What exactly is a song anyway? Part 2: Structure

Are there such things as rules when it comes to writing and structuring a song? To what extent do our favourite songs conform to anything approaching a map, blue-print, timeline or formula for the perfect song? And if there are such things as rules when it comes to the art of songwriting, aren’t they just begging to be broken?

As in previous posts, I’ll be drawing on the best selling singles of all time on the Official UK chart for examples and to carry out some unequivocally non peer-reviewed research.

Musical Form and Structure.

All art is possessed of some kind of form. Form can be thought of as all those elements that relate to the design of piece (as distinct from it’s content). In music, the way a piece is structured is integral to its form.

But is structure really worth getting excited about at all? After all, it’s surely not as direct as melody or harmony when it comes to telling the people just how sad, ecstatic or downright funky you feel. Or maybe there’s more to it than first meets the eye.

“[Anyone] involved in the enterprise of interpreting songs should be aware that expressive content such as tension and boredom, calm and impatience, departure and homecoming, order and impudence, chaos, change, surprise, satisfaction, or unease can be both reinforced and undermined by song forms.” (Von Appen, R & Frei-Hauenschild, M, 2015, p2)

Spotting Patterns

Music is actually quite a mathematical means of expression when you dig under its flouncy, poetic surface, and boffins throughout the ages have been at pains to reveal the patterns which underpin it. The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci series for example, have certainly proved useful in understanding some masterpieces of the visual art world, and are sometimes cited as having similar significance to the way a composer structures a piece of music, if only at a subconscious level. Music may well be riddled with Fibonacci sequences and Golden Ratios hiding in plain… earshot, but the very way we digest music (in a linear, start-to-finish kinda way, with our ears and not our eyes) makes it difficult to appreciate these phenomena when (and indeed if) they are there to be found at all. We ought to be too lost in the music to notice that the musical climax at bar 19 divides that particular 32 bar section perfectly according to the Golden Ratio. But maybe that’s the point.

On the other hand, a recent chat I had with a high profile mixing engineer and producer estimated that 80% of today’s pop music would fit within a very rigid structural formula. So, from a commercial point of view, sticking to a well-trodden path may well pay dividends.

The wonderfully cynical Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) were spotting the patterns on our behalf back in 1988, so that we too could write a number one hit.

“Unwrap pop’s layers and what we are left with is the same old plate of meat and two veg that have kept generations of pop pickers well satisfied.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1988)

Even that most anarchic of musical statements, God Save The Queen (the one by the Sex Pistols, the other one’s not really what you’d call anarchic) would not, according to the boys KLF, have been successful if it hadn’t stuck to ‘The Golden Rules’, a blue-print applied to the songwriting process regardless of genre, guaranteed to bring commercial success and thus untold riches.

Sectional Healing

So where do we start? Well, if nothing else we can safely say that songs tend to be divided up into distinct sections, whether they relate mathematically to one another or not, and that those sections tend to get arranged in one of a handful of ways.

“There are a number of formal types that return frequently in the repertory, crossing stylistic and historical boundaries.” (Covach, J, p65)

In Music and Memory, Bob Snyder loosely defines a section as…

“… a relatively self-contained grouping of musical events that is usually larger than a phrase and that requires long-term memory for its comprehension. Sectional units have relatively clear boundaries and may be of many different sizes.” (Snyder, B, 2001)

The bookends of a particular section might be a new melody, new chord sequence, perhaps a subtle (or indeed not so subtle) shift in key-center. In his book “Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Music”, Allan F. Moore highlights the importance of one further musical element to signify these boundaries, that of texture.

“I had to learn the hard way that it was changes in the detail of texture that proved  really useful… by dismissing texture we run the risk of missing crucial details about the music, and about how it relates to us, since texture is of its nature about relationships… we may find our relationships mapped in the music.” (Moore, A. F, 2016, p76)

Within pop songs, we might think of texture as relating to the ‘density’ of the music, i.e. the number of different layers you can hear at any one time. New sections might feature new instrumental parts, vocal harmonies, a more or less busy drum beat etc.

The technical term for the basic structure of most popular songs is ‘strophic‘. Strophic pieces involve repetition. Sometimes this repetition is solely of the musical bed upon which each lyrical stanza (a grouped set of lines) sits, as in the different verses of a song. At other times, whole-sale repetition of both lyrics and music occurs. This has served perfectly well as the basis (albeit with plenty of room for variation) for a vast majority of popular song throughout its history. Conversely, through-composed pieces feature fresh music for each new stanza, though this is much less common within modern popular music (save from some more progressive pieces, only a handful of which could be said to be truly popular). Generally though, for maximum impact the sections need to be hammered into our long-term memory, through repetition, and as listeners, we can spot something we’ve heard before a musical mile-off.

“Through the associative mechanisms of long-term memory, similar patterns can still be recognized over fairly long time distances with many events intervening.” (Snyder, p203.)

Most of us are probably familiar with the main structural elements of a song, though we might not be entirely au fait with all the technical terms. This is probably just as well, as it turns out that many songwriters aren’t too clear on them either, and actually, the terms can be a bit… well… ‘woolly’ and change over time.

“Common terms like chorus, verse or bridge are subject to historical transformations.” (Von Appen, R & Frei-Hauenschild, M, 2015, p4)

Analysts of pop music occasionally borrow the far less ambiguous ‘A, B, A, B, C’ approach to labelling sections, more common to classical music. Fair dos. Its much simpler. Some academics have tried to coin new phrases more suited to pop music, like ‘transitional bridge’ and ‘primary bridge’, but they haven’t really caught on. “Take it to the transitional bridge” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Added to that, one person’s break is very much another’s bridge, with the less said about the pre-chorus the better. So, until someone comes up with anything better which actually sticks, the following list of labels is the best we’ve got.

Let me introduce you now to the many and varied sections you’re likely to encounter in a typical song.

Intro – while this is very much as the name suggests, its worth noting the sheer range of approaches to the introduction of a song. From long, drawn out build ups (Money For Nothing) to straight-to-the-chorus conciseness and everything in between. If some songs tease us with a tasty appetiser, then others throw the main course straight at us and smear it in our faces (including The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love and She Loves You). Song writing gurus advise us to keep our intros pretty short, citing the diminishing attention spans of the general public as the driving force behind this shift. Other approaches include co-opting a gentler version of the chorus as an intro, as in none other than Aqua’s Barbie Girl.

Chorus – To continue the food metaphor, if music is a sandwich then the chorus is very much the filling you’ve paid your money for. Heaviest on repetition, both in terms of music and lyrics, the chorus is likely to pop up in a song at least two or three times, and in some cases, many more whether you asked for them or not. Some songs start with a chorus and even more end with one. The chorus is often the most ‘anthemic’ part of the song, the section that is most likely to incorporate the title of the song, and the section that most people will remember, after they’ve forgotten everything else.

“It is the most important element in a hit single because it is the part that most people carry around with them in their head… It’s the part that nags you while day dreaming in the classroom or at work or as you walk down the street.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1998)

Tainted Love and Rather Be for example take only around a minute to get to the chorus.

Verse – along with the chorus, the verses constitute a fair proportion of a song’s total length. Again, there might be two, three or more verses, and musically, they can often be found to repeat in a similar way to the chorus. Lyrically, however, verses rarely repeat as they are intended to move the song’s ‘story’ along, introducing new lyrical ideas as they go. Arrangement-wise, verses can be presented in different ways throughout a song. Verse 1 and 2 might feature a full-band accompaniment, but verse 3 might be a more stripped back affair, an opportunity to turn the lights down low and engage in some deep reflection. Before the chorus kicks in of course.

Sting’s I Hung My Head is a good example of a song in which the verses push the narrative on, while the chorus reinforces the key message… which in this case is “Whoops. I accidentally shot a man.”

Pre-Chorus – a shorter linking section which, as the name suggest, precedes the chorus. Often this incorporates a build in energy toward the chorus, but is not generally considered to be part of the chorus itself. Both Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis feature fairly clear-cut examples of the pre-chorus. “And all the roads we have to walk are winding…” and “Gonna start a revolution from my bed…” respectively. Bryan Adam’s (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, John Legend’s All Of Me, and Robbie Williams’ Angels all feature peachy pre-choruses.

Bridge – the bridge serves the opposite function to the pre-chorus as it creates a link (or indeed a bridge if you will) from the chorus back to the verse. The definition of the bridge is one of the more eggy, with some making little distinction between the bridge and the middle eight, or the pre-chorus. At least my definition gives the poor bridge some individual responsibility.

Instrumental break – this is where the vocalist finally lets someone else have a go at doing the melody, at which point we’re sure to find the guitarist, synth player, saxophonist and flautist all jostling for position. Of course we mustn’t forget that most expressive but often overlooked means of solo performance, whistling.

Middle Eight – a moment of contrast where the music and lyrics take an unexpected turn. So intriguing is the middle eight that I have written an entire post all about it. Please follow this link to find out just how strongly I feel about it.

Breakdown – similar to a middle eight, but less musically involved. As the name suggests, this is often where everything but the drums and vocals stop, while the remaining instrumentalists incite the audience to clap their hands. Good examples of the breakdown include Somebody to Love by Queen and Hey Ya! by Outkast.

Outro – also known as the ‘Coda’. Ending a song has long been considered a task of near impossibility, thus giving rise to the fade-out. Particular favourites of mine when it comes to outros include Elbow’s One Day Like This, which incidentally shares the same chord sequence with another epic outro, Hey Jude which wins the prize for ‘largest proportion of song taken up by its own outro’, though perhaps this is compensation for its lacking a true chorus.

