You really have to admire the producers of “Hunting Ground,” the 2015 documentary about rape on college campuses, for presenting a difficult topic with such unblinking honesty, courage and power. Just watching the film trailer will change you, assuming you didn’t already know the scope of the problem.
Lady Gaga teamed up with hit songwriter Diane Warren to create “Til It Happens to You,” a feature song from the film. It’s gritty and powerful. The title says it all, and it’s worth the time examining the structure of the song to see how making the right musical choices can grab and audience and power up a message.
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There’s a lot to analyze in a song like this, so let’s focus in on just a few: 1) chord choices; 2) lyrics; 3) melodic structure, and 4) instrumental choices.
As is becoming increasingly common in today’s pop songwriting, the same chord progression is used for both the verse and the chorus:
Am C F C G/B
All chords come from the key of C major, but the A minor chord feels more important to the progression than C, for a couple of reasons. First, the ending of the progression points strongly back to A minor (C G/B). And secondly, even though the C chord happens twice in each iteration of the sequence, that chord is nestled in the middle, in a less prominent place.
In the song’s bridge, where we’d often find songs taking more of a harmonic journey, we find the opposite in this song: a simplification of the progression:
G F G F |G F C G
The musical reason for that choice seems to come from the intensity of the bridge lyric: “Till your world burns and crashes/ Till you’re at the end, the end of your rope..” An intensification of emotion in a lyric often goes hand-in-hand with a move toward tonally strong chords.
In a song about rape, you’re faced with a lyrical problem: Since there is a musical benefit from emotions moving back and forth between low to high several times throughout a song’s length, the danger is that a song like this is going to be “all emotion, all the time.” But Warren and Lady Gaga carefully control that aspect of the lyric, starting with words that limit the emotional release:
You tell me hold your head up
Hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall you gotta get up
You gotta get up and move on
In the pre-chorus, you start to get a higher level of emotional release:
Tell me how the hell could you talk,
How could you talk
Losing till you walk where I walk,
This is no joke
And then higher again in the chorus, where we hear the point of the song:
Till It happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Until it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
They save the most poignant lines for the bridge:
Till your world burns and crashes/ Till you’re at the end, the end of your rope.
It’s all carefully controlled. It would have been tempting, no doubt, to lay it all out for the listener right from the start, beginning with descriptions of pain and misery, but they’re very precise with how emotion is released. It’s crucial in a song like this.
The melodic features that stand out right from the beginning of this song are:
- the number of repeated notes we hear; and
- the low chest-voice placement of much the melody.
Melodies that use lots of repeated notes are ones that tend to affect us on a psychological level, demanding that we listen. When melodies sit on one pitch for 3 or more notes, it tends to sound like an opinion being voiced, and that’s used to great affect here.
We hear that most clearly in the chorus, when the title line “Til it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels” is belted out (still in chest voice), on repeated a E. As I say, it demands that we listen.
Starting this song with a string ensemble was a great way to grab attention and set the mood instantly. Not typically a songwriting issue, instrumentation is an attribute too often overlooked by songwriters trying to rely on the power of their lyric alone.
Why is a string instrument so powerful in songs like this? It’s in the nature of how the sound is produced. A string instrument has a way of mimicking the human voice, in the sense that it doesn’t start percussively, like a guitar, piano, drum, or most other instruments. The bow moves across the string, gradually coaxing a vibration into existence.
It’s the same kind of process with singing: air moves across vocal folds, coaxing a vibration. In that manner (and others), strings and voices can be heart-rending partners.
Lessons For Songwriters
So what can you learn from “Til It Happens to You”?
- Keep chord choices simple when dealing with emotional content. A strong progression allows the emotion of the lyric to come forward in a very effective way.
- Structure emotional lyrics so that the most powerful lyrics happen in the middle. Start observational, and move toward heart-rending. Full-on emotion will kill the effect you’re looking for.
- Make good use of repeated note motifs in the construction of your melodies. Hearing the same pitch several times has a way of powering-up the message of a line.
- Be creative with instrumentation. These days, it’s relatively easy to do that, and your songs will benefit from moving beyond a typical guitars-keyboards-bass-drums set-up.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter