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Why 'Aaj Ki Raat' is One of The Greatest Indian Songs Ever Composed: A Technical Analysis

As a musician, nothing excites us more than a compelling melody and tasteful harmony to go with - most of all, keyboard players. The landscape of Indian cinema has often served as the breeding ground for the country's finest talent to create what would become the heart of every film - the songs, of course! However, in 2006, something extraordinary happened. The compositional prowess of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy made waves with a groundbreaking song that, to this day, defines every Indian's most memorable night - the song, 'Aaj Ki Raat'.

Now I'm not here to discuss the nostalgic aspects of the song that are made more and more prominent with every passing year. Rather, I'd like to delve into the musical genius that makes this song - like most SEL songs - stand out above the rest as a harmonic masterpiece packaged as a pop song. So without further ado, let's dive in!

The First Verse

Here is the verse melody laid out as a lead sheet. We're in the key of B major at a BPM of 137:

Disclaimer: This lead sheet is created by me to explain the melody and harmony of this song. It does not follow the original arrangement in terms of introductions, instrumentals or any other musical sections. Hence, bar numbers will differ from the original and are limited to the context of this blog post, for reference purposes only.

In bar 1, we the melody over the B major chord moves between D♯ and E, giving the feeling a suspended chord and emphasising the major sound of B before immediately going down a semi-tone to D♮ and following through with B and A♮. This gives off a more B Minor or B Aeolian feeling. If we think in terms of the chord, you can see how the A♮ gives the G an add9 colour. So already we're playing with the Ionion and Aeolian modes - major vs. minor - within the first two chords of the verse. Incredible!

Furthermore, if we look at bar 7 where we play A major, We see how again the B is played over that chord to give it the add9 colour as well. This hints at the Mixolydian mode although it isn't made as apparent, yet.

By bar 9, we can see a more evident shift to the Mixolydian mode where we inroduce an F♯m and play this beautiful melody over the top. The tension between the D♯ and E♮ sits so pretty over the chord, eluding to two colors - the ♯11 as well as ♭7. And if that wasn't enough, the transitional note to the next chord is a G♯ - the add9 colour yet again, this time over a minor. It's almost as if we're playing F♯m11.

Over the E in bar 11, you can see the F♯ and D♯ in the melody, creating the sound of an Emaj9. And I love how they snuck in that D there to further add color to the melody singing E, making it function as the add9 of D. The chord shift reminds me of the chorus of 'Every Breath You Take' by The Police where you play D and C under "Oh can't you see" before resolving to A.

As we can see, even though the chords themselves may be played rudimentally, it's the melody that completes the chords, giving them incredible depth and colour. These note choices far deviate from the norm, and that's what gives it it's beauty. If we were to rewrite this chart with the actual colours we're hearing, it would look something like this:

Pretty cool, huh? Wait 'til you read about the next bit...

The Pre-Chorus

Here's the pre-chorus as a lead sheet, continuing on from the verse:

What I absolutely love about this pre-chorus is how the melody simply arpeggiates the chords downwards. To begin with we have a B major in bar 17. The melody includes an A♯ as well, giving it a maj7 feel. It arpeggiates down a Bmaj7 chord, starting at the root and ending on the third of the chord.

It then repeats this same arpeggio again for A major. I want you to notice two things about this compositional technique:

  1. It creates a motif - a repeating idea that breeds a sense of familiarity even though it's different and is pleasing to the listener.

  2. Note how the previous chord has an B followed by A♯ and the new chord has an A♮ followed by a G♯. There is a sense of implied chromaticism within this melody that is ingenius!

In bar 19, this motif then continues on to what would be considered a Gmaj7 arpeggio, starting at the root and going down to the third of the chord. However, we can see a clever use of the relative minor of the G major - E minor - being used instead. And it sounds absolutely beautiful. If you think about it, you could also have played the progression using all relative minors - G♯m, F♯m, Em. Try it out and see the effect it creates with the melody on top. This is purely a taste thing and in my humble opinion, I think SEL nailed the emotion the relative minor illicits to build up towards the chorus.

