Last Splash. It was released as a single on August 9, 1993 on 4AD/Elektra Records, reaching #44 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and #40 in the UK Singles Chart. Not bad for an independent release. Beyond that, the world’s most respected music journalists consistently voted the song their best single of the year. In May 2007, NME magazine placed ‘Cannonball’ at number 22 in its list of the 50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever. It ranked #83 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of the 90s”. In September 2010, Pitchfork Media included the song at number 22 on their Top 200 Tracks of the 90s.

So, what explains the enduring appeal of the song? Especially one that to all intents and purposes contains just three chords.

A big part of the answer appears to lie in the use of (Principle 17, Another Dimension) direct modulation. Albeit a most unexpected one. One often described as the most the best use of modulation in rock (in keeping with the irreverent early 90s).

Unlike most modulation, The Breeders ‘radio friendly unit shifter’ changes keys after only about 10 notes. Kim Deal opens the band’s signature song with muted ‘aaaaoooowaahh’ vocals, imitating a submarine, followed by the opening bassline. The key change here takes place entirely in the bass, shifting up a fret or a single half step, from D major to Eb major (heard at :29). The Breeders almost fool us throughout the song, in making us believe there will be a second modulation after a dramatic pause, but it does not come to be (Principle 12, Equi-potentiality in reverse). These (Principle 3, Local Quality) multiple dramatic pauses & dynamic changes in the verses follow the “loud-quiet-loud” style, for which Deal’s band The Pixies were well known in the late 80s and early 90s. This stylistic feature came to be a hallmark of 90s alternative rock.

Perhaps what’s so surprising about the key change is that it comes (Principle 10, Prior Action) so early in the song. Most modulations come late in a piece as part of a way of lifting or shifting the mood to another level. They only work (not that they all do!) after the initially chosen key has been sufficiently familiarized and assimilated by the listener. To create the effect after 10 notes is thus quite a feat. And, because it works, it becomes a tremendously subtle tension builder.

Modulation is closely related to tonicization. Tonicization occurs when a chord or short succession of chords are borrowed from another key in order to emphasize—or tonicize—a chord in the home key. Modulation occurs when a longer succession of chords emphasizes a new tonic, leading to the perception of a new key. The principal difference between tonicization and modulation is the presence or absence of a cadence: tonicization does not incorporate a cadence in the tonicized key; modulation does incorporate at least one cadence in a new key.

There are several ways in which a composer can affect a modulation. The most common is the direct/phrase modulation found in Cannonball: A direct modulation occurs when a chord in the previous key is followed directly by a chord in the new key. In other words, there is no smooth transition or overlap between keys, just a direct movement from one key to the next. This often happens at phrase boundaries, with the old-key tonic ending one phrase and the new-key tonic beginning the next. When a direct modulation happens across a phrase boundary, it is also called a phrase modulation.

Examples of phrase modulations abound at the point between the end of the exposition in a minuet or a sonata and the beginning of the repeat of the exposition (if an exposition repeat is present).

A direct modulation is noted in a harmonic analysis by following the last chord in the old key with the new key, followed by a colon, and then the first chord in the new key.

G: I II V I Am: I . . .
G: T1 S4 D5 T1 Am: T1 . . .

Simple when you know how.

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