music theory

Actually, This Is Ariana Grande’s Signature Note

Ariana, probably singing a descending perfect 4th. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

One industry and fan theory that has persisted for as long as the public has known her is that Ariana Grande’s signature sound is her whistle tone. Look no further than her guest spot on the glorious Christmas song “Oh Santa” to hear Grande flex that particular vocal muscle in harmony with the undisputed queen of the whistle tone, Miss Mariah Carey. But while listening to Grande’s theatrically horny album positions nonstop for the past month, I was struck by a different sound produced by the preternaturally talented singer’s mouth — a musical interval so extremely unique to Ariana Grande’s musical sensibility and style. Yes, Ariana can whistle tone with the best of them, but I couldn’t shake the discovery that, really, her most identifiable sound often happens elsewhere within her massive vocal range. And once I discussed the evidence — Ariana’s catalogue —with a few actual musicians and composers who know and understand music theory, everything fell into place: Ariana Grande is the queen of the descending perfect fourth.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or what that means, look no further than the chorus of Ariana’s “positions,” specifically when she sings “I’m in the Olympics, way I’m jumpin’ through hoops.” “Through hoops” is easily the most interesting and jazziest part of the chorus, standing out against the rest of the song. It also sounds eerily similar to when Grande sings “ain’t from no heaven” in the chorus of her song “Don’t Call Me Angel” with Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, off the soundtrack she curated for the Charlie’s Angel movie nobody saw, right? Well, as it turns out, they’re exactly the same interval. “The interval that you’ve identified is a descending perfect fourth. She’s singing a note and then she’s singing a perfect fourth below it,” says NYC-based music director, educator, and pianist Emma Weiss, playing the notes back to me one day over Zoom on her keyboard. “That’s her interval. I would say out of the 14 songs on positions, the interval is a big moment — like, occurs in a large way — on eight songs. It definitely occurs all over this album.” Weiss points to some of those big moments, re-creating them her keyboard. There it is when Grande sings the opening line of “off the table” (“Will I ever love the same way again“), the chorus of “west side” (“show up“), the chorus of “love language” (“If you’re gonna keep speaking my love language / You can talk your shit all night”), and every time she sings the title of the song “just like magic” (“just like magic“), to name a few. It’s truly all over the place.

It’s not just that Ariana loves to sing a descending perfect fourth; she’s employing it in a way unique to her vocal ability and sound: She tends to use it when she’s singing in a minor key, making the interval pop against the landscape of the song. “The reason ‘through hoops’ sounds a little different, is because the chord right there is D-minor, which is the key of the song,” says NYC-based musician and composer Aaron Ewing. “So a simple D-minor chord would be D-F-A. D-minor seventh chord would be D-F-A-C. And D-minor ninth would be D-F-A-C-E. She kind of sticks to a D-minor seventh chord for the most part of the song, but on ‘through hoops’ she lands on the ninth of the D-minor chord. [That effect] makes it sound a little jazzier there and, in my opinion, gives it more mellow sound right there.” Weiss agrees, saying, “The feeling of ’through hoops’ is kind of a crunch. It’s almost like a suspension.” In other words, it has a dissonance to it — an unexpected edge — that makes it stand out.

Real music-theory buffs and Ariana stans know that Grande has been using the perfect fourth long before “positions” or “Don’t Call Me Angel.” It’s an interval that continuously pops up throughout her discography in major ways, like in “imagine” (“We in the car like oooh“), “bad Idea” (“I’ve got a bad idea“), and “thank u, next” (“I’m so fucking grateful for my ex”). Why is Ariana so obsessed with singing fourths? Because it’s hard to do, and she can pull it off, obviously. “Fourths are tricky intervals to sing,” Weiss explains. “A fifth is a really grounded interval, but a fourth is always trickier to sing. And in pop music, you’re always going to the five or you’re always going to the three. That’s like your classic harmonies. But to have a little fourth seems like a deliberate move to be not as typical and expected. It’s just a little more unexpected.” Leave it to Ariana to do what the other girls aren’t doing and throw our ears for a loop.

So while Ariana may get her flowers for her earth-shattering high notes, there’s an argument to be made that The Ariana Grande Signature Note exists far lower in her range, specifically when she goes from an A down to an E while singing in the key of D-minor. For those who don’t hear it, that’s okay. “We probably could have played the same game with a third,” Weiss admits, “but we wouldn’t have found so many.” The next time you’re singing along to an Ariana Grande song, aim lower than the whistle and (uh, attempt to) show the descending perfect fourth some love.

Actually, This Is Ariana Grande’s Signature Note