How powerful is a really good melody?
Well, a good melody can get you to sing along the a song, get a song stuck in your head, get you to sing it in the shower – with any luck, it will get you to come back and hear the song again. But a really good melody? A really good melody can get someone to come back the a song years later, and it even has emotional power.
Case in point: I remember perfectly the first time that I heard “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy. Now, the instrumentals weren’t exactly my thing at the time, and I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but I loved the tune so much that I asked someone what this song was so that the moment I got home, I could listen to that song again.
Flash forward to a couple months ago: I found a video of Postmodern Jukebox doing a vintage big band cover of this song. I’ll post a link in the shownotes because it was fantastic. Now I probably hadn’t heard this song in a decade, but the moment that I saw this video even existed, I just had to hear this song again.
That’s the power of a really good melody.
I’m Hunter Farris. And for years, I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy.
You can find the full transcript for this episode and the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/FallOutBoy.
[music: “A loaded God Complex, cock it and pull it.”]
“Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” is the Fall Out Boy song. If someone asks me to “play Fall Out Boy”, I don’t play one of their more recent hits like “Immortals” or “Last of the Real Ones”. I play “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down”. Makes sense; it was the band’s first Top 10 hit, it was an emo anthem of sorts, and the Phoenix New Times even said this song (and I quote) “just might be the most listened to emo track of all time”.
But even after this song left the Top 10 and even after the emo people left their emo times, this song was still their #1. A little while ago, I was playing a piano, just messing around, experimenting to see how pretty I could make “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down”. And the moment I finished playing the song, this random college student walked up to me and asked “Was that “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down”?” And he asked me to play the song again so that he could record it because his friend loves that song. Now you’ve got to ask: What is it that makes this song so sticky that twelve years after this song came out, people still want to hear covers of it?
One reason is that the song establishes familiar patterns and then changes those patterns into new familiar patterns. The tune of this song is all about familiarity and change.
“Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” establishes familiar patterns so that we can feel comfortable when we listen to this song and so that we can have a great time with it. So how does it establish familiarity so well? Let’s take a look at 3 major examples (no pun intended):
By the time it’s finished the first line (“Am I more than you bargained for yet?”), it’s already established this pattern of using just notes 1, 2, and 3 on a scale. But what’s important isn’t that it establishes a pattern; what’s important is what that pattern is and how familiar the listener is with that pattern. So in the case of this pattern, notes 1, 2, and 3 on a scale are the same as nursery rhymes we loved as kids like “Merrily, We Roll Along” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
By the time the first verse is over (“Am I more than you bargained for yet?/I’ve been dying to tell you anything you want to hear,/Cause that’s just who I am this week./Lie in the grass next to the mausoleum.”), it’s established a new pattern: notes 1, 2, and 3 on a scale (still) but also note 5 below 1.
You might recognize this from English and Irish folksongs and hymns like “The Water is Wide” and “Lead, Kindly Light” [example].
You might recognize it from that doorbell you’ve heard all our lives [example]
Or you might recognize it on a more subliminal, subconscious level from that chord progression that the head of HookTheory.com said just might be the most popular chord progression of all time. It’s I-V-vi-IV.
If you’re not familiar with the I-V-vi-IV chord progression by name, you’ll definitely recognize it from “Let It Be” [by The Beatles] [example], or from “Don’t Stop Believin'” [by Journey] [example], or from “Demons” [by Imagine Dragons] [example], or from countless other songs.
The point is: We’ve heard that chord progression a lot. And if you take the lowest note of each of those chords in that chord progression, you get something that sounds a lot like this [notes]. And if you take the highest notes in that chord progression, you get something that sounds like this [notes]. And I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a lot like 5 2 3 1. Let’s re-arrange those notes a little bit from 5 2 3 1 to 1, 2, 3, and 5 below 1. Those 4 notes are the only 4 notes in the entire verse of “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down”.
