A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Doja Cat’s #1 Hit “Paint The Town Red”
When talking about music composition, Lou Reed once said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Maybe that quote is apocryphal, but it’s amusing, nonetheless. Putting aside the exaggeration, Lou Reed was making a perceptive argument: You don’t need a lot of sophisticated harmony to create an emotionally moving song. Indeed, it takes impressive skill and imagination to compose an evocative song that employs only one or two chords.
Marvin Gaye built “Inner City Blues” solely around a two-chord progression (the i minor to the IV7sus). The song’s specific two-chord construction invokes an aching, longing feeling tinged with a sense of hope — helped along with a slinky, subtle groove. In Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Stevie Nicks laced together two chords (the IV and V) into a heady musical concoction that undulates along the axis between these two harmonic points without ever resolving. Simply Red’s “Holding Back The Years” oscillates entirely between two chords (the i minor to the IV9) for the duration of the song, as does Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” (using the i minor to vmin7). All of these songs sound so captivating not in spite of their harmonic simplicity, but precisely because of it. The restricted harmonic palette of a two-chord song can feel meditative, or it can convey a sense of yearning, depending on what chords are chosen and how they’re used.
Currently, the track sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 is an alluring two-chord rap song: Doja Cat’s “Paint The Town Red.” She and producers Earl On The Beat, Rubin, Jean-Baptiste, and DJ Replay based it entirely around a minor-ii-to-minor-iii vamp, sampled from Dionne Warwick’s 1964 classic “Walk On By,” written by the legendary Burt Bacharach and Hal David. How do these two chords work, and what makes the “Paint The Town Red” so appealing? Let’s dive in.
Almost all modern pop songs (those rooted in Western/European traditions) use a concept we call functional harmony. Functional harmony is based in the notion that for music to feel coherent, it must move between points of tension and release. In functional harmony, every chord has a pre-assigned role to play, and each chord performs one or more specific tasks to help the song travel between points of tension and release. For example, we consider the I (“one”) chord to be “home,” and it represents the harmonic center of gravity. The V (“five”) chord feels unstable because it experiences a strong pull to resolve back to the I chord. Other chords in a given key center possess varying degrees of stability or instability and they each take on different roles to help navigate through the musical drama. Figure 1, below, illustrates this concept in the key of F Major (the key signature of “Paint The Town Red”).
The portion of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” that Doja and her collaborators sampled and looped for the backbone of “Paint The Town Red” is the part where the song toggles back and forth between the ii and iii chords, Gmin7 and Amin7 respectively. See Figure 2 below.
Most of the time when we consider harmonic function, we’re thinking of different ways to move away from the stable I chord (i.e., introducing tension) and to return back home to the I chord (i.e., releasing tension). This kind of motion is the primary driver of musical drama. We use the term cadence to describe the particular manner in which a musical phrase or passage resolves its tension — and there are many different flavors of harmonic cadences. But what if a song contains no harmonic cadences? Would the absence of harmonic resolution feel unsatisfying or even frustrating to the listener? Would we experience it as a kind of musical Waiting For Godot, hopelessly anticipating a resolution that never comes?
“Paint The Town Red” doesn’t begin on the I chord. In fact, it doesn’t reach the I chord at any point in the song. It never arrives home. The repetitive ii-to-iii chord loop (Figure 2, above) generates some dramatic anticipation, but it doesn’t possess a strong sense of tonal gravity. Neither of the two chords generates more harmonic tension than the other, so the song just simmers along in a kind of contemplative limbo. (In 2020, researchers at the University of Salamanca and McGill University published a fascinating paper on tension hierarchies in chord progressions that explores this concept in depth.)
