Shontelle's "Impossible": Why It Works

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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ShontelleBajan singer Shontelle is releasing her second album, “No Gravity”, in June of this year. Her first single from that album is a great tune called Impossible. It’s a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure. What makes it work primarily is the control of melodic shape and range. It’s a great demonstration directing modal focus from minor to major, and controlling melodic direction.

Here’s a map of Impossible’s formal elements:

Formal map of Shontelle's "Impossible"

First, let’s look at the harmonic aspect of the song. The song is in Ab major, but much of the focus is on the vi-chord (Fm). The verses feature the minor side of the tonality, with the pre-chorus moving toward Ab major. We’ve looked at other songs on this blog where the chorus will move solidly into the relative major, but not here; the chorus moves the focus back to Fm.

Verse: Fm  Ab  Eb7  Db

Pre-chorus: Bbm Cm  Db  Eb

Chorus and Refrain: Fm7  Ab  Eb  Db (refrain starts on Fm)

The bridge ends with a secondary dominant V/vi (C), which works curiously well with the Ab melody note.

The more interesting aspect of the song’s construction is the direction of the melodic cells that combine to make up the various melodies. The verse melodies are constructed by sequenced ascending 3rds: [‘I remember’] [‘long ago’] etc. The pre-chorus takes the same ascending idea, but embellishes it, following an ascending 4th [‘and now’] with a longer melodic cell [‘when all is done there is nothing to say’]. The chorus features a further development of this ascending motif [‘tell them all I know now.’] The final step of the development occurs in the refrain [‘impossible’], when longer descending scale figures.

The melodic ideas work so well because the basic direction of each melodic cell is upward, and the listener is finally ready for a contrasting idea. The lesson to learn here is that contrasting does not, and should not, mean completely different. When you look at the melody notes that occur directly on the beats of the chorus, you get the notes Ab C Ab F, etc., all spaced a 3rd apart. So the chorus, even though it reverse the direction of previous melodic ideas, stays strongly connected by the use of 3rds.

The only issue I take with the song is the rather unimaginative bridge. I understand the writers chose to dissipate energy in order to connect smoothly to the verse that follows, but I think the listener was probably ready for something a bit more adventurous, especially regarding the chord progression. It might have been a good idea to explore harmonies closer to the Ab major side.

Impossible is a fine demonstration of how to control melodic shape, and construct melodies by using small melodic cells. The use of small fragments in this way gives you better control of the melody over time, and gives the listener a motif that is easy to recognize. For that reason, Impossible is the kind of song that will keep people humming.
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  1. Pingback: Songwriting Review: Shontelle’s “Impossible”: Why It Works | // ShontelleOnline.com - #1 Source for Everything Shontelle! //

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