What keeps a song interesting?
A lot of pop songs like to repeat their melodies once or twice before the verse is over, and then play that verse again with all of its repetition before the song is over. So how do these songs recycle their musical ideas to keep their tunes fresh and engaging?
Maybe you’ve never noticed how simple, repetitive, or well-worn the tune you were listening to was. But somehow, you loved it.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris, and on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason we like “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers.
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
If you like Song Appeal, check out The Local Glow: an independent podcast based out of Chicago, Illinois. Through their featured interviews, live performances, and storytelling, they dig into the heart of local music and arts throughout the Midwest and beyond, uncovering what makes every unique community glow. The podcast is a celebration of art and the unique relationships that it fosters as it draws individuals from different worlds into a space where we all come to life.
The Local Glow recently launched Season 2, with new and exciting episodes coming out the second Monday off each month. This season will feature an exceptional line-up of narrative explorations of community experiences, passionate showcase performances by musicians and poets from around the country, and in-depth looks at the creative world around us.
Subscribe now to get all new episodes pumped straight to your feed–on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher–just about anywhere, and visit www.thelocalglow.com to learn more.
A few months ago, I walked into a piano lesson to find that, not only did my student practice, but she decided to start up a new song in between lessons. As a piano teacher, I was ecstatic.
The good news was: She chose one of her favorite songs, “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, a song that was definitely easy enough for her to learn on her own. The bad news was: She chose “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers… and she started with the melody, and she realized the melody is kind of monotone. Actually, it’s literally monotone. It’s just one note over and over and over again. And she said the melody was so boring that she didn’t want to learn the rest of the song.
Something about that whole situation didn’t make sense, so I interviewed a music theorist about this song. [Jeremiah Tabb quote:] “My name is Jeremiah Tabb, and I study Music Composition and also run a music theory podcast known as Hype Harmony.” He told me “If you’ve ever heard someone play just one note over and over again with no context, it gets really boring, really tedious really quickly.”
When you hear Kelly Clarkson sing the same note 20 times in a row in “Love So Soft”, you get a sense of what Jeremiah Tabb was talking about:
Love so soft,
you ain’t had nothing softer
Break it then you buy it
And it sure gonna…
“One Week” by Barenaked Ladies also gives us one note over and over again – 25 times in a row – and if you take away the context, it gets really boring, really tedious really quickly:
Gotta see the show,
Cause then you’ll know
The Vertigo is gonna grow
Cause it’s so dangerous,
But “Mr. Brightside” takes this idea up to 11 by playing the same note 103 times in a row:
Coming out of my cage
And I’ve been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down
Because I want it all
It started out with a kiss
How did it end up like this?
It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss
Now I’m falling asleep
And she’s calling a cab
While he’s having a smoke
And she’s taking a drag
Now they’re going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it’s all in my head
But she’s touching
There might be some fluctuations every once in a while, but they’re so small that different pieces of sheet music disagree on whether there are any changes at all. The melody seems obsessed with this one note, which has a few names: the first note of a scale, the tonic note, Do, or (my personal favorite) note 1.
When the melody is this dull and this repetitive, why did my piano student and so many other people like this song? This was a Top 10 hit. There are memes about this song. Brandon Flowers, the singer and songwriter behind this song, remarked that Mr. Brightside “just keeps snowballing and getting bigger.” It’s been featured on the UK Top 100 for over 200 weeks, more than any other song… ever.
So what makes this song as a whole more enjoyable than its melody by itself? The one-note melody works seamlessly over any chord, but the chords change the melody note’s function and character.
Before we see how the chords affect the melody, let’s answer an important question: Why does the melody note work over so many different chords?
Let’s start with the chords that are actually in the song.
During the line “coming out of my”, the song starts with a I chord [chord], and while the guitarist changes one or two of the notes in a normal I chord, he makes sure to keep note 1, like this: [music]. Brandon Flowers is singing note 1 on a scale and the guitar is playing a chord with that note in it. This feels like a perfect match.
