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Jack Johnson has a way of making you feel that most songwriters are just trying to hard to get something written. Musical simplicity is the order of the day in most of what Johnson writes, and it works incredibly well. “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say” from his “From Here to Now to You” album uses a very simple verse-chorus format, and as in most of his songs, the bridge winds up sounding almost like a slightly embellished verse.
In yesterday’s blog post I spoke about contrast, and the fact that songs don’t need a lot of it (especially in ballad-style music) for it to work well. It’s worth spending a bit of time looking at this song to see just how subtle the attribute of contrast can be.
Here’s the formal design of “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say”:
You’ll notice that the bridge, which is often the section where the songwriter takes the music in new directions — often moving to a new key and using more altered chords — starts, in this case, by mimicking the song intro. He takes the little instrumental hook that starts the song, embellishes it with an upper vocal line, but doesn’t try to do anything startling or innovative.
Part 2 of the bridge then mimics the construction of the verse, with a modified melody and chord progression. As you’ll read below, the only real difference from what happens earlier in the song relates to the vocal range, which moves slightly higher.
The melody is constructed very much from repeated-note cells, particularly in the verses. Repeated notes, where many words are sung to the same (or almost the same) pitch have a way of enticing the listener to focus on lyrics, and so it’s especially beneficial in songs that feature a strong lyric. The chorus is short, a mainly descending melodic line, almost acting as a kind of refrain that gets tacked on to the end of the verse. The entire song has a gentle ebb and flow of song energy, coming mainly from how the melodies move up from the verse to the chorus, with the highest notes happening in the bridge:
- Verse melodic range: from G down to Eb
- Chorus melodic range: from A down to F
- Bridge melodic range: D down G
As you can see, the upper note of each section keeps moving higher: from G to A to D. There’s not a lot of change from one section to the next, and so the ebb and flow of momentum is subtle, but completely in keeping with the style of the music.
Harmonic rhythm is the musical term for the frequency of chord changes. In the verses of “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say”, the progression is a simple 2-chord oscillation (Eb – Bb), where the harmonic rhythm has the chords changing every 8 beats. This modifies to a change every 2 beats for the chorus (F – Eb – Bb). That speeding up of the harmonic rhythm will go almost unnoticed by most listeners, but can contribute to the subtle build of musical momentum in a chorus. The Bridge Part 2 progression imitates the one found in the verse, but with the insertion of a major chord built on the 2nd degree of the key: Eb – C – Bb. That C chord sounds every bit like a secondary dominant chord (read about those chords here), but moves simply back to Bb. As with most other song elements in this song, simplicity is a vital part of the construction.
SUGGESTIONS FOR SONGWRITERS
“Don’t Believe a Thing I Say” offers several suggestions for songwriters looking to write music that uses simplicity as a key feature. Specifically:
- Try creating an intro that can serve as a connector that leads from the chorus back to the verse, as well as material for a song bridge.
- Try simple chord progressions that stay solidly in the song’s original key. In this case, Johnson never uses a progression longer than 3 chords.
- Try repeated-note melodies that keep within a 3- or 4-note boundary.
- Keep vocal harmonies simple, mainly in the chorus or repeated verses.
- Keep instrumentation transparent and light. Good players should be able to play with enough of a rhythmic sense that any drums or other percussion can be kept to a minimum.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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