Understanding Get Lucky
hey, welcome to 12tone! by 2013, it seemed like Daft Punk was pretty much done. it had been 8 years since their last studio album, and 12 since their last commercially successful one. the band was still touring, but for those of us who grew up in their heyday of the early 2000s, it felt like they were just riding a wave of nostalgia and waiting to become irrelevant.
and then they made Random Access Memories and proved everyone wrong. in what would ultimately be their final album, Daft Punk once again evolved their sound, pulling back on the electronic elements they'd been known for and bringing in more physical instruments, including collaborations with some of funk and disco's greatest artists. it was a breath of fresh air, a clear reminder of the skill and craft that had made the French duo such a phenomenon in the first place, and leading the charge was the album's first single, Get Lucky. let's take it apart. (tick, tick, tick, tick, tock) it's been a while since I looked at a song that was so thoroughly based on groove, so I'd like to start this analysis in the place where every good groove starts: the drums, in this case performed by Omar Hakim. (bang)
it's not the most extravagant drum beat in the world: you've got kicks on all four beats, snares on 2 and 4, and then constant 8th note hi-hats. pretty simple, but the execution is rock solid, providing a clear foundation to build the song on top of. without it: (bang) all the syncopation in the other parts kinda doesn't work. it sounds like three separate
rhythms that aren't really talking to each other. but if we add the drums back in: (bang) suddenly, it all makes sense. so, yeah. Hakim is playing a simple pattern not because he can't do more, but because if he did, it would get in the way. this part isn't meant to be flashy.
it's a binding agent, a musical compass that allows you to orient yourself within the groove. but while it's a pretty conventional drum part, these conventions exist for a reason, so, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to take a minute to talk about some of the things that make this kind of pattern work so well. for starters, the hi-hat isn't actually constant 8th notes. I lied to you. sorry about that. to be fair, it mostly is, but for the last beat of each bar: (bang) he adds an extra 16th note right at the end. to borrow a term from my friend 8-bit Music Theory, this serves as
a rhythmic approach note, creating a little metric tension that releases on the following downbeat. and that's a big deal because funk and funk-inspired genres are all about the downbeat. now, that might be a bit surprising to some of you: it's easy to assume that funk is about syncopation, and it is, but as we saw earlier, you always need something to syncopate against. funk needs a really strong downbeat precisely because it's so rhythmically complex. the 1 is
your home base, your true north. it provides the anchor that holds the rest of the groove in place, and these rhythmic approach notes ensure that you always know exactly where that 1 is. without them: (bang) you still have a pulse, but you don't really have that strong, authoritative downbeat that a song this funky needs. another thing I want to highlight here is the snare sound: (bang) because it's not just a snare. there's also a clap, and I'm pretty sure there's some finger snaps as well. or, at least, I hear them in the full song, but they're not on this isolated drum track. anyway, this is pretty common in dance music these days. layering multiple mid-range percussion
sounds on top of the snare helps it cut through the mix, giving the backbeat a lot more punch. and that's important because in dance music, especially styles derived from African American dance traditions, the backbeat is usually the primary indicator of how to move your body. if the downbeat is the anchor, then the backbeat is the waves, rocking the boat back and forth until this entire metaphor collapses under its own weight. point is, the beefier the snare sound is, the harder the groove hits, and this groove hits hard. that backbeat is also emphasized by the kick drum playing a four on the floor pattern, which just means he's hitting all four beats, not just the 1 and the 3. this is an iconic disco sound, distributing the dynamic energy more evenly throughout the bar and adding a little extra weight to the other beats. it also provides more of a
structure for the rest of the band to syncopate against, highlighting the pulse like a metronome so you can really feel how everything else is falling into place around it. and finally, there's the fills. every four bars, Hakim drops in a little flourish with some open hi-hats, alternating between this: (bang) and this. (bang) in both cases, he's doing basically a larger-scale version of that rhythmic approach thing we talked about earlier. the phrases in this song are four bars long, built on a four-bar chord loop, so at the end of each phrase he's generating some extra rhythmic tension to set up a return to the start. this makes it very clear to the listener where that start actually is, which is gonna be important for reasons I'll talk about in a bit.