And then we get to the chorus (“We’re going down, down in an earlier round/And Sugar, we’re going down swinging/I’ll be your number one with a bullet/A loaded God Complex, cock it and pull it”). And the chorus is just 5 notes: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Pianists might recognize this from that 5-finger scale they played when they were kids. But even if you’re not a musician, you’ll recognize this “pentascale” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
But this song doesn’t just establish familiarity by what notes it uses, but by how it uses those notes. The chorus plays twice every time it happens, and the song does a really good job at getting us used to these patterns. The first line establishes the pattern of using just notes 1, 2, and 3 by having the tune (I kid you not): 1 2 3 2 1 2 3 2 1 [spoken over the vocal part singing “Am I more than you bargained for yet?”]. 1 2 3 2 1 2 3 2 1? Now that’s establishing a pattern!
But think about it, if one really good line is enough to get us used to this song, imagine what happens when you get 4 really good lines of notes 1, 2, 3, and 5 below 1 or 2 straight choruses in a row of notes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. By the time this song’s over, we’ve spent 3 minutes with this song, and every pattern is uses feels like and old friend. That’s how good this song is at establishing familiar patterns and making us feel like this song’s familiar so that we can feel comfortable with it, and so that we can be happy with it, and so that we can feel the nostalgia we might feel from watching Star Wars again or from watching The Little Mermaid again.
But songs need more than just familiarity. They need change. If a song is all familiarity and no change, if a chorus repeats too often or if a listener just hears a song too often, it becomes boring and slightly irritating. In a word, it becomes, well… overplayed.
The genius of this song is having the change happen inside the familiarity.
It firmly establishes which notes it’s playing, but puts those notes in an order we wouldn’t expect so we don’t get too used to them. For instance: It’s using just notes 1 2 3 4 5, but who would have expected those notes to be in the order 1 1 1 5 3 2 1 2 3 2 1 [played over the vocal part singing “We’re goin’ down down in an earlier round”]. Apparently Patrick Stump, the guy who wrote the melody.
Even deeper than having unfamiliar versions of familiar patterns, it changes familiar phrases into other familiar phrases by establish a norm and then tweaking that a little bit. Every time it moves from pattern to pattern, it does it by adding or removing just one note at a time to a pattern it already established, giving us time to get used to this new pattern, then adding or removing another note. Musicians will remember the little method books they used when they were kids – the ones that taught them Middle C, then D, then E, then did a song without D… until the student could play “Fur Elise”. In a sense, this song is a method book the listener might have used as a kid because it gives the listener 1 new idea at a time to chew on, and then takes away just enough notes to keep the brain able to handle all of them at once. That way, the song changes a little bit at a time, but keeps the familiarity from becoming boring.
Now, were the songwriters thinking about all these things? Probably not.
Patrick Stump wrote the melody in about 10 minutes [source], so he might not have had time to think about any of this while he was writing. But then again, maybe he’s an experienced enough songwriter that using intricate principles of music theory comes naturally to him through years of experience. Pete Wentz (his long-time co-writer) calls him a genius. It’s entirely possible that Patrick Stump thought about all these things; its entirely possible that Patrick Stump thought about none of this.
But whether it was intentional or not, he knew he had something special in the melody right away. As soon as he recorded the melody, Patrick Stump turned to the band’s drummer and said “I just got your kid’s college tuition paid for”.
So, what’s so special about “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” that would pay for someone’s college tuition? The first time we hear the song, it already feels nostalgic, like something we’ve grown up listening to all our lives. And the brilliant part is: That’s exactly what it is! The entire structure of the melody is based on reminding us of things we’ve heard all our lives.
Now some people might think doing this on purpose would be manipulative, but if I heard somebody doing it, I would think it was thoughtful. It’s like that moment when a guy takes his girlfriend out to do that thing she loved doing with her family when she was a kid. Fall Out Boy isn’t manipulating us into liking their song. They’re giving us the gift of a good time by reminding us of the things we’re already familiar with to make us more comfortable and to make us feel nostalgic.
That familiarity makes this song feel like being around an old friend, and the change makes this song feel like we haven’t seen that friend in years, and we’re just eager to catch up. IT’s the same feeling as asking “Hey, do you remember squirting chocolate milk out of your nose right when Rose Cooper was passing by?” and your friend saying “[chuckles] Yeah, I remember that. I just saw Rose last week.”
This song feels like friendship.
It feels like comfort.
It feels like going home.
That’s the emotional power of a really good melody.
[music: “A loaded God complex, cock it and pull it.”]
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out our website at SongAppealOfficial.com. You can also support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll see you soon. In the meantime, enjoy your music.