“Somebody That I Used To Know”, like most of the best songs out there, is a study in subtleties.
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There’s really a ton that a songwriter can learn from Gotye’s hit from last year, “Somebody That I Used To Know.” And some of what makes the song so great is subtle enough that you wouldn’t necessarily notice on a first listen. The truly fantastic songs in any genre are like that; you’re so busy enjoying the experience that it’s not until you’ve listened several times that you start to realize why the song is working so well.
Great songs like this are like a 4-minute songwriting clinic. So let’s dissect it a bit and discover the things that set this song apart from others, that make it succeed, and hopefully learn things that you can apply to your own songwriting projects.
- “Unlikely” notes within the melody. There is an odd melodic thing that happens throughout Somebody That I Used To Know.” It’s normal that when melodies leap, they almost always leap to a chord tone. In this song, there are several instances when they leap to a note that doesn’t belong in the chord. This happens, for example, on “Now and then I think of when we were together…”, leaping to a G from a D, during a d minor chord. Similarly, he ends certain phrases on a note below a chord root: “Like resignation to the end, always the end,” ending on a C instead of the expected D. These subtle anomalies help enhance the unsettled nature of the lyric.
- Instrumental transparency. The instrumental accompaniment is perfectly matched to the dark, brooding nature of the lyric. Suitably sparse, it never tries to pull focus from what’s being communicated. The opening (sampled from a Luiz Bonfa tune called “Seville”), not to mention the stark nature of the mix, give it a retro feel that really works well.
- What chord progression? The verse uses two chords, Dm and C. To this, a 3rd chord is added in the chorus: Bb. With such a small chord list, you’d think that Gotye’s idea here is to admit that the chords are not really significant to the success of the song. But in fact, the minimal nature of the chord progressions is a huge contributor to the subtext of the lyric. Here’s how: The addition of the Bb chord in the chorus sets up an interesting harmonic situation. The chord movement Bb to C makes it sound briefly as though we’re moving into the key of F major (i.e., IV-V-I). But we never get an F chord. That Bb-C progression always moves on to D minor. It’s as though he wants to go in a new direction (F major), but can’t let the old key go. Even though he sings, “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know”, the chord progression helps create the impression that he can’t move on.
- Pedal point on C. At the end of the Kimbra’s verse, we get the first disruption of the repetitious D to C bass line: the bass sits on the note C for several bars. In Classical genres, you often get this effect before the return to a symphony’s main theme, a so-called “sitting on the dominant.” It’s supposed to strengthen the dominant function of the chord progression, making the eventual tonic chord feel more desired by the listener. But if this is a true “sitting on the dominant”, the tonic would be F – the chord he never gives us. So we get a similar effect here, that of making the music sound like it wants to move on to something new (the key of F), but never getting there.
- Mindless repetition is anything but mindless. Repetition is a contributor to the success of any song, but in this song it’s crucial. What sounds like mindless repetition, particularly of the vamped 2-chord verse progression, gives the impression of someone unable to let something go. The static nature of the music is perfect.
How much of this is carefully thought out, and how much is simply a songwriter’s intuition and instinct? That may actually be an unimportant question regarding this song. What’s more important is this: these subtleties are the kinds of things we can and should be thinking of as part of the composition process.
And it reminds us that when songs seem to work really well, there’s almost always reasons that you can identify and label. A bit of song analysis can go a long way to helping you create better music, music that makes listeners think.
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