Sitting atop The Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably one of the most influential pop songs ever written.
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There was much about “Like a Rolling Stone” that would have been considered innovative in 1965. The length of the song (over 6 minutes, rare in pop song world), and the subject matter (a somewhat cynical look at “Miss Lonely’s” financial demise, when most hits were much simpler love songs), made it a standout in its day. But it takes more than that to have a song declared the greatest song of all time (it sits in the no. 1 position on Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs Ever Written”). Melodic structure, and in particular how that melody interacts with the chord progression and establishes form, (not to mention Dylan’s iconic performance style), create something of remarkable depth and quality, a song that most would describe as the most influential popular song since the ’50s.
As is typical for many of Dylan’s most popular songs, the formal plan is a very simple verse-chorus design, starting with a short vamp-style intro, and featuring short connecting transitions between the end of each chorus and the start of the next verse. The unusual length of the song is more due to the complexity of the lyric than anything offered by the form. Like Cohen, Dylan prefers simple, uncomplicated melodies and harmonies as a vehicle for his outstandingly poignant text.
The lyric itself deserves its own close analysis, but to summarize, “Like a Rolling Stone” tells the story of a rich woman, “Miss Lonely”, who falls on hard times (“How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown…“). The lyrics are at times cynical (“Now you don’t seem so proud…”), and at other times sympathetic (“When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose…”). And for certain, they were groundbreaking, innovative material for hit songs of their day.
For songs that make strong social commentary, it’s very effective to construct a melody using a repeated note motif. You see it clearly demonstrated in the first half of the verse, and the final lines leading into the chorus.
Repeated notes have a way of “drilling” a message, and can add a sense of profundity to the lyric.
The chorus is a short hook-like motif comprised of 3 pitches, and, typical of most choruses, represents the highest notes of the song:
So the effectiveness of the melody is not so much the shape, but perhaps, it could be argued, the lack of shape; the insistent repetition of notes and motifs that work to place the lyric front and centre.
C Dm7 Em F G … F Em Dm C
Musicians often favour the inclusion of chords in their progressions whose roots move by 4ths and 5ths, particularly if the bass line moves by step. This is usually achieved by using chord inversions. As you can see, however, Dylan uses a chord progression where the roots move by step, in parallel with the bass line. He mirrors this with a descending bass line later in the verse, and a reverse of the progression. This root movement by step is often avoided by using a C/E in place of the Em chord. C/E avoids the constant parallel motion of the bass and the chord roots.
But curiously, Dylan’s voice sings a constant C over these verse chords, and in effect creates (or you might even say “forces”) the Em chord to sound like a C/E. That momentary clash of the note B from Em while Dylan sings a C comes across as completely in keeping with the style of the music, and certainly in keeping with his singing manner.
The chords are typical of the kind one would find in the mid-60s world of electric rock music. But sometimes the best thing a songwriter can do is to identify the most important aspect of a song, and allow other elements to stay out of the way. With this song, as with most of Dylan’s output, a song’s topic and lyric always need to stand front and centre.
But other songs have lyrics that are meaningful. Why does “Like a Rolling Stone” seem to resonate so much with songwriters? Dylan has a unique ability to balance complexity with simplicity. The intricacy of the lyric balanced with the simplicity of formal design. He’s not just writing and singing to us; he’s writing for us, and expressing deeply-held thoughts and opinions in an unadorned fashion. You have to look long and hard to find any Dylan song that uses altered chords. That kind of musical development would simply be a distraction to such a supreme lyricist.
So what can songwriters learn from “Like a Rolling Stone”?
- Repeated notes will help deliver a lyric’s message with more punch and relevance. Dylan repeated the tonic note, but experiment with others. You’ll find that as the melody note repeats, it starts to work as a type of “inverted pedal point“, and it even may not be crucial to have the note exist in the chord of the moment.
- Make a decision as to what the most important aspect of your song is, and allow other elements to take a back seat. In Dylan’s case, it’s his lyric, so he avoids harmonic and melodic complexity, allowing the words to stay in the limelight.
- Short, catchy hooks can be used over and over, stringing them together to create entire song sections. The melody for the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone” consists of one short 4-note hook that repeats for the duration of the chorus. The shortness of the hook, combined with its placement as the highest notes of the song, make the chorus very memorable.
- Make your highest notes happen in the chorus. In “Like a Rolling Stone”, the build of the verse dwells on the note C, with the final note of the verse sitting on a D. The chorus, particularly the start of it, focuses mainly on the note E. That C-D-E advancement of the melody as the verse moves from the verse to the chorus builds energy in a very attractive way.
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