but before we do, let's move on to our next instrument, Nile Rodgers's guitar. (bang) here, we see a very different rhythm from anything Hakim was doing. Rodgers is skipping the downbeat entirely, hitting a chord on the first 8th note, then he starts playing this dotted-8th thing, hitting the chord again every three 16th notes until the end of the bar. this creates a sort of cross-rhythm, a different metric pulse that almost implies a different tempo, but because there's a slightly longer gap between the end of one bar and the start of the next, it still fits snuggly within the groove Hakim is laying down. but the eagle-eared among you may have noticed that I lied to you. again. Rodgers isn't just
playing this dotted 8th pattern. he's actually playing every single 16th note, but for most of them he's lifting his fretting hand slightly off the neck, muting the strings and creating a duller, softer, more percussive sound. (bang) so he's not just playing a harmonic cross-rhythm. he's also performing a vital rhythmic function by explicitly marking out the metric layer of the 16th note. Hakim's part is almost all 8ths, but a lot of the syncopation in this song is at the level of 16th notes, so the guitar becomes almost like a second hi-hat, playing a constant pulse at a smaller subdivision. by using a muted tone, Rodgers is able to fulfill both roles at once,
quietly filling the gaps while emphasizing his cross-rhythm with fully voiced chords. speaking of which, let's look at the chords. the whole song is based on a single four-chord loop. (bang) this is what I like to call a piston loop, because it has a clear rise and fall to it. it starts on
the root, then gently drifts away from it in 3rds. this takes us to our furthest point, where it turns around and returns home using stronger harmonic motion like steps and perfect 4ths. the piston loop structure creates a strong sense of flow through the progression, with a period of rest and then a clear, solid destination. probably the most common piston loop, and arguably the one that popularized the idea of four-chord loops in the first place, is the Doo-Wop Changes. (bang) this is the classic loop sound,
but since the 80s, we've seen the rise of other patterns, like the axis progression: (bang) and the plagal cascade: (bang) that use more strong harmonic motion to create a greater sense of landing at the expense of that softer floating section. as such, piston loops in general take on a kind of nostalgic tinge for me, representing a more old-school approach to loop writing, and I think that's probably part of what makes this song feel so… classic. it's a product of another time. but there's actually a deeper connection here. this chord loop is really just the Doo-Wop changes upside down. bear with me. so, if we take the Doo-Wop Changes: (bang) and follow
the root motion, we go down a minor 3rd, down a major 3rd, up a whole step, then up a perfect 4th to start over. but if we take the Get Lucky progression: (bang) and follow that root motion, we go up a minor 3rd, up a major 3rd, down a whole step, then down a perfect 4th. it's the exact same shape, just moving in the opposite direction. actually playing the Doo-Wop Changes itself might have sounded a little too dated, but this is about as close a reference as you can get.
now, so far, I've been talking as if this B minor is the root. is it, though? 'cause Pharell Williams keeps resolving to F#. (bang) and yeah, maybe the melody is just built on the 5th of the key. that happens. but it doesn't really sound right to me. I'll get into this more
when I start breaking down the melody, but for now, let's just say that it seems to be pretty clearly in F# minor. so… what gives? which of these is the root? which key are we in? and, uh… I'm not really sure. or, rather, I'm not convinced there is a correct answer. the harmony definitely seems to resolve to B minor. not only is it the destination of the chord loop, the place that all
the strong harmonic motion is pointing us toward, it's also in the strongest metric position. it's the first chord in each phrase, emphasized by Hakim's hi-hat fills. it's not subtle. the chords are in B. but the melody is equally unsubtly in F#. it never really resolves to B, and in the few places where it has the option, it doesn't really sound like it wants to. this makes Get Lucky a perfect example of an argument I've been making for a while now: sometimes, keys just aren't the best framework for understanding a song's tonality. keys are rigid structures with clear, unambiguous roots that everyone agrees on, and Get Lucky doesn't seem to have that. instead, we've got something more like a hybrid tonality,
with different parts agreeing on a pitch collection but not a pitch center. Rodgers is playing in B, Pharell is singing in F#, but since they're both using the same notes, there's no real sense of disagreement. it's possible the band was thinking of this in one specific key when they recorded it, I don't know, I'm not a mind reader, but as a listener, trying to decide which one I hear as the "real" key feels kinda pointless. they're both right, which means neither of them is completely correct. and that's fine. that's how music works sometimes.
but I feel like I've spent way too much time not talking about the bass, so let's talk about the bass. unlike Hakim and Rodgers, whose parts stay pretty consistent throughout the song, bassist Nathan East takes a more freeform approach, full of subtle variations and fills. this approach reminds me of the "funk formula" described by legendary bassist Bootsy Collins, which can be roughly summarized as "hit beat 1, then for the rest of the bar, do whatever you want. preferably syncopated." but while East's part is full of embellishments, there's still a basic template that he seems to be working from most of the time, so let's take a look at how an average bar of Get Lucky's bass groove is built.
