Measure for Measure: New & Old

Today, the harmonically subtle, storytelling pop tunes of yore, such as “In My Life” (Lennon & McCartney)—let alone “Moon River” (Henry Mancini)—are out, and frantic, addictive, hook-filled songs with a tight range, such as “Poker Face” (Lady Gaga) or “Bad Guy” (Billie Eilish), are in. But the door is always open to songwriters who can bridge the gap between new and old with timeless aesthetic values. 

Videos by American Songwriter

One such artist is Lucy Dacus, who is profiled in this issue. If you search Hot & Heavy” (Official Lyric Video), you’ll find a synchronized score accompanying the music, which gives us an ideal opportunity to see how she combines the new rules with classic composition techniques to engineer a hit. 

Note: Counting measures on the middle staff is easiest.  

Q&A #1: Measures 1 – 4 (0:00 – 0:14) 

Harmony: C major, the tonic (home-base) chord. 

Melody: Four-tone range, Do-Re-Mi-Fa (C-D-E-F) 

Form: Two-measure phrases in classic Q&A form. Phrase 1, the “Question,” ends inconclusively on “Mi” (“hot in the face”). Phrase 2, the “Answer,” ends conclusively on “Do” (“puls-ing veins”). 

Scale-tone mood: Phrase 1 emphasizes “Mi,” the emotionally sensitive 3rd of the tonic chord.  

Theory booster: Any scale step can be the root of a chord. On top of the root we stack the 3rd and 5th scale steps above. Take C major, spelled C-E-G, for example (C-d-E-f-G1-2-3-4-5). If the 3rd is major (large), the chord is major. If the 3rd is minor (small), the chord is minor. Major chords are “happy;” minor chords are “sad.” The C chord, “Do-Mi-Sol,” is major, which implies warm—if not “hot”—memories in the song. 

Intervals: Scale steps only are used. Scale steps are either a “whole step” (two frets on guitar) or a “half-step” (one fret) apart. The falling half-step, “Mi-Mi-Fa-Mi” on “hot in the face,” sounds like a sigh. 

Your turn. The drone on C kicks in. What next? While we don’t know for sure, we can bet that Lucy had a plan, which might have gone like this: “The mood is sentimental anguish, so I’m feeling like ‘Mi’ should be the focus of my ‘Question’ phrase. My ‘Answer’ phrase will be similar, but will end ‘Mi-Re-Do,’ completing the thought and setting up the next Q&A.” (The classical term for matching “Q&A phrases” is periodA period corresponds to an English sentence). 

Your plan can be as simple as “Bark-bark-[end on any tone except ‘Do’]; Woof-woof-[end on ‘Do’],” but you need some kind of target tone for each phrase to make your melody meaningful. 

Q&A #2: Measures 5 – 8 (0:14 – 0:21) 

Harmony: F major, the IV chord (F is built on the 4th degree of the C major scale). In songwriting, the IV chord is your best friend because it creates a sensation of movement without a lot of tension. The “drama chord” is V, which is G major (or G7) in the key of C. Keep V in reserve—unless you’re writing “La Bamba.” Then let it rip. 

Melody: Note the similarity between “hot blood in my | puls-ing veins” (0:10) and “hot & hea-vy in the | base-ment of your pa-rents’ place” (0:21). The notes are similar, but the harmony adds tension. 

Always look for opportunities to exploit “same-but-different” elements in harmony, melody, and rhythm. 

Q&A #3: Measures 9 – 12 (0:22 – 0:28) 

Harmony: Swings back to C, but notice that the chord has only two notes, C and G (root and 5th). The 3rd (“E”) is missing. 

Melody: Same Q&A pattern. “Mi” dominates measures 9 – 10; “Do” concludes measures 11 – 12. Note the similarity between “on a crowded street” (0:26) and previous “Answer” phrases. 

Intervals: Interval skips debut on “You used to be” and “now you’re”. Skips imply emotion. The larger the skip, the stronger the emotion. These mild skips foreshadow more to come. 

Plan: Measures 9 – 12 repeat the Q&A pattern with slight variations, which add restlessness. “When will she break the pattern?” 

Q&A #4: Measures 13 – 16 (0:29 – 0:36) 

Harmony: The IV chord, F-A-C, is what we expect, but the note “G” from the C chord is held over (suspended), making this an “Fsus2” or “Fsus9” chord. The suspension gives the chord an airy quality and paves the way for the surprising change to D in measures 16 – 17 (0:36). 

Melody: Rhythmically similar, but scale tone 2, “Re” (“D”) is emphasized throughout, building anticipation. In measure 16 (“to the start”) we expect to hear “C,” but fall through the “C” to “A” as the chord changes to “D” (no 3rd). Classically, this is called a surprise cadence

Set up expectations, then break the pattern after two, three, or at most four repetitions

“Hot & Heavy” Conclusion 

The song goes on, adding new elements, such as a heavy beat (0:42), richer harmony (0:56), an extended melodic arc, reaching ecstatic heights (1:10), and instrumental breaks (1:25, 3:02). 

Unfortunately we’re out of space, but Lucy has already given us a great lesson in melding old and new: Build your song from same, similar, or different material. Use Q&A period form. Use repetition to set up dramatic breaks. Start modestly and build a long melodic arc. 

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