So, that’s the theory at least, and we human beings like our labels for these things. However, if we’re to hold any hope of working out what’s going on as a song unfolds in front of us for the first time, it certainly helps to be able to determine where one section ends and another one starts. This can often begin with the lyrics as a cue, the choruses as we’ve identified usually share repeated lyrics, though as Covach points out…

“Lyrics can be repeated over different chord progressions”  (Covach, J. 2005, p66)

Covach also points to harmony as a giveaway, and indeed distinct sections of a song do often roll along to their own distinct chord progressions which define them, though as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, this alone can’t be relied upon either.

“The same progression can support different lyrics” (Ibid, p66)

As an example, the chords in the verse of Oasis’s anthemic Don’t Look Back In Anger are essentially the same as those of the chorus, with only the pre-chorus changing things up a bit. In this example, it’s the paring down in rhythmic and melodic complexity that signify the chorus. As with many songs, the notes of the vocal melody are by-and-large longer in the chorus than in the verse, and as a result more anthemic.

Getting one’s affairs in order

So, returning to our search for some sort of never-fail rules, how do all these bits get strung together to form a song?

You could for instance follow a fairly standard approach as follows…

Intro | Verse 1 | Pre-Chorus | Chorus | Bridge | Verse 2 | Pre-Chorus | Chorus | Middle Eight or Breakdown | Chorus | Chorus | Outro

… and indeed according to the manual (literally, The Manual by the KLF), this would largely conform to ‘The Golden Rules’ to have a number 1 hit (in 1988 at least). Drummond and Cauty also set out some of the numbers forms.

“Each of these sections will be made up of bars in groupings of multiples of four. So you might have an intro containing four bars, a verse sixteen bars and a chorus eight bars.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1988).

If you’re not chasing that elusive number one single, then this formula can be taken with a dash of sodium, as it would be to overlook a number of other approaches, many of which have nonetheless earned acclaim. Consider for example the sheer directness of thundering in with a chorus (She Loves You, for example), a ballsy move if ever there was one, although some might deem giving all the song’s tricks away in the first 30 seconds something of a gamble. Another approach would be to further repeat the chorus toward the end of the song, just to make sure its been really hammered it into your long term memory. By this point the singer is often to be found playing merry hell with the vocal melody, melisma-ing all over the place. Songwriters of a more subtle persuasion may by contrast look to delay the hedonism by keeping the first chorus half the length of the later choruses, teasing the listener with what’s to come.

Of course, a song may not conform to notions of verses and choruses at all, which, while unorthodox by today’s standards (depending of how hard you look), certainly wouldn’t be out-of-place among a large number of songs from the folk music canon, where the repetition of verses alone is not uncommon (known as AAA formsimple verse form), with or without a recurring refrain at the end, as in Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Masters of War respectively. In fact, of all songs on The Freewheeling’ Bob Dylan album, only A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall could be said to have a chorus to speak of, depending on if you interpret the lyrics below to be a discreet section (i.e. a chorus) or just the refrain tagged to the end of the verse, as in Blowing In The Wind.

“And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, and it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

A favourite example of mine when it comes to verse form is Things The Grandchildren Should Know by the Eels, which sticks to the simplest primary chord progression, building slowly in intensity through changes in texture, but always letting the lyrics really do the talking. Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is a good example of verse form with refrain.

Breaking the Rules

Here’s a task for you. Put on Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys. Now, take a piece of paper and a pen (ask an adult if you’re not sure what these are), and try to map out its structure. Give each section you come across a letter, and write down your final jumble of As, Bs, Cs, using the same letter again when you hear something familiar, Alternatively, you might want to assign them one of the labels we discussed earlier, like ‘verse’, ‘chorus’, ‘bridge’ etc. Whatever you’ve come up with, I’m pretty certain it won’t resemble the typical blueprint outlined above.

Would having it in a more traditional form have made it better? Worse? Any more or any less successful? Would we still be talking about it today if the Wilsons had decided that the slow section had no place in the song after all?

There are plenty more examples of similarly successful structurally skew-whiff songs, and so many permutations, with no single one of them any more ‘correct’ than any other, though you could argue that the underlying premise of a song can be enhanced or devalued by the way its structured.

As Von Appen & Frei-Hauenschild mention…

“… any conscious break with convention challenges us to interpret it.” (Von Appen & Frei-Hauenschild, 2015)

Empty Cans by the Streets (careful kids, this one’s got some swears in it) is the final track on the album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and it plays beautifully with structure to tell two different possible outcomes to the same narrative set up throughout the rest of the album. It’s a sort of musical Sliding Doors, except this one involves a fight with a TV repair man, and rather less in the way of Gwyneth Paltrow. The song begins very much as you’d expect from the Streets, with typical dextrous, dead-pan vocal delivery and humour, but then somewhere in the middle we hear the sound of tape rewinding, and the song effectively begins again, but with a much happier ending, including a lovely piano chord sequence.

So songwriters can and do deliberately mess around with our expectations of structure, in the same way they do with harmony and melody to accentuate tension, unleash surprise etc. If there are any ‘rules’ when it comes to structure, then a great many songwriters have had no qualms in brazenly flouting them over the years to great effect, and we, the music appreciating public thank them for their audacity.


Bruce, D. (2018) “How Composers use Fibonacci Numbers & Golden Ratio | Composing with Fibonacci” – YouTube video available at https://youtu.be/yAyi8e5RDXw

Covach, J. “Form in Rock Music: A Primer,” in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. D. Stein (Oxford University Press, 2005), 65-76.

De Liesle, T “Nana na naaa! How Hey Jude became our favourite Beatles song”. Guardian article, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/21/how-hey-jude-became-our-favourite-beatles-song

Drummond, B & Cauty, J. (1988) The Manual KLF Publications.

Goldmacher, C. (2017) Three Tips for Writing Better Songs. Blog post on https://www.songwriting.net/blog/writingsongintros

Moore, A. F (2016). Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Oxford: Routledge

Service, T. (2016) “Stuck on repeat: why we love repetition in music” – Article, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/29/why-we-love-repetition-in-music-tom-service

Snyder, B. (2001). Music and memory. 1st ed. [Cambridge, Mass.]: CogNet.

Von Appen, R & Frei-Hauenschild, M, (2015) “AABA, Refrain, Chorus, Bridge, Prechorus – Song forms and their historical development” (German Society for Popular Music Studies)

A Little Bit of Theory – Part 1

Let’s start at the very beginning…

To appreciate the art and craft of songwriting to its fullest, it helps to have a grasp of one or two concepts from the field of music theory. I intend the following to bring you the reader to the level of ‘keen bluffer’ if indeed you are not already of such a standard. If you are already a keen bluffer (or perhaps even a ‘nonchalant expert’), I highly recommend doing something far more fruitful with your time than reading the remainder of this section. Go ahead and fruit. If not, or you feel you need a refresher, then read on. It shouldn’t be too painful.

The only prior understanding required for what follows here is a familiarity with the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Te-Do musical scale and how it sounds (you may find yourself singing it later on), and an appreciation of the notes which comprise the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G – there, you’re already more knowledgable than you were when you started).

Intervals, semitones, tones

Much study of music is based on the relative musical distances between different notes. These distances are, entirely unintuitively known as intervals, (and have sadly nothing to do with the interval we all know and love, i.e the one which involves ice-cream.) We might use intervals to investigate how the notes of a successful melody relate to each other as they proceed one after the other (as a series of melodic intervals), or how the notes of a blissful chord are stacked up on top of each other to create harmony (harmonic intervals).

The two smallest and immediately useful intervals to get us started are the semitone and the tone.

The semitone constitutes the smallest musical step it’s possible to take on a piano keyboard or guitar fretboard (I use these examples advisedly as neither instrument easily allows its player to access ‘the notes between the notes’ as other instruments do, the violin for example.) So moving up or down a single fret on a guitar, or a single key on a keyboard (black and white notes included) would be to move by the interval of a semitone. Luckily for me, I need not labour the point too much further as you will most likely be very familiar already with the humble semitone, whether you know it or not. You need listen no further than that most famously pant-wetting pair of musical notes which open the main theme from the film Jaws. Those two alternating notes (E and F), which speed up to a maddening intensity and have become international shorthand for ‘for heaven’s sake, get out of the water now’… are a semitone apart.

If we were to continue the series of semitones on our chosen instrument, we would hit 12 uniquely named notes, known collectively as the chromatic scale, and individually as per the keyboard diagram below.


Here you can see clearly the arrangement of the notes of the musical alphabet across the white notes of the keyboard. As you are of the observant persuasion I’m sure you’ll notice furthermore that the pattern repeats in a strict order. You may even spot that each white note has its own unique position among the familiar pattern of black notes. For example, the note ‘D’ (and there are plenty of them evenly spread up and down the keyboard) is always to be found between the black notes arranged as a pair (rather than between any two of those in the trio of black notes). Beginner pianists will have been taught one of a number of ways to remember the note positions (e.g. “D is in the Dog House”), and from here can go on to work out the positions of the other notes with relative ease. You’ll be pleased to hear that the positions of the notes will be equally true whether you’re sitting at a piano in Durban or Derby.

