Song Analysis: Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“.

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Paparazzi, by Lady GagaPaparazzi is a recent single from Lady Gaga’s “Fame.” It’s written in a standard verse-chorus format, and it’s worth looking at various compositional elements, particularly chord progression and melodic shape. We’ll discover a few nuggets that demonstrate solid writing skills, ideas that can be easily incorporated into your own songwriting method.

To begin our study, here is a basic formal analysis of the song:

Formal Map of "Paparazzi"

Harmonic Analysis

The clever part of this chord progression is that though the verse is in minor, switching to major for the chorus, all the chords actually come from one key: A-flat major. The benefit of a verse in minor with a chorus in major is obvious: it prevents the song from getting stale, and brightens the mood. The added benefit of using chords that can all be tied back to one key offers a harmonic connection that works like a musical glue. In this sense, I think of the verse as being “from” Ab major, rather than “in” any particular key.

Here are the chord progressions:

VERSE: Cm Ab Fm (from C minor, the chords would be analyzed as: i VI iv; from Ab major, they are: iii I vi)

CHORUS: Ab Eb Fm Db

The verse harmonies are “fragile”: Depending on what the songwriters choose to follow it with, you could find those chords in Ab major, F minor (with a minor V), Eb major, and so on. The chorus harmonies are strong progressions solidly indicating Ab major. The balance of fragile and strong progressions are sensibly organized; you want more fragile ones for your verse, and stronger ones in your chorus.

If you’re trying to construct harmonies that give a sense of cohesiveness to your song, I highly recommend this procedure of choosing all your chords from one key, but focusing on the minor side of the key for your verse, and the major side of the key for your chorus. As I say, the verse of this song isn’t in Ab major, but is rather a succession of three chords from Ab major. It’s the chorus that puts the song solidly in Ab major.

Melodic Construction:

The melodies for both verse and chorus are beautiful and simple, an interplay of stepwise motion and melodic leaps. The verse uses a motif of a descending 5th as an important melodic element (We are the crowd, we’re c-comin’ out/ Got my flash on, it’s true..”). This descending figure  is coupled with a partial descending minor scale (“We’d be so fantastical”). These two ideas are brought together in the chorus, this time with descending major scale melodic figures (“Promise I’ll be kind/ But I won’t stop until that boy is mine..”)

Like many structural elements in good songs, these may not be things we notice right away. For many listeners the actual architecture of a song may remain elusive. But relating one part of a song to another is what causes good songs to really click. What’s beautiful is that many songwriters do this instinctively, without really being aware of it. And the beauty of music analysis is that it allows us to take a song apart to discover why it works, and (most importantly for songwriters) what can we do to add this kind of songwriting intelligence to our own songs.

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Gary Ewer has written six songwriting e-books that can get you writing the kinds of songs you’ve always known you could write!  Read more about his books here.

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18 Comments

  1. hi Gary Ewer.. how about the abrupt intro chord before the percussions that came before the chorus in Paparazzi..

    the chord is a G#M7 in root position with a doubling of a C note which is an octave below the C note in the chord, that doubling is used for reinforcement..the chord sounded dissonant because of its Major 7th note more dissonant than a dominant chord which only uses a minor 7th..

    what do you think is its purpose??
    why did Rob Fusari and Lady Gaga started this song with that dissonant chord THAT played up to 4 BARS??

    well my assumption is she is try to hint not show a tonality…
    she hinted a murky G#..using 4 bars..but why she will hint a murky G#?? maybe she wants to make a “fragile intro” along with the “fragile verse”

    what do you thing Gary?

    • I MEAN THE ABRUBT INTRO CHHORD BEFORE THE PERCUSSIONS THAT CAME BEFORE VERSE 1…

      sorry for the error Gary

  2. Thanks Gary! We’re enjoying the xmas break and while googling Lady Gaga chord progressions for our jam session, we came across your blog!!!

    WAY TO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Your former students,
    M-dawgs

  3. very interesting analysis – exactly what I was looking for.

    I find it interesting that some people say that the song modulates from Cm to Ab … and you say that the verse is just “from the key of Ab” … Maybe that it can be taken both of these ways is what makes the modulation (or whatever it is) more interesting.

