The Actual Science Behind Why "Despacito" Bangs So Damn Hard
Ilustración: Kim Cowie | Noisey


This story is over 5 years old.


The Actual Science Behind Why "Despacito" Bangs So Damn Hard

Sorry but there are a bunch of music theory reasons why this song has dominated 2017.
illustrated by Kim Cowie

In case you didn't know from the 'I can't wait to have a pumpkin spiced latte/wear a jumper/eat soup/any other thing you can do at most times of year but don't talk about because now even seasons are brands' Instagram posts, it's September. That means it's basically autumn; everyone's favourite season. The season of slightly dark, alternative albums from bands like The National and Wolf Alice which you can flat lay next to some loose-leaf tea and hygge socks. There's one summer song, though, that will continue to blare out of cars ragging it down the Old Kent Road whatever the weather, and serve as a light to guide us through until next April. In fact, I'm going to consider it a beacon of hope at least until Big Ben bongs again. That song is "Despacito".


"Despacito" has recently been named Spotify's official song of the summer. It is the most streamed song of all time, has smashed chart records, and burned itself onto the retinas of 2017; a remix featuring Justin Bieber helping to catapult it to super-fame in English-speaking countries. Popularity isn't necessarily a measure of worth, but you can't ignore the song's success. In musicological terms, "Despacito" also has distinctive features that make it objectively more of a banger than other songs. It's not just been churned out in the studio in an hour – it's a well-crafted, sonically intriguing song that may just become the soundtrack for a generation. We will be the semi-invited, fully-pissed wedding guest relatives on the dancefloor after the first twang of that naughty guitar in 2037. For all its pop repetitions, and less-than-profound subject matter, it's a remarkable song: extremely catchy, easy to dance to, yet sentimental and nostalgic. But it's no coincidence.

The chords in "Despacito" sound familiar to us, because, basically, they're the four chords used to make up most contemporary pop music (in technical terms, they're labelled I, IV, V and vi). Writer Wayne Marshall provides a great take on this set of chords here for Vulture, and suggests that "Despacito" uses them in a different order (vi, IV, I, V). Specifically, it uses B minor, G major, D major and A major – in that order. Using D major chord as what's known as chord I, though, implies that the whole song is in D major (chord I is always the same as the song's key, because the chord built on the first note of the scale – that means the chord labelled IV is built on the fourth note, V on the fifth, etc).


But actually "Despacito" is arguably in the key of B minor. This is the chord it begins and ends with, and has the most traction (the word "despacito" itself is sung over a B minor chord). If you've studied music you'll know that B minor is closely related to D major, so this won't come as much of a surprise. But – and bear with me here – the way we understand the song's harmonic structure would change quite a bit if we were to take B minor as chord I, rather than D major. Relative to B minor, G major is vi, D major is III, and A major shouldn't even be a part of the key's harmonic skeleton. The chord sequence I, vi, III, Flat VII, which is what we get when flip to looking at these chords as though the song's in B minor and not D major, would be unconventional for a Latin pop track (are you still with me?).

Ultimately, Marshall is right in reading the chords as D major's I-VI-V-vi in a different order, because we're working with straight-up Western functional harmony here. When I say the chords are "functional", I mean that the sound they produce makes us feel grounded. Other songs have been written with the chords in this order, of course (the podcast Switched On Pop cites Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" and Toto's "Africa" among others) – "Despacito" isn't breaking new ground. But this chord sequence's slight feeling of discomfort, its oddness, combines with a familiar feeling, because it essentially still uses the most conventional four chords in contemporary Western music. Because we can't quite figure it out, we're not bored by it, and the song becomes addictive. In this case, the sequence has two notable effects.


First, the progression from V to vi (A major to B minor) that happens when the chord sequence starts up again – ie: what you hear every four lines, most clearly in the middle of the chorus, with "[D major] Para que te acuerdes si no estás con-[A major!]-migoooo / Despa-[B minor!]-cito" – has a fancy name. It's known as an "interrupted cadence", and doesn't sound complete because the I (the root, or key's first note) is replaced in the chord progression by the vi (a minor key that can sound melancholy or dramatic). In "Despacito", then, this explains how the chords can seem to work in the key of D major, while the song still feels like it's in B minor. Each time the sequence is repeated (which is essentially every four lines) we hear a V-vi progression, or an interrupted cadence – like in Toto's "Africa" (which, as mentioned earlier, uses the same chord structure as "Despacito"), when "…a hundred men or more could ever dooo", over chord V, leads to chord vi under "I bless the rains down in…" It's that same sort of not-quite resolution.

The second reason this progression pricks our ears up is because A major isn't a chord that fits with the B minor scale. It introduces what's known as a modal flavour to the song. To break this down, a mode is a type of scale, one where the spaces between notes aren't like the scale you hear most often in Western music – you know, the scale from the "doe, a deer, a female deer" song. You'll hear modal nuances in jazz, or, if it floats your boat, Gregorian chant. In fact this sort of sequence is becoming more popular in mainstream music, so you don't get the most profound sense of the "modal" vibe from "Despacito". But it's a satisfying, subtle twinkle in the eye of a track masquerading as the stuff of philistines.

Finally, beyond those two major reasons this song is so catchy, B minor itself has a massive effect on the track's mood. Choosing a key signature is the musical equivalent of deciding which colour to paint your walls – and for a song so much about #summervibes, B minor is a bold choice. Being an enormous nerd, I remember noticing this same key in 2010, when Rihanna released "Only Girl In the World", where B minor creates a barren wilderness in which she can be the Only Girl. Lady Gaga used B minor too, on "Alejandro". While these singles vary in style, they're united by an eerie sentimentality, which makes you feel something despite yourself. The key's icy, distinctive tonality can push every note of the music to your core, moving you in a way you might not have thought deeply commercial radio crackling heard from the backseat of an Uber could. For club tracks, the B minor key soberly penetrates an alcoholic haze and the heat of too many bodies.

All these elements mean "Despacito" makes me feel nostalgic for what's happening right now, in the moment, which is quite an accomplishment. This is partly because the track is still everywhere, but also because of how distinct its melody is. "Despacito" may not be for everyone (though, if it's not for you, I have no idea how you've got to the end of this article), but it will come to define an era whether you like it or not. The overall flavour of "Despacito" will ring in our ears as the year draws to a close and major labels try to ply us with imitations. The song's tonal world cuts like a knife while its familiar harmonic components comfort you, and the resounding reggaeton groove, combined with rhythmically matched lyrics and harmony, make you move in ways you probably shouldn't, even in private. Playing it will ensure that it is always, somewhere, the summer of 2017. So if you're fed up with "Despacito", or have prepared to put it away along with the rest of the year so far, listen again. Slowly.

Follow Emily on Twitter and find Kim on Instagram.