The # symbol, now far more commonly known as the hashtag, has believe it or not a far longer history in the world of music as the sharp symbol. The other potentially unfamiliar symbol, which looks uncannily like a lower-case B is known as the flat symbol, though when its written properly is a little more flouncy. As you can see, sharp notes (or simply, “sharps”) are always to the right (i.e. up the keyboard, higher in pitch) than the note from which they take their name.

Conversely, flats are always one note to the left (i.e. down the keyboard, lower in pitch) than their namesakes. Therefore each black note on the keyboard has two names. Like Elton John. (Reg Dwight to his friends, plumber, accountant etc)

Hopefully the final thing you’ll have gleaned from your intense study of the musical keyboard is that some white notes do not have corresponding sharps (namely B and E), and similarly others lack corresponding flats (C and F). Deal with it.

Where a note is played without it being sharpened, or flattened, it is said to be natural. Makes sense. What makes perhaps slightly less sense is that sharps and flats are also known as accidentals, presumably as they are constantly making musicians stumble, fall and require medical attention.

Sharp, flat and natural symbols

Oh… and a tone equals two semitones. There… far more straight forward. So, in the pursuit of a note one tone above another, a pianist would play the note two semitones away from the original note, encountering black keys and white keys alike, and a guitarist would move two frets up (i.e. toward the body of the guitar). If you’d like for the sake of completeness to know what one of those sounds like… then imagine in your mind’s ear (a very handy tool to have in these situations) the first two notes of Strangers In The Night… i.e the notes that the two syllables of the word “strangers” sit on. There!


We can arrange specific combinations of these tone and semitone building blocks to create different musical scales, which you can think of as the set of notes around which songs are based, or a note-palette if you will. Scales are often one of the first pieces of music theory that instrumental students get to (or fail to get to) grips with in practice. If we arrange our recently befriended intervals in the following order…

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

…then we get the notes of the major scale (i.e. the familiar Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So – La – Te – Do pattern). Regardless of which note we start on, if we follow that pattern, we will hear the familiar, generally jovially mannered major scale. For example, if you were to begin on the note C at the piano (the root note, or ‘tonic‘ of the scale), then you’d form the C Major Scale by playing…

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

…all the white notes from one C note to the next C note on the keyboard.

You can test the formula out by singing up the scale Do – Re – Mi – Fa and then repeating Mi – Fa – Mi – Fa… now see how long it takes before you start to feel the eerie presence of a certain shark as you alternate between these two notes, a semitone apart. Or you could try singing the first five notes of the scale ‘Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So’ and seeing if any gritty London-based soap operas come to mind. The one you’re hopefully thinking of happens to feature the first five notes of the major scale, in ascending order, right there for you on a musical plate.

To get serious for a moment, it’s important to know that each scale is ‘spelt’ such that it only features each note of the musical alphabet once, (not counting the repetition of the root-note which really just satisfies our need for things to be nicely rounded off.)

With that in mind, let’s try another example, this time beginning on the note G. The resultant major scale (G Major, of course) would look as follows…

G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G

A piano player here would need to play the black note one semitone higher than the F note to maintain the correct tone / semitone formula for the major scale. Likewise, a guitarist would have to play one fret higher in order to sharpen the F note. Either way, we have added one accidental, in this case a sharp to find ourselves firmly playing the G Major scale.

Some scales require notes in the sequence to be flattened rather than sharpened, to sound correct and to maintain the correct scale spelling. F Major for instance can only be expressed as follows… F G A Bb C D E F. No scale yet known to man features both sharps and flats. The thought!

The formula for the more melancholic minor scale (using exactly the same building blocks, just in a different order), is as follows…

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone

I will offer two examples here which have relevance to the C Major Scale. The first, C Minor as the name suggests, begins on the same note, and in fact features some of the same notes elsewhere in the scale too, but as we’ll later discover has one particularly significant alteration. The notes of this scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Certainly as far as keyboard players are concerned, this is a trickier scale to master as it involves those pesky accidentals too. These two scales are said to be parallel in nature (i.e. C Minor is the parallel minor of C Major). By far the easiest minor scale for the keyboard player is the A Minor scale, as it too features only the white notes of the keyboard, but starting with A, rather than C, i.e.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The scale of A Minor is therefore said to be the relative minor of C Major, and vice-versa.

While popular songs and classical music are obviously very different in many respects, pop songs tend to be written from one of the two starting points above (major or minor), in the same way that classical music often does. There are other flavours of scale (called modes) which are formed using different combinations of tones and semi-tones. Each one adds some kind of nuance to a major or minor base, like putting mustard in your ham sandwich.

Each degree of the scale has a specific name, not all of which are particularly intuitive. For the record, they are follows.

1 – Tonic

2 – Supertonic

3 – Mediant

4 – Subdominant

5 – Dominant

6 – Submediant

7 – Leading note

The most important ones for our purposes are the tonic (also often called the root, or “home” of the scale) and the dominant which is the note of the 5th degree of the scale, and is the “away” to the “home” of the tonic, as we’ll see later.

Key signatures

Good, now that’s out of the way, let’s press on. The key signature of a piece of music is an expression of the musical scale around which the music is based and therefore tells the performer(s) which notes he/she/they will more than likely be needing, I.e. which scale they will play (major, minor) and which note will be used as the root of this scale.

When music is written down formally, the key signature is written at the beginning of the piece or section. When pop musicians get together and jam, they have to agree on which key signature they will use as a starting point, giving them one less thing to argue about later on when they’re famous. “Let’s play something slow in G Major” for instance. In either case, the musicians will know that they’d best avoid playing an F natural, or they may find themselves quickly back in their old job.

When musicians begin learning an instrument, particularly keyboard instruments, they tend to begin playing in ‘easy keys’ for their instrument. The key of C Major for instance is a favourite among teachers of beginner keyboard and piano players as it involves no sharps or flats i.e. the white notes, C, D, E, F, G, A and B (whereafter the pattern repeats an octave higher).

More intervals

Let’s return to our discussion of intervals now. Both semitones and tones are known as steps, and a melody which moves up or down by either one is known as step-wise .The largest interval we’ve discussed so far is the tone, but often, particularly when discussing harmony, we’ll need to refer to intervals larger than a tone, drawing on what we know about scales and key signatures.

If we lay out a musical scale in front of us, then each note has a different distance (or interval) to the root note (the note after which the scale is named. For example, in the key of C Major, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 2 (i.e. Do – Re, or C – D) is known as a 2nd. The interval between scale degrees 1 and 5 (i.e. Do – So, or C – G) is known as a 5th and so on. Oddly, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 8 is known as a octave. (You can kind of see why… octopus, octagon etc, but still…)

Depending on the exact relationship between the note and it’s reference point, the interval will take on one of three main qualities (perfect, major or minor), and more rarely one of these (augmented, diminished). Within the major scale, the rules are that the 4th and 5th (C – F and C – G) intervals from the root note (C), are perfect. They sound pure and unemotional, whereas the 3rd interval (C – E) has a major quality (4 semitones to be precise), which is largely why the scale sounds its jolly self. The 2nd, 6th and 7th intervals are of a similarly major quality, though these have less of a bearing of the overall emotional feel of the scale. Conversely in a minor scale, while the 4th and 5th intervals remain perfect, the 3rd interval is a minor interval (C – Eb, 3 semitones), and its this which to a large extent makes the minor scale sound the way it does.

The Circle of Fifths

So where is all this leading? If only there was some neat way to represent all of this complex information about different key signatures in a clear(ish) and concise way. Well, look no further than the natty little graphic below, the circle of fifths. Named partly on account on it fitting almost uncannily into a circle (and a clock-face at that), and also due to the fact that each key signature around the circle is a perfect 5th interval from its nearest neighbour.

Circle of Fifths Image.001As you can see from the diagram, C Major (and it’s musical brethren A minor) are at the top of the circle and require the use of no sharps (#) or flats (b). Hence if you were to play the following series of adjacent white notes C D E F G A B C, on a musical keyboard (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll hear the C Major scale. You’ll then feel the irresistible compulsion to start singing a song about a female deer, and drops of golden sun. Trust me, you will.

As you go round the circle in a clockwise direction from C Major at the top, you’ll see that more and more sharps are added to each key signature. So the key of E Major for instance has 4 sharps, and it’s scale would be played thus… E F# G# A B C# D# E. Go and find a piano this instant and try it out. Again, your mind will be flooded with images of deer and raindrops and names that you call yourself and this is because the notes follow the same pattern of tones and semitones as all the other major scales, as we discussed earlier. Exactly which notes need to be sharpened is shown on the circle, determined by a pattern for which a range of bawdy acronyms have been devised involving Father Christmas and exploding electric blankets.

All kinds of interesting things can be gleaned from representing the different key signatures like this. For example, if we look at a particular key signature, then those which are scattered nearby (i.e. the relative major / minor, and those of the adjacent keys either side) form a nice little palette of chords which can be used to create harmony for a song. If we look at the key of C Major, we can see that A Minor, G Major, E Minor, F Major and D Minor are all within reach, and as such could all play their part in a song’s chord sequence.

The circle also neatly sets out the extent to which different keys are related. We already know that the keys of C Major and A Minor share all their notes (as they are relative keys). The Keys of C Major and G Major have all but one note in common as they are directly adjacent (i.e. 12 o’clock and 1o’clock respectively). This could give the songwriter clues about which keys could work together in different sections of a song. The further away you jump around the circle for your new section, the more drastic (and potentially awkward) it is likely to sound. For similar reasons, a very close variation of the circle of fifths is used by many DJs to help them make decisions when blending songs in a musical way, avoiding musical clashes.