    • Well, it comes back to a rather lengthy thread from several months ago, about what actually puts something in a key. My contention then, as now, is that it’s possible for a song to explore the minor side of a major key (by focusing on the minor chords that occur naturally in any major key), and then dwell on the typically major side of the key. I maintain that this is what’s happening in “Paparazzi.”

      -Gary

      • First of all, thanks for this blog. I found it by accident and immediately saved it as a bookmark. Been following ever since.
        In my opinion, regardless of whether you would ‘technically’ call it ‘in the same key’ or not, when i first heard the song, i remember being very curious of what was happening with the chords. The transition to the chorus is using what was the subdominant chord of the verse as its tonic. Its a flawless transition and that creates that mysterious sound.

  4. wow, I never thought her music was actually musically interesting. I’m sorry but I can’t stand all the hype and crap about Lady GaGa. If she hadn’t sold her soul to mainstream media I would definitely respect her as a musician, that is to say she’s actually in charge of the music that has her name on it.

    • Yes, I can certainly get what you mean. But sometimes, if you can dig your way down into a tune and try to look at the song as something unrelated to the performance of it, per se, you can find reasons for success. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Paparazzi is a life-changing work of art, but there are reasons for its success. Your comment about the hype surrounding Lady Gaga is well-taken, however. It’s the reason that when I do analyses such as these, I never watch the video beforehand.

      Thanks for writing.
      -Gary

  5. I think of Paparazzi as being pretty solidly in two different keys, with a common-chord modulation.

    It starts in c minor, with i VI VII iv VI VII i. (“We are the crowd…fantástico”) Then it repeats these chords (“Leather and jeans…flashing lights”). Then on “Cuz you know that, baby, I”, the Eb Major chord is a modulating chord (it’s III in c minor and V in the new key, Ab Major).
    Then the chorus has I V vi IV I V vi IV, repeated again.

    jm: To decide whether an interval is an A4 or d5, remember that the *quantity* (fourth or fifth) is determined by how many letter names are in the interval, and the accidentals determine the *quality* (augmented/perfect/diminished). So Ab to D is an augmented fourth, because A to D is a fourth. G# to D would be a diminished fifth, because G to D is a fifth.

  6. I’ve just started studying music theory, mostly on my own. I noticed that there is a D natural note over the Ab chord in the verse. The vocal line is the first syllable in “magical”. It also occurs a couple of times in the next few measures. As I understand it, this is a tritone interval, but in context more accurate to call it either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth depending on where it wants to resolve to. My question is, is it more appropriate to call it an aug 4th or dim 5th and which note is it trying to resolve to? The following notes are Eb then C, the second and third syllables in “magical”.

    Any analysis on this D natural note would be much appreciated.

    • My interpretation of the D is that it’s an ornamental note leaning up into the Ab chord’s Eb. As a D natural, the note conforms to the primarily c minor character of the verse; the chorus is Ab (major), and therefore takes a Db, all else being equal.

  7. by “fragile” do you mean that when she hits hard on the chord change the melody is not hitting the notes of the chord? i.e., it’s a flat 5 on the Ab and 9th on the Cm? That — if it’s what you call fragility — is what I think really makes the song mysterious and irresistible. I agree with you on the verse/chorus interplay too, and I suppose I’m ok with the “from” rather than “in” terminology to capture what she’s doing.

    I’d add that all the triplets in the chorus add to the anguished feel. It’s a well written song, I agree.

    What a great site by the way… discovered on a random “chords” search.

    • By him meaning the verse being fragile, I think he might mean that Lady Gaga wasn’t following the circle of fifths. But in the chorus, she going from I-V-vi-V. While it may not be the exact circle of fifths, it is close enough for jazz.

  8. this is a very intresting song specially 4 its instruments it has a cool but hot type of atmosphere!!!!!! Lady GaGa is id say over talented!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Still surprised after a few months experience with Lady Gaga’s skills (her name had me starting with low expectations). It’s good to see someone exploring the workings of this song, which really is very catchy and smart. She’s very impressive.

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