most bars start roughly the same way, with this rhythm: (bang) where he hits on the first two beats, then anticipates beat 3 by hitting a 16th note early. this pattern acknowledges the metronome pulse of Hakim's four-on-the-floor kick, then immediately subverts it. he often takes this third note up an octave: (bang) to give that anticipation a little more punch, drawing your attention to the way he's contradicting the implied groove. he also often adds an extra attack right before the jump, to really make it pop. (bang)
this portion serves to establish, then break your rhythmic expectations, effectively giving himself permission to do whatever he wants with the rest of the bar. from there, things get a little more loose, and we see a lot more variation in the back half of the bar, but if I had to nail down a single pattern that best represents the idea he's playing off of, it'd probably be this one. (bang) here, he switches to 8th-note syncopation, hitting the offbeats after beats 3 and 4. on the first of these, he just hits the root again, but after the last one, he sets up the next chord a 16th note early. one thing to note about this pattern is
that, up until the very end of the bar, none of the notes he plays line up with any of Rodgers's accents. in fact, these middle three hits all come one 16th note before a chord stab, creating a sort of call and response between the two parts. they're not playing the same rhythms, but they're clearly in conversation, a conversation that's mediated by Hakim's rock-solid groove.
again, though, East's part varies a lot. sometimes he skips the hit on beat 3: (bang) and sometimes he starts the 16th-note run early. (bang) and that's not even getting into the fills he adds on the last chord of the phrase. (bang) this bassline is constantly evolving throughout the song, and while he keeps coming back to this basic pattern, he refuses to be restrained by it. this gives the song a sense of adventure and excitement: Hakim and Rodgers are laying down a really solid foundation, but East is the one in charge of building momentum. but there's one issue left: sometimes he just breaks the pattern entirely.
in the first chorus, he switches to a much less syncopated groove, hitting all four beats and echoing Hakim's four-on-the-floor kick. (bang) this settles the energy a little bit, allowing the focus to shift from East's intricate bass part to Pharell's vocals so he can properly establish the hook. in later choruses, he keeps going with the main pattern, but for this first one he steps back to avoid overwhelming the listener right away. and he does a similar thing at the very start of the song.
for the first two bars, he plays a simplified pattern with that same metronome emphasis. (bang) this one's a little more confusing to me, so if you have a good explanation, feel free to let me know in the comments, but the best I can come up with is that he's again trying to leave space. the foundation of the song's groove comes from the interaction between Hakim and Rodgers, so East is giving them a moment to set things up before he makes it more complicated. and finally, we should talk about the vocals. these are pretty much the only part that gives the song an actual form: there's a couple other changes, which I'll highlight as we go, but without Pharell, there aren't many real, obvious differences between sections. it's
mostly just the same groove, repeated over and over until the song ends. and to be clear, that's not a criticism: if you've got a good groove that's fun to dance to, changing it up just to do something different is rarely a good idea. my point is that, since the groove is so strong and so consistent, the job of defining the song's shape falls squarely on Pharell, and I want to talk about how he does that. the two primary tools he uses to differentiate between sections are phrasing and target notes. I don't really want to talk about tonality because who cares, but it's pretty clear that different sections focus their attention on different pitches, so each one takes on its own sort of tonal color. you'll see what I mean. anyway, let's start with the verse. (bang) here, the
phrasing tells a story of increasing complexity. he starts on a beat, sings some straight 8ths, then starts hitting every off-beat 16th note, ending slightly after the next downbeat. this doesn't really line up with any of the other parts. in fact, if we layer it on top of the drum, bass, and guitar grooves, then in the bars where Pharell is singing, the band is collectively hitting 14 of the 16 possible 16th notes. there's a lot going on here. but this is also
the only section with significant gaps between phrases. each one takes about a bar to sing, and then Pharell leaves a full bar of rest before starting the next one. this helps relieve some of the tension built up by all these competing cross-rhythms and leaves room for the band to shine. in terms of target notes, this section is pretty clearly aiming toward F#. each phrase
ends with a definitive walk down to that note. (bang) he does mix things up on the third phrase, ending on A instead: (bang) but to my ears, it just sounds like a diversion away from our main target. the verses clearly establish F# as the root, at least as far as the melody is concerned. the prechorus, though, is extremely different. this section has the longest, slowest, and simplest phrases in the whole song. there's no 16th notes at all, and only a couple notes per bar. they also change the vocal production here, layering in a second take to create a greater sense of depth. this starts out just doubling the lead: (bang) before splitting off and harmonizing
in 3rds. (bang) because it's so much slower, the section as a whole doesn't really have as clear a target note. instead, Pharell defers back to the chord progression, sitting on the 3rd of each chord in turn. we've got D over B minor, F# over D major, A over F# minor, and G# over E major. the 3rd is the most colorful chord tone, the one that defines its quality, so building the melody from those gives this section a rich, harmonic sound that ties it in with the motion of the loop. and because the loop ends on an unstable point, the melody does too, with a hanging G#: (bang) as opposed the the resolved F# we saw at the end of the verse phrases. in the second half of the prechorus, he ramps this up even further, replacing the G# with a B: (bang) in order to continue the upward trajectory of the melody and propel you into the chorus.