When listening to “Paint The Town Red,” we can hear that the song doesn’t suffer in any way due to its lack of robust harmonic motion. On the contrary, the recursive movement between the “somewhat unstable” chord and the “somewhat stable” chord (Figure 1, above) produces a murky yet enticing harmonic complexion in which the chords gently tug at each other without developing or going anywhere. Because the song features no harmonic cadences, no resolutions, it just cycles on itself, never arriving at a point of rest. It’s like a harmonic perpetual motion machine. In fact, the cyclic progression forms a perfect musical bed over which Doja Cat raps her verses. Rather than using the harmony to pull the listener in one direction or another, via cadential resolutions, the song’s directionless ii-iii chord architecture leaves space for Doja’s rap flow to provide its own kind of tension-and-release moments.
In a previous In Theory article on Kendrick Lamar’s “United In Grief,”7 I defined flow as the way in which rappers convert phonetics into music. In essence, flow is a rapper’s art of delivery using rhythm and articulation (tone, emphasis, and rhyme). With respect to rhythm, “articulative technique” involves how the rapper vocalizes words (e.g., legato vs. staccato), while “metrical technique” refers to what points in time the rapper says them (on which beats they place rhyming or accented syllables, how many syllables they use per beat, etc.). More specifically with metrical technique, derivative flow is a type of verse construction where the rapper’s vocal rhythms come directly from the beat they’re rapping over. In contrast, generative flow is a type of verse construction where the rapper’s vocal rhythms don’t necessarily correlate to the underlying beat. Indeed, using the latter, the vocal can float above the beat, dipping in and out of the beat’s rhythmic architecture. (Indiana University’s Music Theory department chair, Kyle Adams, has an instructive paper on this subject.)
Doja Cat is a skilled rapper with a versatile range and prodigious technical abilities. In her 2022 song “Vegas,” Doja exhibits her mastery at weaving between the poles of derivative flow and generative flow. In her verse starting with “Player getting valeted ’round in that whole whip/ Two fingers, set one down on my toes 10,” she superimposes 16th-note quintuplets (groupings of 5) over a straight 8th-note syncopated beat — resulting in some pretty complicated rhythmic math. It’s a masterful demonstration of vocal precision in generative flow. Later in the same song, on her verse starting with “And keep my meaning discreet/ Keep the cleaning my gym,” she shifts with mesmerizing ease to straight syncopated 16th notes, something approximating derivative flow, drawing her rhythmic bars from the underlying beat pattern.
In the recent single “Attention,” Doja displays her technical rap skills by playing with generative flow in other ways: She locks into a rhythmic pocket with a slight swing and a relaxed behind-the-kick-and-snare delivery, resting on the downbeat of each bar. Check it out:
In contrast, Doja’s flow in “Paint The Town Red” assiduously adheres to derivative flow technique with metronomic precision. See Figure 3 below.
The song’s bass notes sound very much like pitched Roland TR-808 kick samples, and their 8th-note syncopations line up seamlessly with the caesuras (pauses) in Doja’s rhythmic flow. Likewise, her accented first syllable in the first and third bars lands gracefully in the downbeat rest of the recurring trumpet line. Further, Doja’s “famous instead” and “Paint The Town Red” cadences elegantly complement Dionne’s “Walk On By” vocal melody. It’s a simple, squarely executed derivative rap flow, but all the precisely calibrated components work together like the gears in a Swiss watch.
Thus far, I’ve been referring to the Gmin7 and Amin7 as chords built on the second (ii) and third (iii) scale degrees in F Major. (See Figure 1 above.) It’s probably the most common way to think of these chords, but the arrival of the song’s main melodic hook reveals another lens through which we can evaluate the harmony. The trumpet and vocal lines in the “Walk On By” loop use notes drawn entirely from the F Major scale — so it makes sense that we would assign “Paint The Town Red” an F-Major key signature. But when we hear Doja sing “Mmm, she the devil/ She a bad lil’ bitch, she a rebel,” the vocal layering on the Gmin7 makes that chord feel like it’s the harmonic center of gravity — like it’s “home.” Suddenly, that chord seems to possess a new meaning in this context, even though we’ve been hearing it all along in the exact same two-chord cycle. With this framework, we can describe the song as belonging to G Dorian mode.
