If you’ve been reading my blog at all, you know that even though I love complexity in songwriting, I have a deep appreciation for musical simplicity. There’s something enticing about just letting a simple melody have its way.
A perfect recent example of how a simple song can soar to the top of the charts is “As It Was” by Harry Styles. It’s cheerful, nostalgic and (even with its brisk tempo) relaxing all at the same time.
There’s a sameness in the structure of the music; there’s not a lot of musical contrast. But as the song is only about 2’40” in length, there’s also not a lot of time for contrast to happen.
One of the song components worth studying more closely is the melody. Downward-moving shapes is a key feature of the song. The verse is made up of shorter fragments that move mostly in a descending kind of pattern. Descending melodies tends to magnify feelings of nostalgia and introspection.
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Then once the chorus happens, we hear that the downard shapes continue, but they become longer. While the verse had short 3- or 4-note figures (“Holding me back /Gravity’s holding me back…”, and “In this world/ It’s just us”), etc., the chorus has a long, almost complete descending scale: “You know it’s not the same as it was…”
So that musical choice of constant downward-moving melodic phrases in all sections is a kind of musical glue that helps join everything together.
The Hooky Bit
When there’s so much sameness throughout a song, how do you know that the chorus is going to properly hook an audience? What is it about this chorus that just sounds so catchy? If the verse and chorus sound so similar, what do you do to make sure that the chorus stands up and waves a bigger flag?
The answer lies in the rhythms of the chorus melody. Take a closer listen to the rhythms of the verse melody, and you’ll hear how the triplet plays a crucial role. On the words “Holding me back“, and “Gravity’s holding me back“, you hear the importance of triplets over a very quick and eighth-note-based accompaniment.
In fact, practically every line in the verse displays this contrast of two- and four-part subdivision of the beat in the instruments while the vocal line sings triplets that skip lightly across, refusing to lock in to the rhythms of the accompaniment.
The audience gets hooked, though, right at the start of the chorus, where the triplets are abandoned in favour of a descending scale that exactly lines up with the beat of the song. As is typical in most good pop songs, the verse shows a rhythmic complexity that simplifies in the chorus, locking the audience in to the power of the hook. Everything becomes simple and clear, and this strengthens the hook.
What Songwriters Can Learn From This
If you’ve spent a lot of time editing your own songs in preparation for recording them, I hope you’ve learned that some of the most important and effective editing happens when you remove and limit the number of ideas you have going on in any one song.
Simplicity of design, of melodic structure, and of chord progressions (this song uses a simple 4-chord progression — A D Bm E — that never changes) makes your songs more accessible to more listeners.
And when you’re done writing/editing, take a look at what you’ve done in the verse melody, and compare it to what you’ve done in the chorus. Generally, your verse melody can tolerate more complex rhythms. But the chorus melody needs to simplify in order for it to lock into the power of the chorus hook.
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