the chorus melody is, in terms of phrasing at least, kinda similar to the verse. it uses the same trick of hitting all the off-beat 16th notes, but this time it starts right away before ultimately resolving onto a beat at the end of the bar. (bang) instead of increasing tension, it's releasing it. landing heavy on beat 4 after all that syncopation just feels so satisfying every time he does it. the phrases are,
once again, one bar long, but this time there's no gaps between them, increasing the sense of urgency to match the lyrics. on the fourth phrase, he adds an extra 8th note at the end: (bang) and it feels to me like it's trying to walk back to the downbeat, fully resolving the rhythmic tension by returning to the all-important 1. but at the last second he feints away and returns to the top of the section instead. it's a nice nod to the never-ending night he's singing about. in terms of target notes, though, the chorus is pretty interesting. in each phrase, he only sings two different pitches, which I'll call the body and the tail. the body is the one he sits on for most of the line, and the tail is the one he moves to for the final note. so,
in this phrase: (bang) the body is D and the tail is E. and I'm separating these out for a reason: the two parts behave pretty differently. if we just look at the body notes, we have D, D, C#, B, which is a clear, deliberate walk down the scale, looking for somewhere to land.
on the other hand, the tail notes are E, E, E, A. this is a solid resolution, mirroring the rhythmic tension of the phrases by sitting on an unstable pitch for most of the time before finally collapsing to something stable at the end, in this case by dropping down a perfect 5th. and since A is also the next note in the walkdown from the body notes, I'm kinda forced to conclude that the target note of the section, the pitch the melody revolves around, is A. now, am I saying he changed keys? not really. I can still hear the A wanting to continue down to F#. that root is still there. but the structure of the melody in this section
leans more heavily on A, the relative major of F# minor, and that gesture toward the major root gives this section a bright, shimmering quality that elevates it above the verses. I think that's all the big things we need to cover, but before we wrap up, I want to do a quick review of some of the arranging decisions they make in the second half of the song to keep things interesting. this starts in the second chorus, where halfway through, Hakim and East drop out, leaving just Pharell, Rodgers, those hand claps, and Chris Caswell's keyboard. (bang) this sudden drop in sonic energy provides a natural break in the song, and when they come back in, Hakim is playing a new drum groove: (bang) with rapid-fire kicks on beat one and some open splashes on the hi-hat, which he keeps doing for the rest of the song. this is also where they introduce one of the few electronic elements
provided by the band: a vocoder looping the final line of the chorus. (bang) this is the most recognizably Daft Punk part of the song, evoking their earlier work while still making space for this new direction. and they embrace that evolution by keeping the vocoder going as Pharell comes back in to sing the prechorus. (bang) then we get another chorus, a double-length post-chorus, and finally a new synth riff that loops until they fade out. (bang) and that's pretty much it. or at least, that's it for the single version: the album version is
two minutes longer, with a new intro by Rodgers and some more space for some of these sections, but the single is the one I'm most familiar with so that's what I decided to talk about. anyway, I don't think it's much of an overstatement to say that Get Lucky saved Daft Punk, introducing their music to a new generation and giving them one last moment in the spotlight. the popularity of the song propelled Random Access Memories to the top of the charts, making it the band's first and only number one hit record. they'd eventually break up 8 years later without releasing another album, but Get Lucky let them go out on a high note, taking the world by storm one more time. and hey, thanks for watching, thanks to our Patreon patrons for making these videos possible, and extra special thanks to our Featured Patrons, Susan Jones, Jill Sundgaard, Duck, Howard Levine, Warren Huart, Kevin Wilamowski, Grant Aldonas, and Damien Fuller-Sutherland! if you want to help out, and help us pick the next song we analyze too, there's a link to our Patreon on screen now. oh,
and don't forget to like, share, comment, subscribe, and above all, keep on rockin'.