Beyoncé’s latest hit single, “Break My Soul” (written by Beyoncé, Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, et al) is currently at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Every hit song balances standard fundamentals of songwriting with something unique and innovative. So let’s take a look at three songwriting innovations that set “Break My Soul” apart and make it the hit it’s become.
1. The Static Chord Progression
“Break My Soul” isn’t really a one-chord song, as we get slight touches of the iv-chord in the verses, but they’re fleeting, and because the iv-chord shares most of its notes with the i-chord, the iv-chords fly in and out under the radar. The first time you hear a meaningful chord change in “Break My Soul” we’re actually past the 3-minute mark.
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But of course, “Break My Soul” isn’t the first song that spends most of its time around the tonic chord. “American Woman” (The Guess Who), and “Within You Without You” (George Harrison) are other notable examples.
For a one-chord song to work, you’ve got to think about musical momentum: what makes a one-chord song feel like it’s moving forward? Other than, of course, the rhythmic groove, there’s also a little-noticed feature of the melody…
2. Starting the Melody On the Seventh Note of Your Key
For whatever key you choose, it’s likely that you’re going to start your melody on one of the three notes that represent the first chord. So for a song in G# minor, you’d expect that the common choice for a starting note would be either G#, B or D#.
“Break My Soul” does something a lot less common: starting on the seventh note of the chord: F# over a G#m chord.
There are other songs that do this: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” does the same thing, starting on the note D over an Em chord. So what does that do for a melody? And does it have anything to do with musical momentum and forward energy of a song?
The seventh note sits somewhat precariously over the triad underneath. There’s a strong sense of foundation that comes from a melody that starts on the tonic note: there’s almost no musical “need” for that melody to move anywhere. Starting a melody on the third or the fifth note is a great way to start, because you’ve got the ability to move to any other note, and the song’s sense of momentum is easily manipulated depending on which way the melody moves after that.
But starting on the seventh note? Musically speaking, it’s a bit like standing on the tip of a pin: the melody wants to move. In “Break My Soul”, however, the melodic fragment that comes from that start on the seventh note (“You won’t break my soul…”) keeps repeating to the point where the need to move diminishes as it locks in powerfully to the rhythmic groove. Starting on the seventh note, though, still achieves the main goal: keep people listening to hear what happens next.
3. The Relevance of the Lyric
It may seem strange for me to mention the writing of a lyric that’s relevant to the listeners as being an innovation. Surely we don’t need to emphasize that having lyrics that relate to your audience’s individual experiences is a crucial part of any good song.
But this song speaks to us (and particularly younger audiences) in a more direct way. Most song lyrics are, at least for the generation they’re written in, timeless (that lyric you wrote about the party you went to could have happened at any time, in any generation), but this lyric would not have happened had we not just been through a global pandemic, so it’s not just relevant, it’s personal and points to a time: our time here in 2022.
It’s a lyric that reminds us that the pandemic didn’t just affect us physically — it affected us socially, and changed the way we think and do things.
(Good at night) and we back outside
You said you outside, but you ain’t that outside
Worldwide, hoodie with the mask outside
In case you forgot how we act outside…
And though it uses a difficult circumstance as its backdrop, it’s a hopeful and empowering lyric:
I done found me a new foundation, yeah
Shaking my new salvation
And I’ma build my own foundation, yeah
The success of “Break My Soul” is a reminder that most of the best songs of any generation represent a mixture of solid songwriting principles with a touch of uniqueness that sets them apart from every other song out there.
And if you don’t look for and use those moments of innovation for your own songs, you’re just adding to the background noise.