Songwriters know (or should know) that songs are the best teachers. When you hear something you love, the artist in you instinctively wants to know why you love it. Through that kind of simple musical curiosity, you begin the next stage in your development as a writer.
Adele’s “Hello” (co-written with songwriter-producer Greg Kurstin) is a powerful ballad that demonstrates an important principle: in music, simplicity almost always trumps complexity. Songwriters can learn a lot from this song, and you don’t have to dig very deep to find important concepts that you can apply to your own music.
So let’s take a closer look at this hit and find its hidden jewels.
The song is a simple verse-chorus design, with a short pre-chorus joining the verse to the chorus. The timings in the chart below refer to the timings you’ll find in the video embedded above. (The song starts at 1:15)
The song is in the key of F minor, and the chords are all diatonic (i.e., they all come from that key, with no “borrowed” chords from other keys). They are also the chords you’ll find in Ab major, and in fact, much of the song represents a kind of musical battle between the two keys of F minor and Ab major.
The verse progression: Fm Ab/Eb Eb Db. The second chord, Ab/Eb, is a chord inversion. Using an inversion here is a great choice. Inverted chords — particularly so-called “second inversion” chords, which put the 5th of the chord in the bass, sounds pleasantly unstable. It sounds as though it wants to move off of that chord and toward a strong, root position chord, which it does.
The feeling of instability that comes from using inversions is a powerful tool in chord progressions. It gives a progression a strong sense of forward motion. From Ab/Eb, the progression moves to Eb. Now the listener isn’t sure if Ab is going to be the next chord, or something else. We get Db as the final chord in that mini-progression. So that little 4-chord phrase (Fm Ab/Eb Eb Db) gives the music a beautiful sense of unease, of wanting to resolve somewhere but not sure where. In a way, it’s a kind of musical ambiguity — a feeling that the key of Ab is every bit as likely as F minor.
The pre-chorus introduces a slightly different progression which, like the verse, makes the key of Ab major as likely as F minor: Fm Eb Cm Db.
With the chorus progression, we finally get to hear which key wins: F minor. (Fm Db Ab Eb). But in a very real sense, this progression also points strongly to Ab major. Though it starts in F minor, and represents a simple turn-around in that key, all chords are ones we’d find in Ab major. This kind of ambiguity is the same kind we hear in Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” It seems that in songs about the sadder side of love, ambiguity between major and relative minor these days is the preferred harmonic formula.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the slower a song, the more likely it will be that the melodies will be expansive, covering a large area of the singer’s vocal range. We do get that in this song, though the verse is quite restricted in range, moving mainly between the notes Ab to middle C, only the range of a 3rd:
As you listen, you’ll notice that the verse is comprised of many approximately-repeating musical motifs. Repetition is a great tool for pulling listeners in, of making a melody memorable and catchy. It’s not adventurous or complex; instead, the verse is pitched very low, allowing for Adele’s trademark soulful sound to shine through.
Pre-chorus melodies often move higher because their main job is to help the connection of the verse to the chorus. In “Hello”, the pre-chorus gives us higher notes, moving up to Eb. It builds vocal energy in preparation for the higher range of the chorus.
The chorus range is wider, but it follows the design idea of the verse: dole the melody out in short, repetitive phrases. It’s an 8-bar phrase in which a climactic moment happens at the beginning of the 2nd half, and then repeated halfway through that phrase:
The formula for good verse and chorus lyrics is so common in hit songs that it’s hard to imagine that songwriters may not know this: good lyrics move from observational, narrative-style in the verse, to more emotional in the chorus.
And you just need to examine some of the key phrases of each section to see this clearly demonstrated in “Hello”:
- “I was wondering…”
- “Can you hear me…”
- “…dreaming about who we used to be…”
- “…when we were younger…”
- “I must have called a thousand times…”
- “…I’m sorry…”
- “At least I can say that I’ve tried…”
- “I’m sorry for breaking your heart…”
- “…tear you apart…”
In a song like this, you’re still going to hear emotion even in the verse. It’s a sad song, and you can’t have a sad verse sounding like you’re narrating your high school chemistry notes. Some emotion really has to come through.
But it’s in the chorus where you want to hear the depths of that emotion. In matters of love and loss you’ll likely hear exaggerations (“I must have called a thousand times…“), and clichés (“tear you apart…”). Done carefully, these are the poetic devices that connect with the audience in powerful ways.
LESSONS FOR SONGWRITERS
What can you learn from “Hello” that you can apply to your own love songs? Here are a few for you to ponder:
- Keep the song design simple. Verse-chorus formats are easy to control, and allow for a pleasantly predictable up-and-down emotional pattern as the song progresses. If your song needs a bit more length, a ballad like this lends itself well to adding a bridge.
- Keep chords simple. The interplay between major and minor is all that’s really needed to partner with the emotional power of a song like this.
- Keep lyrics conversational. Simple, everyday words work best when trying to connect to an audience. You might think that slow songs are good vehicles for poetry, but you’ll more often find that poetry sounds forced and unnatural. Use words that are simple, and the ones you’d use in casual conversation.
- Use repeating elements in your melodic designs. Repetition is a powerful tool for hooking an audience and making a melody singable.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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