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<  'Ellipse' Discussion  ~  Interesting Find about Canvas

Posted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 6:36 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 12 Feb 2008 Posts: 418 Location: GA

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Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 12:32 am Reply with quote
Joined: 12 Feb 2009 Posts: 117 Location: New York
Very interesting article. Thanks for the link. Some people will not be interested in modes, but this claim from the article will be embraced by all here: Imogen Heap is an enormous musical talent
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Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 4:59 am Reply with quote
Joined: 28 Jan 2009 Posts: 31
For some reason I can't get on there - and for my music theory class we're studying modes. I would love to bring in Canvas if there's anything interesting it does in that area - can anyone tell me what it says about the song?
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Wild Child
Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 6:40 am Reply with quote
Imogen Heap's "Ellipse"Released Today - A Veritable Songwriting Workshop!
Written by Gary Ewer

Imogen Heap's "Ellipse" has been released, and it's a gem. For you songwriters who want a demonstration on how to write songs with a strong, imaginative instrumental component, you need to listen to this album. It's like a songwriting workshop for $12.99.

"Ellipse" is Heap's third solo album, her first since 2005. The track "Canvas" will be the first single off the album. I get many emails from songwriters asking for advice regarding writing instrumental music, and it's a wonderful example of how, with just a little creative imagination, you can construct something that really works beautifully. Most of the music is not specifically instrumental, but the instrumental treatments in each and every song are stunningly original and ingenious.

"Canvas" is written in the dorian mode (B dorian, to be specific, using the notes B C# D E F# G# A.) The melodic construction creates airy lines that start low in range and move higher as the song progresses, creating a very natural contour.

What gives that airy quality is the use of melodic fragments in and around B dorian that avoid strongly implying the key. With a very simplistic chord structure that plays with Bm9, D, E (implied), with modifications of each of those chords, the song has a lovely meditative quality. The instrumental break that occurs at 3'36" focuses on the chord A, as a pleasant diversion from the constant focus on B as a tonal hub.

The opening guitar figure plays with the notes A B C#, all found in B dorian, but not presented in a way that makes the mode obvious. This is followed by a piano vamping the melody: A F# G# A C#, a fragment that purposely veils the mode. It's not until the vocal melody starts that we actually get a strong sense of the chosen dorian mode.

Modal writing offers songwriters great opportunity for shrouding the key and creating moods. It's because most of the modes (including dorian) don't have a semitone leading tone, and the absence of that semitone softens the arrival of the "tonic" note.

Imogen Heap is an enormous musical talent. You'll love track "Wait it Out", which progresses from a delicate vocal beginning to an energetic instrumental collage and back again. ("Earth" is my personal favourite at this point.)

If you really want to get inspired to write some music that breaks you out of your songwriting rut, get "Ellipse."

Very Happy
Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 1:28 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 02 Jul 2009 Posts: 1203 Location: London
Interesting article, but I am sceptical about claims that popular songs are 'written in' such-and-such a mode. A lot of songs have melodies that use the notes of a mode (especially the Mixolydian), but that doesn't mean that the songwriters intentionally used that mode. Modes are often used in folk songs, where the composers were certainly not experts in music theory. A lot of the Beatles' songs were also modal. Of course Immi would know about modes, and she might have deliberately used the Dorian mode, but she might equally just have intuitively used those notes.

[Added: on second thoughts, after playing along to Canvas on a keyboard, I think the author is right in seeing it as a deliberate use of the Dorian. I had originally interpreted Canvas simply as B minor (with a shift to D minor towards the end). The only difference between B minor and B Dorian is the use of G sharp instead of G natural as the sixth. If the song just made an incidental use of G sharp in the melody, it might be regarded as an 'intuitive' thing that even an untrained musicain might do, but in fact the use of G sharp is very subtle, and permeates the harmonic 'feel' of the entire piece. As Immi is such a sophisticated musician, I think it is probably deliberate. My respect for her is even greater than before! ]
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Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 6:40 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 06 Nov 2005 Posts: 310 Location: Tolono, IL
I think you're right about some artists just falling into song structures but, as you said I do think it's pretty deliberate with Immi. As we saw in the Vblog she sems to have a very robust knowledge of such things.

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Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 8:35 pm Reply with quote
Actually, what creates the floating sense in Canvas for me is that guitar ostinato at the beginning (B, F#, C#, A). Since the 3/4 beat only appears after around 14 seconds, the repeated guitar figure implies a different meter entirely. And even when the beat comes in, the guitar figure needs to go through 2 cycles before realigning with beat 1. To me, this creates a dislocating feel. Also, both her opening vocal phrase and the chorus contain hemiolas (on the words "black canvas" and "just can't find the strength") which again seem to lurch out of the waltz feel.

