Songwriter U: Harry Connick, Jr. on the Architecture of Melody

The professor takes us on a tour through the interior of “Over The Rainbow” and beyond

Talking to Harry Connick about the elements of song is a joy. Because the man is not only a great singer, he’s a brilliant pianist, also, and knows this music from the inside out, thoroughly. He’s not only conversant with the lyrics and melodies of great songs he sings, he knows the chords. And being Harry, he knows the right chords! The man is a true song champion, forever celebrating the timeless artistry of great songwriting.

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So I wondered if he had any idea why some melodies are so durable, able to withstand decades and retain their power. He did. if he had any idea what made some melodies so powerful.

He was the right guy to ask. After spending much of his life climbing around the interiors of classic songs, from “Ave Maria” through “Danny Boy” to Cole Porter and beyond, he’s an expert on the architecture of song. And he’s one happy to lead you through those interiors, as he does in the following with “Over The Rainbow,” pointing out the various wonders along the way.

HARRY CONNICK, Jr.: What makes a melody great is subjective. But the underlying factor probably is tension and release.

I like to compare music to architecture sometimes. If you go into a small little cozy room, and then you come out and there’s a big room, there’s a sense of breadth that happens, where you feel something. You may not understand why.

I break down Cole Porter tunes with my dad a lot. I sit down at the piano and break down songs, and I explain to him why I think they’re great. And the reason I think they are is because this tension is built and then if it’s done properly, it can be released in a great way, or sometimes a very cliché way, with certain kinds of harmonies that are meant to pull your heartstrings.

If you go to the movies, you’ll hear soundtracks that sound similar because that’s what it does. If a kid’s running down the street, coming home to open presents, there’s a certain flatted fifth major scale thing you can do with the violins that makes you think that. So there’s all kinds of things you can do.

But a great song will have more, it will have this tension and release. “This Nearly Was Mine” is a great example of a song that could’ve very easily been a pattern melody, but it’s changed enough not to be.

Harry Connick, Jr. “There’s something to be said for the people who really are masters at their craft.”

With Cole Porter, if you look at his forms, he uses AABA forms most of the time. Almost every time, all the As are different. No one does that. You write an A and then you write a bridge, and then on the next it’s the same melody with different lyrics. And on the last one it’s the same melody with different lyrics, maybe with a tiny little bit of ending.

But Cole Porter would change all of them. So, he would put his stake in the ground with his opening motif. And then by the time he got to the end, you feel lost until he recapitulates that, and then you feel this immense sense of relief. But you don’t really know why. It’s all about craftsmanship. It’s pretty cool.

There are other reasons, too, why some melodies are great. Sometimes in a melody that’s not very articulate, it may be about the performance. Like you listen to Freddie Mercury, why does that get to us? 

But Cole Porter knew what he was doing. I tell my dad that, and my dad says, “But it’s beautiful.”

I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful because it exists and you know it as that. But he had to choose to do that.”

He said, “Well, what other choice would he have made?” 

And I’ll play a choice that’s more common.

And he says, “But that’s not the same thing.”

It’s hard to explain. Cole Porter knew what he was doing. It’s like Picasso putting the nose on the side of somebody’s head. Why would he do that? Well, there’s a very specific reason. I mean, it’s not because he doesn’t know where the nose goes. He’s trying to create whatever it was he was trying to create.

And there’s more functionality in music, especially when you’re orchestrating, because you have a responsibility to orchestrate. You can’t just throw notes around.

Somebody asked me one time, and this was a real question. “When you do an album, how do you get the orchestra to play the same thing? Do you just kind of throw some ideas in the pot?”

What?” You can’t even pretend to answer that. So when you arrange an orchestra to a Cole Porter tune, it stops you in your tracks. It’s awesome. It’s really cool.

I compare music to football too. And when you see an amazing play, you’re like, “I could have done that, that guy was wide open.” Some quarterbacks are amazing, but they can’t get it done. You realize, man, that is extremely hard to do. Sometimes it’s luck.

Sometimes people who know nothing about music just make some of the most heart-wrenching, beautiful music ever. But there’s something to be said for the people who really are masters at their craft.

I mean, Harold Arlen was one of the all-time great melody writers. Then if you look at it, how it starts and how he ends just the first A section, you can see what he did.

He starts with an octave leap and then he starts getting lower and lower. And then he comes down. That’s a sixth, and then he goes to the sixth below that [sings]… to the fourth… and then the third.

So he starts with a big leap and then gets smaller and then all of a sudden, he’s back open again. And then he goes to this bridge, where he lulls you in with the simplest possible Schumann-esque bridge.  Right? And then, okay, that’s where we’re living right now. Then he does it again. And those are four different chords in one bar.

And then where does that take you? Back to the octave leap. And whoa, but that’s a big jump. Yeah, but it’s familiar at this point, so it’s comforting to be there.

So that’s my two second analysis of that tune. But I share that to show this isn’t random. There’s reasons why those songs work.

Then when you take a lyric that seems to be able to be written by a seventh grader and really, really break it down — I don’t mean take it and read it a few times, I mean, read it, study it, sing it over and over and over and over again, and on the 80th time you’ve sung it you say, “Oh wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold on a second. I get it now!” You know? There’s subtleties that are built into these things, it happens all the time with Cole Porter.

Name almost any song of his and I can tell you there’s a lyric that doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or there’s something that I discovered much later. These are famous songs. So none of that is an accident.

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