Today I will analyze the song „Can’t Stop The Feeling“ by Justin Timberlake in terms of music theory and its harmonic content. The idea is to bring the dry topic of music theory to the real world and help you understand why songs like „Can’t Stop the Feeling“ work and sound like they do. Since the pre-chorus section of this song is particularly interesting, I split this article into two posts (part 1 and part 2). So let’s get started with part 1…
This song is in the key of C major and borrows elements from funk & soul music, which is typical for Justin Timberlake. „Can’t Stop The Feeling“ is designed as a great mixture between a summer hit song and a club hit: The music video, the „sunshine“ in the lyrics and the sound make it a fantastic song for daytime; simultaneously the right lines („under the lights when everything goes“), the filter fades and the 4-to-the-floor bass drum make it work in the club during nighttime.
The song is about dancing, being happy and not caring what others think. The video depicts everyday people dancing in their work or leisure clothes. This mood is typical for many hits and it tries to associate the positive feeling of „you can dance, too, don’t care what others think“ with the song. It’s a simple yet effective foundation for a hit song.
The song form follows many basic rules of a pop song. After a short intro, we immediately get a glimpse of the chorus at low energy. The verse is always followed by a pre-chorus (harmonically the most interesting part of this song), which then leads into the chorus. Typical for a pop song is, that the second verse is twice as long as the first one. The reason for the shorter first verse is to get to the first (full energy) chorus quickly (usually around the 1 minute mark). The second verse is longer, so the second chorus does not hit to quickly. The bridge then is followed by another chorus and a brief ending.
Let’s begin analyzing the intro and the first glimpse of the chorus…
Intro + Glimpse of Chorus
The short 4 bar intro establishes the four chords of the chorus:
This short statement acquaints the ear with the main chord changes, so we can focus on the vocals/lyrics from bar 5 on.
The first chorus is a low energy version that omits lower frequencies like bass and kick drum (this is what DJs simulate, when they use highpass filters). Omitting the lower frequencies temporarily creates tension, because the listener waits for these missing frequencies to make the sound „whole“. When the whole band comes in on the first verse, it feels pretty powerful, although it is „only“ the verse. That way we save ourselves some dynamic headroom for the first „real“ chorus later on. Use various tools like this to create dynamic in your songs — and try not to hit your ultimate climax too early in a song.
The verse uses the same chords as the chorus. It’s actually rather common in pop songs to use the same chord changes for verse and chorus. As long as other parts of the arrangement change, the familar chords glue verse and chorus together. There should always be at least one element that stays the same from one part to the other — otherwise the song falls apart.
An alternative notation for these four main chords is this:
This notation emphasizes the voice leading (or the lack of it): it sounds like a C major triad (actually C6, if you add the single note guitar later) is constantly played over a changing bass line. I explained this in other articles and videos already: Hotline Bling (article & video) or Blank Space (article & video).
To further set verse and chorus apart and to prepare for the chorus to hit, „Can’t Stop The Feeling“ uses a pre-chorus…
The pre-chorus is a part that is often inserted between verse and chorus to create a harmonic and dynamic path from one part to the other. Some people count the pre-chorus as part of the verse — which is totally okay. This part is probably the most interesting in terms of music theory in this song.
Here are the chords of this part first:
or in a simpler notation with slash chords:
The pre-chorus switches to a different key temporarily to set us up for the chorus: we’re coming from C major in the verse and now move one fifth down in the cycle of fifth to F major. But instead of starting on an F major chord, the pre-chorus starts on a C chord just as the verse did, only that it’s mode is mixolydian this time. The C79sus4 (or simpler Bb/C) chord is the dominant in the key of F. This move also kind of turns the preceding Am7 chord from the end of the verse from a vi chord (in C major) into a iii chord (in F major) after the fact. This „re-interpretation“ of chords in the new key is a common tool to modulate to another key — although it is not that important in this song.
The modulation to the new tonal center works so well, because:
- the root of the new chord is the same as that of the chord we heard in this place in the verse (C)
- the new key (F) is a fifth down (or one step in the cycle of fifth) — a powerful relationship between keys
- the first chord of the pre-chorus is an „unstable“ chord (a dominant) that wants to move some place else
So the pre-chorus has both expected and unexpected elements. In addition to these harmonic tools, the arrangement also changes. Apart from various other elements (like the DJ-typical lowpass filter), the instrumentation also thins out again (like in the intro and first glimpse of the chorus) to add to the tension. This is also a great part for the club: typical filter moves and the lyrics („under the lights when everything goes“) are straight from the rulebook for club floor hit songs.
Harmonically the pre-chorus continues with the subdominant of F major: Bb. But in a typical funk/soul/blues/gospel fashion, this chord is interpreted like a dominant. Originating in the blues style, the tonic, subdominant and dominant are often voiced like dominant chords and played with a minor 7th. This tradition is also audible in gospel, funk and soul. If you want your song to sound like these styles, think about interpreting the I, IV and V chords all as dominants.
One could also interpret the move from C79sus4 to Bb79sus4 as a simple shift down of the chord. You can almost always get away with shifting a chord up or down any amount of steps, as long as you keep the voicing the same. Yes, that even works for chords „outside“ the current key. Why does this work? Again it’s the simple rule of keeping some elements the same (the internal structure of intervals in the voicing) while changing other elements (the key center).
The last two chords of the pre-chorus are a cadence leading back to the tonic of the chorus. You might ask, how this cadence (Fm Bb13sus4) can lead back to a C major tonic chord!? After all, these two chords are a ii-V7 cadence in the key of Eb (!). I will solve this riddle in part 2 of this analysis.
End of part 1
Hopefully you could already pick up some tricks from the first part of this article. Please also check out my YouTube channel or the other articles in Real World Music Theory or on Medium for more stuff of this kind.
But now, let’s continue with the pre-chorus in part 2…
I am a piano and keyboard player touring in Germany as well as a music theory enthusiast. Ever since I started making music at the age of three I have been playing, creating, analyzing, understanding, teaching and enjoying music. Feel free to contact me on any question related to music theory or songwriting!