The song Earth is entirely in the Mixolydian mode, the tail end (with the round) of Little Bird is also strictly Dorian. I don't think she expressly chooses to write in these modes. I think she just prefers the lowered seventh scale degree (which occurs in both of those modes), as songs from her previous CDs also contain these modes (Daylight Robbery is Mixolydian, and The Moment I Said It is Dorian, and, hey, it also has an ostinato).

If you guys are interested in some more classical analysis, Little Bird is a great example of her knowledge of classical progression. The song has no chorus, just repetition of a single harmonic progression. (i, VI, [I], V/iii, iii, [V], IV, I, IV, flat-VI, V, i). Brackets indicate a pivot to those key centers. To anyone who wants to play it on a piano, it's C# minor, A major, E major, D# major, G# minor, B major, E major, B major, E major, G major, F# major, B minor. If that doesn't make sense, she changes keys three times with each stanza of lyric.

There are all sorts of things about her music that fly under the radar that show a really strong grasp of classical harmonies and rhythms. Of course this says nothing about the incredibly exotic sonic environments she creates through her choice of sounds. The Dorian mode contributes to Canvas, to be sure, but these songs are so much more than scales.
Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 9:52 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Sep 2009 Posts: 5 Location: Canada
Hello everyone:

I've been reading this thread with great interest, being a huge fan of Imogen Heap's music, and this album in particular, and also being the author of the website article at

I just wanted to clarify one point, and support the comment made by "Vita" that these songs are "so much more than scales". I hope I didn't imply through my article that "Canvas" is nothing more than simple playing around with scales. Of course, it is much, much more than that. I was only trying to show other songwriters that one of the things that gives the opening measures of "Canvas" such an airy feel is the *way* the dorian modal scales are used: specifically, that while in the B dorian mode, Imogen focuses tonally on notes other than B. And this gives the harmonies and lines a strong sense of forward motion.

On the issue of whether or not she actually consciously knows of these things as she writes them, I suspect in large part she does. Sometimes, though, glorious things happen as one writes, and one discovers beauty that wasn't planned or obvious at the outset. Successful composers are experts at blending together the three areas of 1) theoretical knowledge, 2) imagination and 3) inspiration. To me, the best music comes from all three, and Imogen Heap is an expert. And the main point of my article was to let songwriters who are looking for someone to use as a model to buy her album and get inspired!

Have a great day!
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Posted: Sun Sep 20, 2009 3:02 am Reply with quote
Joined: 28 Jan 2009 Posts: 31
That's awesome - thanks everyone! I can't wait to bring Canvas into my music theory class and start handing out this fancay knowlij. :]
I wish I could bring in Earth, too, but the point of the bringing in music is to see if the class can figure out what mode it's in (except it can't be ionian, so Earth is obviously Mixolydian when listened to in that context). However, it does make Canvas a great candidate since we're talking about her avoiding the tonic. Very interesting article, Gary - I really appreciate it!
And hey, if anyone can drum up some tricky modes Immi writes with in her other songs, lemme know!
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Posted: Sun Sep 20, 2009 3:16 am Reply with quote
Joined: 12 Feb 2008 Posts: 418 Location: GA
..Umm..I really didn't mean to start a semi-controversial topic. I just thought that it would be amazing for everyone to see. I mean I see both points. For some musicians they use the modes for others they don't. I guess it just depends on how YOU work best.

Thanks for the lovely article! Helps sooo much Smile
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Posted: Sun Sep 20, 2009 4:57 am Reply with quote
Joined: 28 Jan 2009 Posts: 31
Well with her being a classically trained musician, I would definitely assume she at least knew it was in Dorian. Whether or not she woke up one morning and said, "OMG today I will write a song in dorian!!" I'm not so sure.
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Posted: Sun Feb 07, 2010 4:06 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 31 Jan 2010 Posts: 5 Location: Manchester
Excellent read. Canvas is my favourite track from Ellipse. Plus, Closing In was my favourite track from SFY... Maybe I should go back and revisit Useless if this second-to-last track thing is anything to go by.
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Posted: Mon Feb 08, 2010 7:11 am Reply with quote
Joined: 22 Jul 2004 Posts: 9446 Location: new york
I love canvas I think that song is so powerful

Emotionless the city lies Cruel it is, it clouds my eyes ...
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