Of course, its not all about melody, wholesome though they may be. We all need somebody to lean on, and in the case of music, melody more often than not needs something to underpin it, have its back, when the going gets tough etc etc. Enter the chord. Chords are combinations of notes played simultaneously. Chords are often comprised of three notes (and are known as triads if this is the case). There are a few different flavours of triad chord, each of which has its own specific feel. The two most common are major and minor chords. Both chords feature a root note, which is the note the chord is named after, and a fifth which is appropriately a perfect 5th interval above the root. The other note sits somewhere in between and is known as the third. As you may have ascertained, it is this note which gives our chord its specific flavour.

Major chords are built from an interval of four semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of three semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Major chord would comprise the notes C E and G, in ascending order of pitch. If you refer back to the piano diagram above you’ll notice that these notes are each separated from the next by one intervening note (D and F).

Conversely, minor chords are built from an interval of three semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of four semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Minor chord would comprise the notes C, Eb and G. You’ll note that the root note and the fifth are the same in these chords, with the third changing only by one semitone, but creating drastically different emotional whack.

Two other common triads are the diminished triad (three semitones and another three semitones), and the augmented triad (four semitones and another four semitones). These triads are lesson common in popular music, though can be used to different shades of tension and release if deployed sensibly.

Triads can be tweaked, inverted, manipulated and generally man-handled to create all kinds of different effects within a song, and different instruments will generate different ‘voicings‘ of these chords by virtue of the way the instrument is generally played. As an example, most triads played on a guitar (having 6 strings) will include some notes of the chord more than once, potentially in different octaves.

Harmonising scales

Just as the key signature tells us which notes to choose from to create a melody, it also tells us which to use for our chords too. By building chords on each note (or degree) of the major scale, we create a palette of chords which can be guaranteed to work well musically in a sequence (commonly known as a chord progression) in the chosen key. Below are the chords which comprise the harmonised C Major scale.

C Major – D Minor – E Minor – F Major – G Major – A Minor – B Dim

By virtue of the arrangement of tones and semitones (with which we are of course now eminently familiar), three of the chords created are major chords, three are minor, and one (there’s always one) is diminished.

Just like the “formula” of tones and semitones to create a major scale, this pattern also holds true of all major keys. With that in mind, we could (and indeed shall) write out the harmonised major scale using roman numerals to replace the specific root notes above, a bit like replacing specific numbers with letters (like x, y and z) in algebra, but the other way around.

I Major – ii Minor – iii Minor – IV Major – V Major – vi Minor – vii Dim

Again, as you are no doubt incredibly observant, you will notice that the major chords have capitalised numerals, while the minor and diminished chords have lower case numerals. The three major chords are also known as the primary chords of the key, and these can be easily related to the primary colours of visual art, as they constitute the simplest and boldest choices when devising a chord progression. The relationship between the V chord (aka. the dominant chord) and the I chord (aka. the tonic chord) forms the basis of much popular and classical music, more blatantly in some cases than others, and derives its power from the tension which is created by the V chord as it desperately seeks to be resolved by the I chord.

As you might expect, the minor scale can also be harmonised in the same way, though you may not have expected that there are in fact different types of minor scale, just to add a little spice to things. Since we’re dealing with the process of harmonisation, it makes sense to use what’s known as the harmonic minor scale to generate our chords.

i Minor – ii Dim – III Augmented – iv Minor – V Major – VI Major – vii Dim

The other main types of minor scale are the melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale, but the main advantage of the harmonic minor scale is the major chord on the 5th (or Vth?) degree of the scale, as this generates a very strong sense of momentum back to the tonic (i) chord.

Songs that get me every time

This blog is so named as an acknowledgement of that special power that some songs possess, to give us an intense emotional jolt. Songs at their best are revelatory, in all sorts of ways. They make us laugh, cry (or both), present us with truths we never even knew we didn’t know, shocking, inspiring or merely entertaining us, but always revealing to us something no matter how small, about ourselves.

I thought I would take stock of some songs that definitely get me every time, or at least did at one one time, get me every time… for a time.

White Wine In The Sun – Tim Minchin

I don’t tend to go in for overtly ‘funny’ music. Tim Minchin however expertly mixes music and comedy, and his writing is so expertly crafted that I can’t help making an exception.

Being from Australia, Minchin’s song is if nothing else, a good reminder that not everywhere is a snow-covered winter wonderland at Christmas (as if Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ hadn’t made it clear enough).

Beyond that though, its possessed of a lovely conversational tone.

“I really like Christmas, its sentimental I know, but I just really like it.”

…and it certainly chimes (pun 100% intended) with my own feelings about Christmas. There is a neat juxtaposition between cynicism in the verses,

“and yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion…”

and the choruses which acknowledge Christmas as a time for family.

“I’ll be seeing my Dad, my brothers and sisters my Gran and my Mum, they’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.”

But its the bridge and what happens afterwards which is the real sucker-punch for me, where the lyrics shift focus from Minchin himself, to his daughter Violet.

“And you, my baby girl, my jet-lagged infant daughter… when you’re twenty-one or thirty-one, and Christmas comes around, and you find yourself nine thousand miles from home. You’ll know what ever comes, your brothers and sisters and me and your mum will be waiting for you in the sun.”

The music knowingly brings out the emotive big guns which give these lyrics a little extra push (as if that were needed).

I could go on, but I’d rather you just give it a listen yourself and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. It may do nothing for you, but at least we can say we tried. So, rather than labour the point, I’ll leave you with a list of other notable emotion-jerkers (in my humble opinion) on various subjects including time, friendship, war, love and murdering superstars. Some are fairly obvious in their mode of emotional manipulation, others perhaps not, but all for me represent something special in terms of lyrical and musical writing that has at one point or another, reduced me to little more than a blubbing fool.

The Right Moment – Gerry Rafferty

One Minute – Judie Tzuke

Friends of Ours – Elbow

Harry Patch (In Memory Of) – Radiohead

1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson

If The World Ends – Guillemots

Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel

Lover You Should’ve Come Over – Jeff Buckley

Laura – Bat For Lashes


There… I’m sure there are plenty more, and I’m sure I’ll write more about such things as this blogs continues. All the songs mentioned above can be found here.


True, E (2014) “White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin – a Christmas song for the non-believers.” Online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/23/white-wine-in-the-sun-by-tim-minchin-a-christmas-song-for-the-non-believers

“Moments Passed” UKSC 2018 Finalist!


Earlier this year I entered four songs into the UKSC 2018 songwriting competition and I’m pleased to announce that one of them, ‘Moments Passed’ was a finalist in the Adult Contemporary category, scoring 9 out of 10, a score which apparently only one or two percent of the entrants into a particular category are awarded.   

So, I thought I would share some thoughts on the writing of this song. Here’s the demo I submitted.

I’m sure I’m not the first person, (particularly one of a mid-to-late-thirties vintage) to write a song about getting older, and though I often brush off thoughts around the ageing process, it can’t help but rear its little head on occasion. The lyrics perhaps exaggerate my own take on things a little, and its often interesting to write from a more extreme (or indeed totally opposing) point of view from one’s own. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The song was conceived at the piano, with the chord sequence and melody materialising first.

Without wishing to sound too much like a music teacher (difficult, I am one after all) the song has a compound meter (i.e. beats with three sub-divisions, “1 – and – a – 2 – and – a – ” etc.) I don’t write too much in this meter, although when I do I often find lyrics are easier to sit over this meter than simple meter (where the best divides into equal halves). I have on occasion written lyrics with a compound meter in mind, only to squeeze them into 4 / 4 at a later stage.

Lyrically, each verse comprises a snapshot of life at a particular age. The first verse sums up the sense of foreverness felt by a young person, with seemingly limitless time to idly dream about the future.

Verse 1

We could easily sit here all evening, thinking up things to believe in, just to watch them dissolve.

We just might have laid there all night, just talking until it was light then forget everything that we’d said.

The second verse is written from the point of view of the same character a number of years on, looking back with a mixture of regret and fondness.

Verse 2

I could easy think of a million details that I would do different, if I could have my time again.

But I’d still raise my glass to those days with time on our hands just to chase our tails as the seasons rolled on.

The choruses continue the rueful retrospection. The second chorus is twice the length of the first (a favourite technique of mine), the second half adding further weight to the cautionary tale.

Chorus 2

I still can’t believe I just didn’t see, the things that I’d longed for were already passing by me.

I wouldn’t be told, as I watched it unfold, the sunlight would fade out so soon as the evening took hold.

Evening takes hold.

There then comes an instrumental break across both the verse and chorus progressions. The final verse acts as short coda to the track with a sparser arrangement, the lyrics are again from the point of that same character, now much older, thinking about the people they’ve known over the years.

Verse 3

I should call all of those people, that I not so long ago needed, before its too late in the day.

Musically, the song is fairly simple. The chord progression is an example of me trying to push my chordal writing into more interesting territory. Here is a basic representation of the chords, created using the excellent iReal Pro.

