Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”: Why it Works

Adele - Rolling in the DeepLately I’ve been hearing lots of people lament the dreadful state of pop music, and wonder what the future holds for us. Nothing’s new: every year has its hit-makers whose popularity can make any self-respecting pop music enthusiast weep. But Adele, pop soul artist from England, should give any and all reason to hope. Her latest hit, “Rolling in the Deep”, is fantastic, and offers much for budding songwriters to study. Its best lesson is that simplicity is not a bad word.

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With an amazing voice that makes it all but impossible to believe she’s only 22 years old, Adele sings “Rolling in the Deep” with gutsy passion and soul. The song has a very simple verse-chorus form, expertly structured and crafted so that the controlling of song energy is the highest priority.

Here’s a map of the formal structure:

Rolling in the Deep - Adele

Song energy in “Rolling in the Deep” comes from several elements. Firstly, melodic direction. The verses are written with downward-moving melodic motifs, typical of standard blues melodies.

We start to sense the building energy as the song moves through the pre-chorus: the melodic shapes elongate as instrumentation begins to build (more about that below).

The main melodic motif of the chorus reverses direction, reaching upward instead of moving downward, completing the melody’s task of building subtle song energy.

Instrumentation is the second element used to build energy. Nothing complicated, just a logical progression of adding instruments to develop momentum, and taking them away again to reduce it:

  • Verse 1: Bass/guitar line only (implied chords), then tom-tom beat;
  • Pre-chorus: light keyboard, hi-hat
  • Chorus: background vocals, busier keyboards & drums.

The song uses three main chord progressions:

VERSE: Cm  Gm  Bb  Gm  Bb

Pre-CHORUS: Ab  Bb  Gm  Ab  Bb  Gm  G

CHORUS: Cm  Bb  Ab  Bb

Verse harmonies, as we know, can benefit from a sense of ambiguity, resulting in what we term “fragile” progressions. Usually a fragile progression means that its key centre might be unclear.

In “Rolling in the Deep”, however, it’s the rhythmic treatment of the backing chords that offers a sense of “fragility.” Just the subtle displacing of the chord by one 8th-note, as we hear throughout much of the verse, gives a sense of uncertainty to the harmonies. The rhythm solidifies through the pre-chorus, and the harmonies change to a very strong Cm-Bb-Ab-Bb pattern for the chorus.

I really love songs that sound, at the outset, more complicated than they really are. I’ve always believed that in the balance between simplicity and complexity, simplicity almost always wins.

And it’s simplicity that makes “Rolling in the Deep” a singable, memorable tune. Check out her album, “21”, if you haven’t already. A fantastic collection of compositions that show impressive diversity and awe-inspring songwriting strength.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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7 Comments

  1. Adele’s song highlights something that is overlooked by some of
    todays song writers ,that the verse leading into the chorus can vary
    by being what appears to be half a verse in length or it can have
    an added phrase too small to call it a pre chorus and usually
    consisting of two bars

  2. There’s some sections which are mislabeled in the “Rolling in the Deep” song structure map:
    For example, verse 2 is NOT the one beginning with “Baby I have no story to be told”, that would be verse 3, verse 2 would be the second half of verse 1 which begins with “See how I’ll live with every piece of you, don’t underestimate the things that I will do”

    • Hi Marcelo:

      Thanks for writing. Well yes, it’s a common pop song trait to double up the first verse, but I often choose to group them into what I might otherwise label a “verse structure,” and call it all verse 1. As far as the overall formal design of the song is concerned, it matters little if you call it Verse 1 and Verse 2, or if you simply label it all a verse. Technically, you’re correct, of course.

      Cheers,
      -Gary

  3. Do you find details of structure not to be important?
    Your ‘map’ does not note the Bridge at all? Are bridges a matter of little consequence?
    What about the differing lengths of the verses and choruses? The verse is once repeated but at other times not. Similarly the chorus appears repeated later. I would use designations using repeated capital letters by way of example: AABABB…instead of just ABAB…etc. Or is that overthinking? Too much study?

    • Hello Tapani:

      Thanks for your questions and comments. I’ll take your questions in sequence:

      1- Yes, details of structure are important.
      2- No, my map doesn’t note the bridge section: there is no bridge in this song.
      3- Bridges are tremendously important for songs that have them.
      4- Yes, you certainly can use letters to designate song sections. For songwriters, however, I’ve often found that showing a map with timings usually makes the important structural details clearer than letter names. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with letters, and in other analyses I’ve used them.

      Thanks again,
      -Gary

  4. I agree that simplicity always wins in the end. It goes even further in that when she performs she doesn’t need any bells or whistles – just her and a piano. It’s quite refreshing!

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