Dorian is the second mode of the Major scale, and it’s identical to the natural minor scale except for one difference: it has a natural 6th degree, rather than a flatted 6th. By stacking thirds on this scale to generate 4-note chords, the Gmin7 and Amin7 become the i and ii, respectively. Voila! We can consider the Gmin7 to be the “home” chord in this setting, and the melodic notes still work diatonically in G Dorian (as it shares the same key signature as F Major). See Figure 4 below.
Dorian mode traces its roots to Ancient Greece, and we can find the modern version of the scale (as used in “Paint The Town Red”) all around the world today. The scale has different names, depending on the music culture and context: “Russian minor” is a common one, as are “Kafi” (in Hindustani classical music of North India) and “Kharaharapriya” (in Carnatic music of South India). Although it’s a minor mode, Dorian possess a brighter sound than the natural minor (“Aeolian”) and harmonic minor scales. Famously, “So What,” by Miles Davis, uses the colors of Dorian mode to form its iconic hook. The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” uses Dorian mode, as does Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” The aforementioned two-chord Marvin Gaye and Simply Red songs are also based in Dorian mode.
As an aside, it’s amusing to note that Lauryn Hill built the vocal sections of her song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” solely around the same two chords that “Paint The Town Red” uses, the Gmin7 and Amin7 — except in reverse order. The Amin7 chord in Lauryn Hill’s song feels like the harmonic center of gravity, so when viewed through a modal lens as we’re doing here, the song would not be in G Dorian mode, but in A Phrygian mode. (That’s a topic for another day.)
Quartal And Quintal Harmony
Staying in the “Paint The Town Red” melodic section: Doja Cat’s stacked vocal hook immediately grabbed me upon first listen. I heard something icy, yet refined and haunting about the sound. Her vocal harmonies possess a bell-like ring — a vaguely Gregorian sound — and that’s because she’s singing in intervals of perfect fourths and fifths. This is what we call quartal and quintal harmony (relating to stacked fourths and fifths, respectively). See Figure 5 below.
In most pop music vocal harmonies, you’ll find intervals stacked in thirds—what we call tertian harmony). Figure 1 and Figure 4 above demonstrate chords formed by stacking thirds. But in the melodic hook of “Paint The Town Red,” Doja is drawing from a very different harmonic tradition: one that goes back to Medieval Europe (although European composers began eschewing it after the Middle Ages). You can find quartal and quintal harmony in many kinds of music around the world: in the folk music of Central Asia (from Turkey and Azerbaijan all the way to Mongolia), banjo music of Appalachia, and various styles of prog rock. The aforementioned modal jazz tune “So What,” by Miles Davis, prominently features stacked fourths in the chords, and McCoy Tyner and Wayne Shorter both explored quartal harmony extensively in their compositions. Stravinsky, Copland, Ives, Hindemith, and Bartók all composed using elements of quartal and quintal harmony. Listen to the second movement (Largo) of Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E minor). You’ll hear exquisitely stacked fourths in the A♭11-to-D♭ motion.
One of the few (and most potent) examples of quartal/quintal harmony in modern pop can be found in the music of Alice In Chains. Lead vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell frequently harmonized their vocals in fourths and fifths, helping to distinguish their sound from the rest of the Seattle scene. Check out “Them Bones” for an intense and passionate representation of this type of harmony. Do you hear what the vocal harmonies have in common with Doja Cat’s “Paint The Town Red”?
What’s Simpler Than A Two-Chord Song?
As challenging as it may be to write an evocative song that uses only two chords, consider some great music that sits on only one chord. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” by the Temptations never leaves the chord of B♭ minor. Pink’s “Get The Party Started,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools” are also one-chord songs. Vulfpeck’s “Beastly” and War’s “Low Rider” only use one chord. Lou Reed would be proud.
Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” bounces between the chords G and C/G (the G pedal tone never changes). Is that a one-chord or a two-chord song? Discuss amongst yourselves.