Whether "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" is a meaningful song, or just a fun one, it's definitely a fun one. We can tell there's something brilliant about the song, but what exactly is it about the beat and the harmony that inspires everyone from tiny babies to Justin Timberlake to get their dance on?
"Single Ladies" was produced by Beyoncé along with the same dynamic duo ("Tricky" and "The-Dream") who produced Rihanna's 2008 hit "Umbrella." Compared to most other pop songs, there are a couple of weird things about the song's sparse, simple arrangement.
What's weird about the beat:
The song is in 4/4 time. Nothing strange there, but most pop songs in 4/4 have a "back beat"—a clap, snap or snare drumming out the beat on every other note (usually the 2nd and 4th, which has the effect of emphasizing the 1st and 3rd notes; listen to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" for an example). In "Single Ladies," instead of a back beat, we hear a consistent clap on every single 8th note (that's twice every beat). That's what all the upbeat clatter is, and it is basically the only percussion in the song. This has the effect of putting an equal emphasis on each of the four beats in the measure. As one music commentator points out, this emphasis "is reinforced by the dancing in the music video, in which the choreography consists largely of Beyoncé jolting around on every beat."
On top of the unusual back beat, if you listen closely, you can hear a snare drum on the last count of every measure (the last "and" if you count one-and-two-and-three-and-four-AND). Listen closely for the single snare behind the song and you should be able to catch what makes this song's beat so strange—and so catchy.
What's weird about the harmony:
Mostly, the tune of "Single Ladies" is pretty standard, simple stuff. And during the chorus ("If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on"), Beyoncé is singing a simple major scale (E major, to be specific). But a bass synth comes in on chords from the key of E minor. This semi-spooky contrast between the melody and the chords is a risky move called polytonality, "a technique normally reserved for highly esoteric jazz and classical music," according to the music commentator quoted above. It also give an ominous undertone to the most bitter, complicated line of the song. Who knew a single song could be highly esoteric, highly vindictive, and highly dance-able?