Moments Passed Chords

For the modally inclined, the verses have a largely Dorian feel (i.e. the natural minor key of C Minor but with an sharpened 6th (A natural) to put the modal cat among the… tonality pigeons). The final chord in each verse line is the parallel major of the first (i.e. C Major and C Minor), which I hope sounds just nicely unexpected, preceding a sombre dip in the 3rd of the chord from major back to minor as the line begins its second repetition. When the chorus does come round, rather than dip again, the progression continues to lift (harmonically, if not so much lyrically) as it moves up a semitone from C Major to Db Major and through via Eb6 up to F Major. I’ve pondered in retrospect how these chords might be analysed from a functional harmony perspective. Even as their writer I feel there are a few different ways to make sense of them. If anyone fancies engaging in some analysis on my behalf, do feel free! Either way, as is often the case, I can’t 100% recall how I happened upon this particular progression. Most likely it came from me ‘noodling’ at the piano until something that sounded nice occurred (which probably sums a larger proportion of what constitutes songwriting than many songwriters would care to reveal).

Sonically, for the demo I was trying to get somewhere near Beck (Morning), Damien Rice perhaps, and I’m sure there are plenty of other influences in there that I’m less consciously aware of.

The song is destined to appear on the next full length release by Divisions where many of my songs end up.

What exactly is a song anyway? Part 1: Duration

[All the songs mentioned below can be listened to here]

Much debate (often in the pub, and not always of a particularly academic standard) has been had in the name of trying to answer the age-old question of just how long a song ought to be. Three and half minutes is a figure often touted, and by this metric alone (and many others you may argue), Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time has got it well and truly nailed. Well, that may be the case, but I suspect its more complicated than that.

A word on technology

In fact, song length in the early days of recorded pop music had as much to do with technology as it did any lofty artistic intentions. Seven-inch, 45 rpm vinyl singles could be considered the earliest widely available format at a price consumers could afford, and were breaking into the market at a time when teenagers were starting to find themselves with money in their pockets, and a new found freedom to squander listening to pop music. These records were the fuelling formats of the jukebox, and radio. (Winterson, 2003. p108).

“In November ’52 EMI launched the first 45s, and pop’s truest format – the firewood for future youth clubs, mobile discos and furtive fumbles at teenage parties – was born… the three- or four-minute playing time was much better suited to pop [than classical music].”  (Stanley, 2013)

Since those days, during which the medium itself imposed its own restrictions on the maximum feasible length of a song (leaving songwriters little choice but to comply if they wished their work to reach a wider audience), many new formats have come along, with varying degrees of longevity. Rapid advances in technology saw formats adapt and evolve to suit the song as it evolved away from the three-minute pop nuggets of the 50s and 60s to the sprawling rock epics of the 70s. In a Vox magazine article entitled A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why, Kelsey McKinney analyses a body of data on song duration over the years, writing that…

“…the length of songs had its biggest jump, according to this data, between the ’60s and ’80s,” (McKinney, 2014)

However, technology’s impact has been muted in more recent years and the continued, massive changes in the way we consume our songs don’t appear to have had a particularly profound effect on prevailing duration, even now the constraints of physical media have been removed altogether. While it would be fair to say that in general songs have been getting longer, as McKinney points out…

“The average song length is still — even as the industry has evolved almost entirely to digital media — under five minutes.” (McKinney, 2014)

One constant, in the face of all this development has of course been radio, and in particular commercial radio, where longer songs mean that commercials (its raison d’être) are less frequent, making selling things that little bit more difficult. So important was it in the early days for a song to be suitably lean, that it could expect be cut short using that most imaginative of editing techniques, the fade-out.

To meet the demands of radio, or the limited runtime of one side of a vinyl single, they had to make the record fade out early. (Weir, 2014)

In fact, it turns out there lots more to the fade-out than might first meet the… ear. Check out the rest of Weir’s slate article here. Its brilliant.

Short Songs

I recently took it upon myself to engage in some (again, not incredibly scientific) investigation, into the lengths of some of the most popular songs of our time, and as a result of my amateur sleuthing, I can reveal that of the all time top 100 best-selling UK singles, no less than 13 come in at under three minutes. Furthermore, corroborating our discussion above regarding formats, of these 13, all but three date from 1965 or earlier (including five by The Beatles alone.) The three anomalies are the uncommonly brief Tainted Love by Soft Cell (1981), the epically concise You’re The One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (1978) and the temporally bijou Wannabe by The Spice Girls (1996), unlikely trio I’m sure you’ll agree.

On the subject, my particular favourite particularly short song (sadly missing from the top 100 list) is College by Animal Collective. After a pre-amble of some vocal and sonic befuddlement, it delivers a clear, and somehow liberating message which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself, just once, and then its all over. I suppose it could be argued that such a song, whose ideas don’t breathe and develop in the expected way is rather literally selling itself short. However, I will go out on a limb here and say that its brevity (53 seconds) plays a major part in its impact. Just as the more obvious musical elements (melody, harmony etc) are deployed to convey meaning in a song, so too I would argue can sheer duration. Much like a short-story when compared to a novel, when a message is simple, it doesn’t need hammering home using a thousand metaphors when eight words will do.

In skilful hands, short songs can pack a beautifully succinct punch, stripping away the fat of an already fairly streamlined form to even barer bones. As fellow blogger Gary Ewer puts it in his post entitled ‘Can Songs Be Too Short?’

Brevity in songwriting is often a blessing. The more succinctly you can communicate something through music, the more powerful the effect it will have on a listener. (Ewer, 2017)

Long Songs

At the other end of the scale, the longest song on the top 100 list is the original 1983 release of Blue Monday by New Order. At over seven minutes, the song was released on 12-inch vinyl single, a format adopted heavily in the dance music genre for its increased playing time. The 1988 re-release of the song was a more modest four minutes or thereabouts.

Other songs at this end of the scale, all edging six minutes plus in their fullest form, include Earth Song by Michael Jackson, Never Ever by All Saints (no, I hadn’t expected that either), and Get Lucky by Daft Punk, though as we’d expect, shorter edits of all three were made for radio-play.

Moving outside the top 100 for a moment, let’s take a look at couple of nonetheless incredibly successful examples, this time from the Led Zeppelin catalogue. Both Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir last 8 minutes, give or take a few seconds, both over twice the length of most “standard” pop songs. Daniel Rachel, in his amazing compendium of songwriting conversations, Isle of Noises explains…

“[Jimmy] Page’s designs would run to unorthodox lengths and were constructed in movements more usual in classical composition than pop music.” (Rachel, 2013, p153).

Jimmy Page himself in the same book recalls the band’s preference for slowly developing musical ideas as a track unfolds…

“I had very much the view that music could set the scene… ” (Ibid, p177)

and recounts how they were not driven by the desire to write songs of radio-friendly duration.

“… we weren’t actually writing music that was designed to go on the AM stations in the States at the time. You had FM, they were called the underground stations, and they would be playing whole sides of albums.” (Ibid, p178)

Finally on the long-song front, if you’ve got some time on your hands, I recommend giving Mother by Goldie a go. It takes a simple musical (arguably song-like) idea, and stretches it across a much longer time-frame. The track develops at such a pace as to feel almost static, and at 1 hour, 11 minutes and 53 second (yep, seriously!) you really have to mean business, but in the right frame of mind and with nothing in the diary, its a rewarding listen.  There are shorter versions, though oddly, this one is labelled the ‘radio edit’ on Spotify! Admittedly, this piece (see… I’m struggling to use the word song), probably pushes the boundaries of what most would consider to be a song in anything like the traditional sense, as would a number of other efforts in this, and related genres where anticipation and transcendence are valued above immediate impact.

Memory and perception

As Terry Pratchett put it…

The important thing is not how long your life is, but how long it seems. (Pratchett, 1992, p6)

So let’s turn now to the perception of time itself (blimey, that escalated quickly). I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that my favourite pieces of music are over too quickly, and that my least favourites go on way too long. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd for instance is around 13 minutes, yet to my ears the song and others like it seem to invoke some kind of time-warp whereby time passes by as if I were listening to just another three-minute romper, whereas in fact, even by the three minute point, the drummer’s not even taken his coat off. While the time for me feels like it flies, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will be looking for excuses to leave and get on with their lives even before the first chord change, and of course the old adage “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself” definitely holds just as true for music as it does for everything else. I fear though that there’s more to it than just how much we enjoy a song.

We are all no doubt aware of the somewhat elastic nature of our perception of time. I know that my own perception both on short and long term time-frames can be influenced such things as my mood, the amount of coffee (or beer) I’ve imbibed, my levels of alertness, stress, hunger etc, but it seems there something about the music itself which influences how we perceive it. Everyone’s favourite nihilist progressive rock extravaganza, Bohemian Rhapsody lasts 5 minutes 54 seconds, which is admittedly not short for a contender for “most successful song of all time” by any means, but for reasons I hitherto couldn’t quite fathom, I’d always thought about it as being much longer than it is. In his book on Music and Memory (called… wait for it… Music and Memory), Bob Snyder explains…

“What we perceive in a given amount of time to some extent determines our sense of the length of that time […] A time period filled with novel and unexpected events will be remembered as longer than an identical (in clock time) period filled with redundant or expected events. (Snyder, 2001, p213)

Let’s be honest, Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing if not “a time period filled with novel and unexpected events”. It has very much a through-composed structure, in that it features very little repetition, certainly much less than many a modern song, and lurches from one musical style, key and dynamic to the next with little warning. So, it turns out that I am remembering it as longer than it actually is as I was forced to process more incoming information than a more straight-forward song (including a good few Bis-mi-la’s and Scaramouches). Equally, I might recall a less musically involved song, (even of the same duration) as being shorter, as I don’t have to think about it quite as much.