The melody played over the Em is also really special. Having the walk-up from the B to E with the C♯ and D♮ solidfies the minor feel of the Em, before resolving to D♯. It also goes down to C♯ which is the third of A, an interesting chord to end a pre-chorus on, but leads perfectly into the chorus line which we'll discuss next.

The Chorus

Here's a lead sheet of the chorus, following the pre-chorus:

I sometimes play the first three notes along with the chords A E/G♯ A. Adds a nice colour to it. Although it is implied, it isn't an original part of the song, so I've left it out of the lead sheet. It is however, a perfect mixolydian melody that builds up the B in bar 25 beautifully. We follow the chord, emphasizing the major third of the B major before landing on the major third of A. The motif continues upward, from B D♯ to C♯ E. However, this time, it breaks out into a D♮ with an E minor below it, giving it this beautiful Em7 voicing that opens up the chorus in a lush way. And finally playing another mixolydian line in the form of A C♯ A before resolving to B.

The chorus once again plays around with the three modes we discussed previously - Aeolian, Ionion and Mixolydian. The key point to note here is how tastefully it is done. Furthermore, by bar 33, there's a really cool synth part that plays a counter-melody to the chorus. I've taken the liberty to notate that part and place it over the chorus:

What it is, is basically a group of 2 1/8th notes and an 1/8th note rest - making for a group of 3 1/8th notes - that gives it this really cool polyrhythmic feeling. It also has an A♮ that acts as a pivot point, while the other note goes up - A. B; A, C♯; A, D♮; A, D♯. To me, this once again showcases how tastefully SEL have managed to dress up what would normally be considered a rather complex sound.

You've got polyrhythmic counter-melody against a steady sustained whole note melody in the lyrics, 'Raat' and 'Kya'. This creates a sense of movement and compliments the melody beautifully, as any good counter-melody should. Another thing I love is how they always bring it in the 2nd half of the chorus. They give the chorus melody the space it needs in the first half to properly establish itself in the lisener's mind before introducing a new element to add interest. Not to mention, the rhythm of it adds a beautiful syncopation against the arps and other production elements of the song, a key aspect to making any song feel dancy.

The Second (and Third) Verse

What sets Indian music apart from the rest of the world is that in Indian music, what follows as a 'second verse' is often a different melody with a different set of chords. But for simplicity's sake, we're going to call it the second verse and it is followed by the pre-chorus and chorus. Here's the lead sheet:

In bar 41, we can see the use of the two tension notes in the G♯ and the A over an F♯m, which hints at a lush F♯m9 chord - a beautiful departure from the usual B, A and Em we've seen thus far, but still in keeping with the mixolydian sound. I love the use of the C# in B. which again it that add9 flavour. It's all about that sprinkle of colours over every chord that adds to the richness of the music as a whole.

Bar 49 is the first time we see a l

ine actually start on an E major (the previous time was in the middle of the line in the second half of the first verse). The IV chord of a song is a common landing place for a line, apar from the I chord obviously. So it is pretty interesting for a song in the key of B major where E is the IV chord, to only happen now.

This verse is shorter than the previous verse which is a classic song-writing technique to bring the listener back to familiar territory - the pre-chorus and chorus.

The Second Pre-Chorus

In the second pre following the second verse, we have the introduction of this really pretty synth line that lifts it up dynamically from the first pre. Here's a chart for the same:

What it is, is a light counter-melody highlighting the same motifs we talked about earlier that the vocal was doing, namely arpeggiating down Bmaj7, Amaj7 and Gmaj7 (over the Em). but at a fast 16th-note pace. If you listen closely, it also fades out as another synth pads swells in, almost like a call-and-response idea. Brilliant!

In Conclusion

One of my deepest joys is doing just this - tirelessly analysing incredible songs like this with a fine-tooth comb and sharing my discoveries with the world - with you! I hope you've learned something. Moreover, I'm keen to know what your own thoughts and discoveries are about this song. Music is a subjective thing - there are so many ways we can percieve what we hear. And even though my blog post is but a drop in the ocean, I hope it's added value to you. It's moments like these that make me proud to be an Indian. May the greats continue to create incredible works of art like this, and may Indian music never cease to astound audiences around the world.

Thank you, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

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