I recently used this K-pop song—Eleven—by IVE, to demonstrate some of the decisions that a music producer is responsible for. There are quite a few interesting things about the song’s composition, arrangement and mix, so it is worth looking at them in more detail. Before reading further, you might want to listen to the song and think about what makes it so distinctive.
Eleven, the debut single of six-member K-pop girl group IVE, was released on 1 December 2021. It was written and produced by Peter Rycroft (Lostboy), Lauren Aquilina, Ryan S. Jhun and Alawn, with additional lyrics by Seo Ji-eum.
The song has a typical pop-song structure:
Melody & Harmony: Scales & Chords
There are some interesting things going on with the melody and harmony. The melody mainly uses two scales:
- E minor (E F# G A B C D E)
- Mixolydian b13 mode in E (E F# G# A B C D E): As this is a scale that is more common in Indian music, it is sometimes called the Hindu scale. The G# gives it a ‘major’ feel while the C natural and D natural give it a ‘minor’ feel.
The overall effect is that the melody of the song has a mysterious feel, with a slight Indian or Middle Eastern influence.
The song is ‘officially’ in A major (A B C# D E F# G# A), but the note that really makes A major a major scale—C#—is conspicuously absent. And in terms of harmony, if you look at the actual chords, you will see that:
- the verse and chorus center around the E major chord (E G# B) and
- the pre-chorus centers around the E minor chord (E G B)
Thus, the song has a kind of neutral vibe—not quite major, but also not quite minor.
Melody & Harmony: Tension & Release
This song makes effective use of tension and release. Tension between the melody and harmony is created when the melody avoids the notes of the underlying chords and/or uses notes outside the scale associated with those chords (What is Tension and Release in Music?). Release then comes when the melody resolves to one of the notes of the underlying chord.
For example, in the song Eleven, the chord under the main ‘one two three four five six seven‘ hook (the first bar in the following excerpt) is C major (C E G).
However, the note C never appears in that line. The melody—A B D B A—dances around ‘C’, but it never lands on the note. This leaves you expecting a ‘C’ that never comes, In addition, the F# over a C major chord also creates some tension as it is the tritone above C (If you are not sure what I mean here, try playing C and F# together and you will hear that the sound is rather dissonant—i.e., the notes seem to clash with one another).
Similarly, the chord for the next bar is D major, but there are four E notes and no D notes, again creating a feeling of tension as you anticipate a resolution. Finally, the phrase resolves to a G# that eventually goes over an E major chord (E G# B). This provides a feeling of resolution, but the feeling is not as ‘final’ as it would have been if the note had resolved to the root note (E).
The tempo of the song is 120 bpm, but before each chorus, there is a ritardando (i.e., a gradual slowing down), which is quite unusual in a dance-oriented pop song. Just before the chorus, the song speeds up back to the original tempo. In the first two instances, the speeding up takes one beat, while for the last instance it takes two beats (which adds a little variety). In IVE’s dance routine for this song, the ritardando and sudden return to the main tempo are emphasized by using movements representing drawing and releasing an arrow.
Syncopation and Articulation
The melody in the verse is heavily syncopated. In the first four bars of the verse (shown below), for example, every note lands on the eighth note after the main beat. This use of syncopation also helps to create a mysterious feel.
In the hook, though the notes for the lyrics ‘one two three four five six seven‘ are on the beat, they are given a (somewhat) staccato articulation. Rather then flowing into one another (i.e., legato), each note is clearly separated. with a sixteenth note rest between each word in the phrase.
The Arrangement & Mix
The arrangement overall is quit unusual for a dance pop song.
The arrangement of the song is very sparse, especially in the first verse and pre-chorus , where there are only vocals and three percussive parts:
- a melodic/rhythmic pattern that is introduced in the intro
- a simple drum beat with a kick drum and a weak snare sound (and no hi-hats or other cymbals)
- a tuned-percussion sound that makes one think of the sound of a tabla or dumbak combined with the sound of a marimba. Due to the tabla/dumbak/marinba-like sound, the arrangement has a slight Indian or Middle Eastern vibe that complements the melody
In Eleven, the pattern from the intro and the tuned-percussion part that appears in most of the rest of the song have a multifunctional role—they help create the rhythm, they provide counter-melodies and they also create the chord progressions that make up the harmony.
In Western pop music, instruments tend to have one or two functions only—for example the drums provide the rhythm, the lead guitar focuses on melody, the keyboards focus on harmony, the rhythm guitar is responsible for harmony and rhythm, etc. However, in pop music in other cultures—like many genres of African, Middle Eastern or Indian music—the kind of multifunctional approach used in Eleven is common.
There is a short solo phrase in the intro played with a woodwind-like synth sound that appears again as backing vocals in the post chorus. This melismatic phrasealso has an Indian or Middle Eastern feel to it (melismatic = using several notes to sing one syllable).
In the choruses and second pre-chorus, sustained synth chords appear but they are mixed quite far back. The synth past just adds a bit of solidity to the chorus. In the chorus and post-chorus, there are also a lot of little background vocal parts. It is a very ‘vocal-centric’ arrangement overall.
The sparse arrangement puts the main vocals very front-and-center, and this is further emphasized in the mix, which has the vocals being very ‘forward’ in the mix (i.e., the levels are very high compared to other instruments in the mix).
Although it is safe to assume that the usual effects (reverb, compression and EQ) have been added to the vocals, these effects have been used in moderation, so the vocal character and timbre of each singer’s voice is clear. This is a good choice for a debut single as it is able to showcase the voice of each singer in IVE.
You can listen to the demo version of Eleven in the following video. Many of the things that are mentioned above—the influence from Indian music, the major/minor neutrality, the tension between melody and harmony and also the unusual ritardando—are already present in the demo version. The things added in the production stage—such as the intro, instrumentation and backing vocals—merely serve to further emphasize mysterious the Indian/Middle Eastern vibe
Overall, Eleven is an interesting song and was an effective debut single. First, the sparse arrangement and minimal use of effects showcases the characteristic voice of each singer. Second, the vaguely Indian/Middle Eastern influences in the melody and arrangement (and also in the visuals in the music video), created a unique, slightly exotic and mysterious vibe that helped set IVE apart from other 4th generation K-pop girl groups.
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