A musical passage filled with repetitive events can seem, in retrospect, shorter than one filled with unpredictable events. (Ibid, p214)

As there’s just so much going on, its unlikely you’ll find yourself clock-watching at the time of listening. As Snyder says…

Duration as experienced tends to be the opposite of duration remembered. (Ibid, p214)

So while it might have flown by at the time, you might just feel looking back that you were under its spell longer than you actually were. Other research into memory in Snyder’s book would indicate that the first time we do something (say… go on a particular journey, or hear a song, particularly a complex one) it will feel longer than on subsequent repetitions of that thing. Its all rather fascinating.


Writing a song which feels right in terms of its length is a delicate balance. Good songwriters have always been keenly (if not always consciously) aware that their finely crafted musical ideas need adequate time to reveal and embed themselves in the listener’s consciousness, often through repetition albeit with subtle variation, yet they ought not be too late to the party, or leave too soon before they’ve been properly introduced. At the same time, great musical ideas certainly ought not outstay their welcome (to extend the ‘party’ metaphor), belabouring their point while everyone gets bored and goes home.

There are plenty of songs which do break the conventional pop song mold in terms of duration, and ultimately, as with so much else in life, it transpires that its not so much how long it is, its what you do with it that counts. Three minutes or even less is often all that’s needed to fully express and develop a simple song-worthy concept, if those minutes are put to good use with not a second wasted (a three minute song only has 180 of them after all). Conversely, “going long” can totally work if the content is worthy of the container it is looking to fill. As is the case with many forms of expression, some ideas are just too profound, some stories too twisty-turny to be curtailed.

Just for good measure, elsewhere in the same top 100 list I used to inform much of the above, you’ll find no less than eight Christmas songs, eight double A sides (if you’re not sure what these are, ask an old person), two versions of Mary’s Boy Child, two entries by Engelbert Humperdinck (again, ask an adult), one by Ken Dodd, one Ghostbusters Theme and a Gangnam Style. The UK music buying public’s taste it seems, is nothing if not eclectic.


Ewer, G. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting (Blog) – Online at https://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/

Longdon, V (2018) Why are pop songs 3 minutes long? – Classic FM article. Online at https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/why-are-pop-songs-3-minutes/

McKinney, K (2014). A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why. Vox Magazine. Online at https://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6003271/why-are-songs-3-minutes-long

Mugan, C (2006) The 12-inch single: When size really matters. Independent article. Online at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/the-12-inch-single-when-size-really-matters-6096741.html

Myers, J (2018) The best-selling singles of all time on the Official UK Chart. Online at http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/the-best-selling-singles-of-all-time-on-the-official-uk-chart__21298/

Pratchett, T (1992) Truckers. London: Ladybird

Rachel, D (2013) Isle of Noises London: Picador

Snyder, B (2001) Music and Memory, An Introduction MA: MIT Press

Stanley, B (2009) You spin me right round – Online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/mar/27/45rpm-vinyl-singles

Stanley, B (2013). Yeah Yeah Yeah. The Story of Modern Pop. London: Bloomsbury

Sturges, F (2010). Pop songs: does size matter? Independent Article. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/pop-songs-does-size-matter-2036779.html 

Van Buskirk, E. (2008) Is 2:42 the perfect song length – Wired magazine article. Online at https://www.wired.com/2008/04/is-242-the-perf/

Weir, W (2014) A Little Bit Softer Now, A Little Bit Softer Now. Slate.com article. Online at https://slate.com/culture/2014/09/the-fade-out-in-pop-music-why-dont-modern-pop-songs-end-by-slowly-reducing-in-volume.html

Winterson, J, Nickol, P & Bricheno, T (2003) Pop Music – The Text Book London: Peters Edition


What exactly is a song anyway? Introduction

I’m sure I speak for a great many people when I say I have a deep fascination with, and love for the humble song. From an early age I could be found on a Sunday afternoon creating primitive mixtapes by recording my favourite songs from the top 40 on Radio 1 onto cassette tapes. These were then played pretty much constantly until their untimely, warbly, chewed up demise. As I grew up I learned, mainly by ear, to play some of my favourite songs on the keyboard and later guitar, and would sing along making appropriately impassioned faces as I did so, while no-one was looking. It was here I started to appreciate, almost subliminally how these songs were constructed. I’ve continued to do that ever since, particular as a member of a function band which plays classic cover-band fare. Now I write songs myself, or at least I try to, for various projects. I write for my originals band Divisions which I’m sure I’ll talk about in future posts, but I’ve also written songs for friends (including one as a substitute for a best-man’s speech). I am proud to say that I know at least one of my songs has brought a tear to at least one eye, and a lyric to another has been inscribed indelibly on a friend’s arm (through choice I should add). Maybe one day I’ll write a song that is known the world over, and/or that facilitates my early retirement, but regardless, I believe that songwriting is something that I will always want and need to do, whoever is listening.

But what exactly is it, this song, whose variations and permutations beguile us so? What are the parameters, the rules-of-thumb, the absolute no-nos, the tolerable aberrations, the norms and the extremes of popular song? Is there such thing as the perfect song? Has it already been written? Would we know it if we heard it? And if has, then I demand to know by whom! I hope in this, and forthcoming posts to address at least some of these questions.

To begin, we should probably nail down exactly what a song is, in a legal sense. The song could reasonably be considered the basic unit of the music industry, its ‘bread and butter’ if you will. When all the glamour, groupies, debauchery, cocaine, sponsorship deals, suspended stage-lemons and general ridiculousness of the music business is stripped away, the song is still what sustains the whole shebang, making some people very ‘comfortable’ in the process. A song is actually the coming together of two, potentially quite separate endeavours, namely the creation of a musical work and the writing of lyrics. For a song to legally exist, it has to take some kind of physical (or digital) form, which can become particularly useful when disputes arise (as they do with, it would seem, increasing regularity) to be able to establish the true originator of a song, much to the delight of many an entertainment lawyer.

You can think of a song in its widest sense as a collection of words, set to music. In many cases, this set of words (the lyrics) could be considered to be poetic, (though I’m sure many poets might take exception to that). Beyond that, making further generalisations about songs becomes a rather slippery endeavour. The song is by no means the only artistic statement that combines music and words (there are operas and oratorios, motets and masses, and of course, the Go Compare advert), so let’s dig a little deeper into the song as a particular art form.

I’d like you to think about your favourite songs. Pick maybe three, or five, and consider if you will what they have in common, and how they differ from one to the next. While your selection may be infinitely varied in terms of genre, era, prevailing hairstyle etc, I’ll wager they share a great many attributes in common too. I’m going to hazard a guess that they all last roughly the time it takes to make a cup of tea (including boiling the kettle, and perhaps buttering a fruit scone). While they may be infinitely varied in terms of their overall structure, I’ll guess they entail an amount of repetition both musically and lyrically, and while they may incorporate a wide range of instrumentation from bouzouki to banjo, that instrumentation can be grouped into only a small handful of more universal ‘layers’. Of course you may be delighting in the fact that you’ve chosen an exceptionally short, long, unpredictable, sparse, dense or otherwise unusually constructed song, but I’m sure you’ll agree these represent the extremes of the bell-curve, and not the part from which the bell dangles.

Putting the above rather more succinctly, Cliff Goldmacher, in his blog post on “how not to suck at songwriting” sets out a few longstanding characteristics of the song.

“Most songs are between 2 and 4 minutes, have about a 12 second intro, rhyme, get to the chorus in under a minute, are about love and relationships and have a big repeatable, sing-able chorus.” (Goldmacher, C. http://www.cliffgoldmacher.com/how-not-to-suck-at-songwriting/)

While this (knowingly on the part of the writer, I’m certain) rather over-simplifies matters, I hope in forthcoming posts to expand these ideas a little, to try to get to the bottom of what really makes a song a song.




Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 2

To round off my long weekend down in London, I went to see Neil Tennant in conversation with Michael Bracewell at the new EartH venue in Hackney. The interview can be streamed here. In his introduction, Bracewell earned a cheer for his positing the notion that aside from the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys have written more great pop songs than any other group, which sounds plausible at the very least. Neil was interviewed for around an hour or so, and it was good to hear him speak in some detail about his songs in his usual thoughtful, often humorous manner. He wasn’t afraid to pause to digest a question before delivering an answer.  Questions were also taken from audience members. I would have asked something about middle eights I’m sure, but sadly didn’t get my moment!

While I don’t intend to recount the entire interview here, Bracewell asked two questions inspired by Brian Eno (another musical favourite of mine). The first examined the extent to which pop music is concerned with ‘creating new imaginary worlds, and inviting people to join them’, and it was clear that Tennant sees the Pet Shop Boys as fitting into Eno’s definition comfortably, specifically as a result of their disparate and often unusual influences (including American Hip-Hop and Russian history) which create a unique world to which the listener is invited, and also through the visual imagery that each new incarnation of the Pet Shop Boys incorporates.

The second Eno inspired question was about how the best songs are encapsulated by their title, to the point where the ‘story’ of a song is almost contained there in its title alone. I’m intrigued by this idea, though not sure I can 100% subscribe to it. A pithy title isn’t always borne out by an equally eloquent song, and equally, otherwise good songs can of course have ropey, or at least unhelpful titles. But I like the idea that a solid concept can be boiled down and expressed pretty concisely, in a sentence for example (as is the case with a number of Pet Shop Boys song titles including You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously and the particularly cumbersome This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave).

I was also reminded of the fact that unlike many pop stars of his time, Tennant was into his thirties before he found any kind of fame as a songwriter (there’s hope for me yet!), though he was previously a successful music journalist. It turns out that he’s older than my Mum.

