Pandora Blog

From the Music Genome Project: Vamping Harmony

When you think about your favorite song what characteristics stick out to you? Perhaps you notice the vocal range of the singer, the tempo or maybe the type of instruments in the song. Do you consider the vamping harmony? …wait, what?

In the course of analyzing a single piece of music, our Music Analysts will consider upwards of 400 distinct musical characteristics, some straightforward, like tempo or the gender of a vocalist, and some more esoteric. For today’s blog post, I thought it would be fun to discuss one of the slightly arcane elements of the Music Genome that Pandora uses to help build your stations: Vamping Harmony.

In the context of music, a vamp is a short sequence of chords that gets repeated for an extended period. It can be used as a verb, as in “the band vamped  while the singer made her way to the stage,” or as a noun, as in “the band played a short vamp while the singer made her way to the stage.”

Vamping harmony can be a good choice if your goal is to focus attention on other elements of a song, such as lyrics, or rhythmic groove. A good vamp can lend a hypnotic quality to music, especially when combined with some infectious rhythms. James Brown was a master at this. Check out his classic “Superbad, parts 1 & 2” for a great example. In this case, the band vamps on a single chord for nearly the whole song.

Harmonic vamps can be found in every genre of pop music across every era. Dave Brubeck’s famous 1961 jazz tune “Take Five” features a vamp through most of the song form, toggling back and forth between two minor chords. “Twist And Shout”, made famous by The Beatles but actually written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, is built almost exclusively of a three chord pattern. Lynyrd Skynyrd built their hit song “Sweet Home Alabama” out of a three chord vamp.

Today’s pop music is rife with vamping harmony. Maroon 5’s song “Payphone” features different melodies in the verse and chorus, and even a rapped verse, but the harmony loops the same four chord vamp throughout. And hip-hop is absolutely loaded with harmonic vamps, as it helps keep attention focused on the MC. Check out B.o.B’s hit “Airplanes,” or the gospel-tinged four chord vamp of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love.”

At the other end of the harmonic spectrum is what I call “through composed” harmony. While a vamp is static, staying rooted to the same few repeated chords, through composed harmonies take listeners on a journey from point A to point B with a linear progression of changing harmony. This through composed approach lends itself to more intricate melodies, since the melody has to change to accommodate the meandering chord progressions. Check out Wilco’s 2004 song “Hummingbird,” or The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money” for a couple good examples of this through composed style.

Now, you may be thinking, “who the heck cares?” At Pandora, we go through the trouble of identifying these musical traits because we believe they are valid reasons to recommend music, and our listeners may be attracted to musical elements such as vamping harmony, even if they can’t explain what it is. So, does this mean that fans of B.o.B’s “Airplanes” will like Brubeck’s “Take Five?”