Friday, February 25, 2005

How to Write an Earworm

Do you know what an earworm is? It's a song so damned catchy that all you have to do is hear it once and it will stick in your head until you either a) drink yourself blind, b) get smacked in the head with an eight-iron, or c) die. I'm given to understand there are other cures, but at exactly this moment I'm really not in a hurry to try them out.

I've been having a nice long wallow in Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles demos-and-lost-tracks series, and I've gotten the happiest earworm infection I've had since 1989, when I first heard XTC's "Mayor of Simpleton."

The tune in question is called "I Can't Tell What Truth Is Anymore," on Volume 6. Lyrically, you might be tempted to read it as an anthem for our defeated and disgusted times, but really it's just a boy-loses-girl song. It couldn't be a simpler bit of bubblegummy fluff -- I can easily imagine it tootling along during the Obligatory Slapstick Chase Scene in an early Scooby-Doo cartoon. It's the sort of dangerously sticky-sweet cinnamon bun that Partridge can easily toss out endlessly in his sleep (think "Cherry in Your Tree," or the above "Mayor of Simpleton"), a talent he sometimes disparages as beneath his dignity, not knowing what it's like to spend your life wishing you could write just one song that catchy.

Even though it's only a demo, a candidate for an album (Nonsuch) that never made it past the winnowing process, the thing is as expertly crafted, as architecturally perfect a bit of candyfloss as you're like to come across this year. Ergo, earworm.

I've extracted the song (Andy won't mind. Go and buy the CD.), and you can hear it here. (It will pop a new browser window. When the tune starts to play, move that window aside and come back to this window. Mom.)

So why's this particular song so damned skillfully done? What's the formula, Mister Wizard?
  1. Start with an introductory phrase that twists the melody very slightly. In this case, the hook phrase is rendered in a minor mode, so one note is different from the way you'll hear it in the rest of the song. A deft application of a cliché. (Clichés are sometimes exactly what's called for in this particular artform.)

  2. Repeat that slightly twisted melody only twice more: Once to introduce the instrumental passage, and once to end the song. Symmetry.

  3. It certainly doesn't hurt to stick to primary-color I-IV-V chords in your verse and chorus. Meat and potatoes. Predictable. Solid.

  4. But in your middle eight, go ahead and throw in an F#dim7 chord (under "And if you've gone for good"...) to suggest incompletion and anxiety. And of course write your lyrics so that the most significant word in the whole song, the revelation of the cause for our narrator's anxiety -- "gone" -- falls exactly on that diminished chord. You do this because you're a fucking pop-songcraft god.

  5. End your middle eight on that protracted V chord. Oh, absolutely, yes. Again, a cliché, but this is a bubblegum song, not the Coffee Cantata. When you play the song live, you can stretch that suspension out over, hell, 32 bars, before crashing back down to the tonic to start the next verse -- just like the rising ahhh's in "Twist and Shout." They'll have to disinfect the theater seats.

  6. Hint forward. In literature, it's called "foreshadowing." Listen to the lovely little chiming arpeggiated twin-guitar figures under the main melody. It will assume more importance later.

  7. Harmony vocal below the melody. Think late Beatles, think "Come Together," think "The One After 909." Partridge does this as a matter of habit, believing that the highest voice is the one that stands out. It's pretty rare, especially in late XTC records, for vocal harmonies to ride over the lead vocal like a bluegrass duet. And man, it's used to cool effect here.

  8. The guitar solo isn't really a solo at all; it's a carefully composed instrumental passage, as formal as a minuet. Needless to say, it's an absolute knockout. The Clapton-voiced guitar states a new melody as the little chiming figure revolves. Then a small male choir picks up the figure that had been played by the twin guitars under the verse (see why that foreshadowing was so important?) as the Clapton guitar now begins to play the verse melody. The two figures twine beautifully together, to end with both entities playing the title line, the male voices taking the low harmony and the guitar the melody. Subtle, understated, classically symmetrical -- did you ever think you'd hear those words describing a passage in a bubblegum song?

  9. In the outro, have the male voices pop back up with the same figure they sang in the instrumental passage. More symmetry.

It looks so simple from the outside, but once you tease it open, its insides are as finely wrought and carefully balanced as an expensive watch. A thing of incandescent beauty.


Anonymous said...

10. The aforementioned V chord, the twist-and-shout-gasm at the end of choruses also gets a little tweak towards the end in the form of a raised fifth. A classic stunt- the sort of thing the Beatles and Beach Boys were doing in 63-64.
The coolest thing is that if you pull this note up one more half-step it resolves to the major third of the I chord. This is how the big boys turn it around.

Jason said...

That is how the big boys turn it around, not just the Beach Boys and Beatles, but Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter too....V chord w/ natural 5th, w/ sharp 5th, to the I

great post, great analysis.

Neddie said...

Partridge, in that company?

Well... Yes.