The book itself promises to be a good read, with each of the songs accompanied by an explanation by Tennant himself, along with an introduction by the author. There are plenty of his songs with which I am still fairly unfamiliar, others I feel get far less credit than they deserve (King of Rome, The Theatre, Don Juan and Kings Cross to name but a few). I’m sure I will refer to the book in future posts.

So the weekend as a whole has given me plenty of food for thought about the craft of songwriting, and pop music in particular. I look forward to reporting on lots more long weekends of songwriting.

Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 1

So… my not-so-long awaited weekend of songwriting is upon us. The weather is good, the arrangements are made, and London is its usual bustling, exciting, unfinished self. When will they finish London?

First up, I’ve been taking part in my first ever pop music songwriting workshop.

Having booked up fairly late in the day, taking a chance of an offer from Music-Match (very useful website for music job opportunities), I didn’t have too much time to prepare (which was probably for the best, as I am prone to nerves in group situations, which is perhaps odd for a teacher, but there we are). The workshop took place at Tileyard Education in London, a short walk from King’s Cross. The Tileyard Complex it turns out is a sort of industrial estate of creative organisations of various kinds including some 90+ studios, writing rooms, management companies, publishers etc.  The two-day course was run by Emma Stakes and Penny Foster, both accomplished, published songwriters among much else. The students on the course ranged in age, location, but all were incredibly talented, friendly and passionate about their craft.

Day one was all about introductions, discussing the often brutal business of songwriting and the music industry more widely, a look at some current songwriting briefs (i.e. actual artists looking for actual songs) which made it feel very real indeed. We spent some time listening to songs written by both the workshop leaders and attendees, which was a good eye-opener to the quality of songs and production out there among us mortals.

Being truly woeful at small talk, I found the experience initially daunting, but certainly by the second day, had found it within myself to get immersed come what may. As it turned out, day two presented an incredibly fulfilling opportunity to collaborate on a song as part of an impromptu songwriting team. Having been initially trepidatious about writing in groups, our particular team (myself and three others) turned out to work incredibly productively together, and I hope some future collaborations will follow from here. We managed to write, record and produce to a decent level a verse, pre-chorus, chorus and breakdown of a song with working titles of ‘Bite the Bullet’ and later ‘Stubborn’, along the theme of a relationship on the rocks. After initially attempting to respond to a specific brief discussed the previous day, the track took on perhaps a darker mood than we had intended, but given the tight deadline, we reached a point-of-no-return and thus followed the idea through. Each member of the team made fantastic and vital contributions including lyrical material, melodic and harmonic ideas, and production, and it was incredibly gratifying to feel so instantly comfortable with a group of strangers, and be able to create something with real potential in such a short space of time. We intend to finish this track between us remotely and see where it goes! I am therefore a collaboration convert and I hope to do a lot more of this kind of work going forward.

I have learned a great deal from this songwriting camp. In particular, I am now certain that to demo a song successfully, particularly when working towards a particular brief, the production needs to be top notch, and the vocal must leave no room for doubt in terms of emotional expression.

In relation to the crafting of the song itself, I hadn’t appreciated before this weekend the importance of the concept of ‘top-lining’, i.e. composing a melody and lyrics, as a distinct part of the writing process, and moreover that this is something that is often done by a single, dedicated individual. While obviously a song needs a melody to carry the lyrical content, I’d up until now considered that just another part of the process, more or less equal to the others. Of course, melody is a massively important part of the songwriting process, but perhaps for pop music, melody is just that little bit more important, while harmony takes a back seat.

Its also abundantly clear that a song needs a hook, not just in a melodic sense, but also from a conceptual viewpoint. While this is obviously not songwriting rocket-science, I guess sometimes these things need hammering home, and again, I would argue that within the pop world, this conceptual hook is even more vital.

The weekend has given me just a little more self belief. I hope this is true of all the students on the course. For myself, I pledge simply to write more songs, believe in them, see them through to a high demo standard when I feel they have the ‘legs’ to justify it, and then to attempt to push them towards the places I feel they belong, to give them a life beyond the studio.

This evening, as my long weekend of songwriting comes to a close, I will be going over to Hackney Arts Centre to witness one of my songwriting heroes, Neil Tennant talk about his songwriting, as he releases a book, ‘One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem’.

A long weekend of song-related fun!

Excitingly, I seem to have booked myself up for a veritable long weekend of songwriting goodness.

Firstly, on October 20th and 21st I will be attending The Pop Songwriting Workshop at Tileyard Studios, with Penny Foster and Emma Stakes, offering “a rare and detailed insight into the tools, techniques and best practice of writing commercial pop songs to brief.”

The itinerary for the two-day event looks really interesting, with items such as the building blocks of song, the top-line, writing from the heart, monetising songwriting, key stakeholders in songwriting and writing to a brief. I sincerely hope I won’t be asked to introduce myself and then throw a bean-bag at someone.

Second up, on the Monday (its half term so I get to go wild!), I’ll be going to some other trendy London borough to see (and I guess be part of) an audience with Neil Tennant, one of my all time favourite songwriters, and someone whom I shall no doubt wax lyrical (no pun intended) elsewhere on these pages in quite some nauseating depth. He’s releasing a collection of his lyrics and poetry in good old-fashioned book form.

It just remains for me to evacuate my bank account on travel and accommodation!

The Middle Eight

[All the songs mentioned below can all be found in this Spotify playlist.]

A change is a good as a rest, as they say, and no-one knows this better than the humble songwriter (particularly one jetting off to a secluded log-cabin for a ‘writing retreat’). Introducing change or contrast within a song is one of the most fundamental tools in the songwriter’s creative toolbox, whether it be the gradual development of a melodic line from one phrase to the next, or the subtle deployment of a new chord to accentuate a lyrical idea. There are occasions however when such gentle manipulations as these just don’t cut the proverbial mustard, and a songwriter needs to put on his or her big boy (or girl) pants and give a song a real drama injection.

Enter the bazooka in the songwriter’s arsenal of structural weaponry, deployed when only the starkest of contrasts will do, the rather confusingly titled ‘middle eight’. While the ‘eight’ fairly clearly refers to the number of bars this particular chunk of song takes up (though it isn’t always eight… that would be far too straight-forward), the ‘middle’ presumably refers to the fact that it occurs somewhere between the beginning and the end of the song (as to suggest anything approaching equidistant between the two would be to over-simplify the far more chaotic reality.) 

Lily Allen succinctly recounts, her first encounter with the middle eight:

“[My manager] said its that piddly bit in the middle that’s not the verse and not the chorus but links the two.” (Rachel, D. 2014)

Well quite.

For clarity, I’d like to differentiate the middle eight from other structural linking sections such as a ‘break’, ’break down’ or ‘instrumental break’ by suggesting that the middle eight necessarily introduces new (and specifically harmonic) musical ideas, unique within the song, which are distinct from, and not predictable based on those of the verse, chorus or any other section elsewhere in the song. My definition would preclude therefore a number of songs which have been hitherto identified as featuring middle eights within popular music journalism. Sections which to my mind would not constitute a middle eight would include those characterised by a thinning out of the musical texture (as in Outkast’s Hey Ya!) or a new melodic line over familiar chords (as in Beyonce’s Crazy in Love). A middle eight, and its constituent musical ideas, occurs only once within a song and are not repeated, nor mirrored elsewhere.

Happy? Good. So now we’ve established what isn’t a middle eight, let’s get our hands dirty with some examples of things that definitely are.

Lyrical perspective

While some songwriters rarely veer into such dangerous territory, others just love to lead us down this most particular of musical garden paths. Sting, hugely successful solo artist and front-man of The Police often uses the musical contrast offered by the middle eight as an opportunity for a shift of perspective in the lyrics, and as we’ll see, he’s not the only one to use it as an opportunity to put an alternative twist on the subject matter of the lyric, though he does it with particular panache. As Daniel Rachel observes in his introduction to Sting’s songwriting in his amazing ‘Isle of Noises’ book…

“Middle eights invert and shift the lyrical perspective, whilst the chorus anchors and connects the song’s thematic whole.” (Rachel, D. 2014)

The verses of his country music tinged I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying for example make for, I would argue, a fairly unemotional account of the breakdown of a marriage.

“Seven weeks have passed now, since she left me, and she shows her face to ask me how I am. She says the kids are fine, that they miss me. Maybe I could come and babysit sometime?” (Sting, I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying)

He goes on to tell us that he’s been awarded “joint custody” of the kids and “legal separation”. It’s all very matter of fact. The choruses, while letting us “in” a little on the protagonist’s inner world, continues in similarly somber fashion…

“I’m so happy that I can’t stop crying, I’m so happy, I’m laughing through my tears.”

It’s not until the middle eight however that we start to see some sunshine.

“I took a walk alone last night, I looked up at the stars, to try and find an answer in my life… Something made me smile, something seemed to ease the pain, something ’bout the universe, and how it’s all connected.”

The music too here exhibits a lift, engaging more subtle colours in its chord progression, and propelling the final verse up a semi-tone from its predecessors, to reflect the conciliatory (though certainly not triumphant) tone of the lyrics as the track ends.

“The park is full of Sunday father, and melted ice-cream. We try to do the best within the given time. A kid should be with his mother. Everybody knows that. What can a father do but babysit sometimes.”

Diatonic and borrowed chords

Otis Redding – (Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay. Short though it may be, Otis Redding manages to squeeze a nice little middle eight into this track, released shortly following his death in 1967. The song is in the key of G Major, though the chords of the verse and chorus meander up and down settling on just as many non-diatonic chords (chords which don’t belong in that key along, coloured in red below), as those from the key signature (coloured in green) along the way. The middle eight on the other hand speaks in an altogether simpler harmonic language, largely utilising the three primary chords in the key (G Major, C Major and D Major) which lend it a more direct, urgent tone reflected perfectly in the lyrics. Interestingly, the song features exclusively chords of the major persuasion, which is pretty unusual.

(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Reading
G                      B7

Sitting in the morning sun
C                       A

I'll be sitting when the evening comes

G                       B7

Watching the ships roll in
C                        A

And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah
G                       E

So I'm just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
G            E

Watching the tide roll away
G                          A

Ooo, I'm sitting on the dock of the bay
G             E

Wastin' time

Middle EightG     D    C                                       

Looks like, nothing's gonna change

G    D     C           

Everything still remains the same

G D             C                 G

I can't do what ten people tell me to do

F                   D

So I guess I'll remain the same

Conversely, in their anthem Motorcycle Emptiness, the Manic Street Preachers save their non-diatonic chords for the middle eight, rather than the other way round.  This song is in the key of E Major, and so a quick look at the Circle of Fifths diagram (on this page) shows us that all the chords of the verse and chorus (shown below in green) are in that key, as they are those which surround E Major. The middle eight likewise begins diatonically, but the C Major and D Major chords in the second and fourth lines (shown in red) are not in the key of E Major at all, but are borrowed chords from the parallel minor key of E Minor. They only sound marginally out of place due to the gradually ascending contour of the chord sequence as it progresses (A to B to C to D).

Motorcycle Emptiness - Manic Street Preachers
E         E/D#     C#m       A

Under neon loneliness motorcycle emptiness

E         E/D#     C#m       A 

Under neon loneliness motorcycle emptiness
Middle Eight
A               B                     A               B

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

C               D                     C               D

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

A               B                     A               B

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

C               D                     C               D

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

Let’s look at some another. Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 would be a very different song without its quite unexpected (at least the first time you hear it) jump of a minor 3rd from D Major to F Major and I would argue, not for the better. The jump is only a temporary one however… I guess nothing can last forever, hey Bryan?

As Bryan effortlessly demonstrates, the middle eight is typically characterised by a change in not only the lyrical, but the also the musical landscape.

Bryan Adams - Summer of '69
Pre-ChorusBm               A

Standin' on your mama's porch

D                     G

You told me that you'd wait forever

Bm                A

Oh, and when you held my hand

D                 G

I knew that it was now or never

Bm             A             D

Those were the best days of my life

Oh, yeah

D                      A

Back in the summer of sixty-nine, oh
Middle EightF           Bb                  C

Man, we were killin' time, we were young and restless

We needed to unwind

F        Bb               C

I guess nothin' can last forever, forever.

As amply demonstrated by Summer of ’69 (and as we can see from the above, continuing the use of green and red colours to denote diatonic and non-diatonic chords respectively), a middle eight is often characterised by a shift in musical key.

Sometimes (as is certainly the case here) the new key verily gate-crashes the party without any of the carefully contrived transitioning we might expect from the world of classical music, where the harmony can often be found seamlessly modulating from key to key, with (depending on the composer) effortless grace.

Paul Weller highlights the challenge inherent in middle eights which jump to new keys, in his discussion with Daniel Rachel in Isle of Noises in relation to his song Wings of Speed.

“… you’re in the key of C, but all of a sudden you’re in the key of E-flat, but then you find a way of getting back to [C]” (Rachel, D. 2014)

As you’ll hear if you give the song a listen, Weller indeed finds his way back to C Major most gracefully.

Looking back at Summer of ’69 for a moment, and by referring again to a Circle of Fifths diagram (such as the one found on this page), its possible to see that the keys signatures of D Major (verse / chorus) and F Major (middle eight) are only distantly related (a quarter of the circle apart), which explains why the middle eight sounds musically unfamiliar within the context of the song up until that point. On closer inspection however, we can also see that F Major is actually the relative major key of D Major’s parallel key, D Minor, and this realisation helps us to understand how, despite having come crashing rudely in, the middle eight is able to get up, dust itself down and make a rather more respectable exit. As the final chord of the middle eight, C Major is the dominant (V) chord in the key of F Major, it is able to build musical momentum in such a way that we could be forgiven for thinking that the middle eight might be about to repeat itself, rather though it provides a handy springboard from which to shift everything up a tone (see the section of intervals on this page) from C Major back to our much missed D Major, ready for the next verse. Phew!

Relative keys

While Summer of ’69 deliberately grinds the musical gearbox by switching key signatures altogether, other writers attempt to exploit the possibilities closer to home, at least in a harmonic sense (if not in any other), as we’ll see now.

Ash – Shining Light. This veritable cornucopia of classic songwriting techniques features a no-less classic middle eight. Again, we’re in D Major, but this time rather than an unrelated key, we encounter a transition to the relative minor key of B minor, which shares all of its notes with D Major, but offsets the musical function of each of those notes, so that B Minor becomes our new tonicchord. The bass-line initially stays firmly put, hammering out the B note (known as a pedal note), while the chords go on something of a downward journey painting a subtly different picture with each new chord. It all resolves beautifully to pivot back into the major key with a ii – V – I turnaround, just in time for an epic guitar solo… and why not!

Sting – Englishman In New York. In contrast to Ash’s more melancholic minor meanderings during the middle eight, Sting (partial to a middle eight as well we know) goes in the exact opposite direction. The verses and chorus share a fairly straight-forward three-chord progression which centres around the key of B Minor. The middle eight however jumps to the relative major chord (D Major) and sees out its obligatory eight bars apparently making its way back to its minor base in the manner to which we have become accustomed, only to surprise us with what can only be described as a jazz wig out, closely and unapologetically followed by a break-beat break down, before the song gets back down to business.

Rhythm and Time Changes

Its not just the chord sequence which can vary in the middle eight section (though as I’ve argued, that’s pretty vital). To accentuate the change in mood, there can also be rhythmic changes too. A good example is the fantastic tongue-in-cheek Jesus He Knows Me by Genesis, wherein the drum beat is stretched out to half its original tempo (music-posh for ‘speed’) during the middle eight, choking the otherwise frantic pace of the song.

Taking this concept one step further, the Sugababes twist even more fundamentally the rhythmic component of their track Round Round during its middle eight, moving from it from the commonplace, simple time signature of 4 4 to a compound time signature (6 8 or 12 8) whereby each beat is divided into three sub divisions, a metre more often found in ballads (which Round Round temporarily becomes before it comes to its pounding, electronic senses). There is little to prepare us for the profound change in mood this brings, and the contrast is stark to say the least, to mention nothing of the headache it presents to anyone trying to look cool dancing to it.

Instrumental Middle Eights

So far we’ve dealt exclusively with middle eights which feature lyrics over unique musical material, and when a songwriter is really bringing their A game, the lyrics can beautifully mirror this change in musical character in some way. But often the middle eight serves to provide some temporary respite from the barrage of lyrical truth-bombs being dropped on the listener.  The middle eight in Erasure’s A Little Respect, while an absolute beaut (and an iconic and integral part of the song) is a subtle affair, blink (or whatever the auditory equivalent of blinking might be) and you’ll miss it. The verses and choruses are centred around the key of C Major with one or two non-diatonic chords along the way… nothing too crazy. The descending melody which leads us into the middle 8 (you know… da da da daaaa daaaa daaaa) numbs us slightly to the appearance of the chord of Bb a tone lower than C Major, borrowed from the key of C minor.

Two further examples of middle eights which are purely instrumental in nature are the equally wonderful Dream Brother by Jeff Buckley and No Surprises by Radiohead. In both these cases, the temporary departure of the vocal line, combined with obligatory musical contrast, serve to maximise the impact when the remainder of the songs kick in, albeit in different ways. Where Radiohead use the middle eight as a springboard into the song’s final heart-breaking denouement, Jeff Buckley brings the mood down after the middle eight before a final build.

In researching middle eights, I have found them to be like branches of Costa Coffee, or (more happily) defibrillators… you don’t appreciate how many there are around until you start looking. I will continue to add examples to the Spotify playlist as I happen upon them, and appreciate suggestions. My inkling is that middle eights are less fashionable than they once were, though I’d love to be proved wrong on this.

And finally, the award however for most committed middle eight composition (if such a thing existed… it should!) must go to the Pet Shop Boys for the song Legacy, the epic, if lyrically vague closer to their 2009 album Yes. Not content with our now familiar truck driver’s key change, abrupt shift in musical style and a shift in metre from four to three beats in a bar (“ooom pa pa”), singer Neil Tennant decides to start singing in French. Beat that Bryan!


Rachel, D. Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters. Macmillan, 2014.


Spotify Playlist: “Pete Paphides’ Top 40 Middle 8’s” – Created by corway https://open.spotify.com/user/corway/playlist/701w1084SU1kLdxVIH7cp7?si=UhPFEtV_Tems8eIzCnzUiQ

Spotify Playlist: “Now That’s What I Call A Middle Eight” – Created by Pete Paphides https://open.spotify.com/user/kalavas1/playlist/28Du5523cSOPV0d8qpiNVH?si=jeOTt0yISJeJQa9veHG5Yg 

Article: 8 Magnificent Middle Eights: Horton, M (2012) http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/8-magnificent-middle-eights