When we move on to “cage and I been doing just”, the guitar part changes ever so slightly, like this: [music] but it keeps note 1. And since the guitar is still playing a chord with the melody note in it, it still feels like the melody note belongs here.
And when we hear “fine, gotta gotta be down because I want it all”, the song moves on to a IV chord [chord], which also has note 1 in it. And while the guitarist puts a twist on this chord, like this: [music], he keeps note 1.
That way, the chord changes don’t feel weird or jarring, because all of the chords that are actually used in the verse include the melody note. We feel like the instrumental section is welcoming the melody note with open arms.
Now what about the chords that aren’t in the song? To answer that question, I sat down to interview another music theorist: “My name is Bryn Hughes, and I am an assistant professor of music at the University of Lethbridge. … I did a PhD in Music Theory at Florida State University.” A lot of Dr. Hughes’ research compares how different music theory principles work in classical music versus pop music. So he’s the perfect person to tell us about how “Mr. Brightside” modernizes an idea from classical music: the “pedal tone”.
[Bryn Hughes quote:] “A pedal tone is basically a bass note that’s played consistently over and over and over again.” Kind of like in “Chariots of Fire”, which uses the same note through the entire song, no matter what chords are playing around it. [Bryn Hughes quote:] “And sort of the brute force repetition of that note makes it work with all the other stuff going on above it.” We hear this note so often that we just accept it.
[Bryn Hughes quote:] “Mr. Brightside, is sort of similar, in that we have a melody instead of a bass note that is essentially a constant presence. And I think that more than anything, the simplest answer to why this works is that constant repetition allows us to accept almost anything.”
We feel like this melody from “Mr Brightside” fits over the chords perfectly, whether the chord includes the melody note or not.
If the melody note sounds good over any chord, do the chords still matter? Oddly enough, the chords matter more than the melody note, because they change how the melody note acts. You see, each note on a scale has a different job to do, but that job can change depending on what’s going on around it. How? Bryn Hughes told me [Bryn Hughes quote:] “A note can change its context by changing the chord underneath it. It can… become a different part of the chord.”
Jeremiah Tabb, host of the Hype Harmony podcast, illustrated that idea when he said: [Jeremiah Tabb quote:]
If you have a note that is sitting somewhere in the harmony… and then you move to a different chord, it’s almost like painting the same image, but then shading it differently, or painting it from a different perspective. So it totally changes the look and the impression that this note has on the listener, but it’s still the same object in the painting.
Almost like how a tree changes how it looks and acts, depending on what weather is around it. [Jeremiah Tabb quote:] “that one note is reflected upon in different ways by the harmony.”
So how does this note actually function in the song? It starts out over a I chord, and Jeremiah Tabb told me that [Jeremiah Tabb quote:] “A 1 note in a I chord is almost as steady rock-bottom as you can be. The 1 note in that I chord is just reinforcing what key you’re in, and it feels completely resolute. It doesn’t want to go anywhere at all.” You can hear the melody note acting like that during the first line of the song: “coming out of my”.
But when the song moves to a IV chord, the note becomes a bit… paradoxical. Bryn Hughes said [Bryn Hughes quote:] “The tonic is always the tonic. It’s always going to be sort of a stable pitch in our minds.” In other words, note 1 always acts like note 1.
On the other hand, Jeremiah Tabb said, [Jeremiah Tabb quote:] “Once you go to the IV chord, that note in the melody (Do or the tonic note) is now the 5th of the chord.” You can hear that during the line “gotta gotta be down because I want it all”. “So it’s functioning in a different way because it’s not the root of that harmonic structure.” Or in other words, the chord isn’t based on that note anymore, so that note doesn’t feel like the foundation of the chord. In a way, it feels like the fifth note of the scale instead of the first note, almost like the same actor is playing a new character.
Now, after hearing what sounds like contradictory answers, you might be thinking “Which is it? Is it acting as a tonic note, or is it acting as the fifth of the chord?” The answer is: It’s acting like both at once. If you compare it to the rest of the notes on the scale, it’s a tonic. If you compare it to the rest of the notes in the chord, it’s a fifth. In a word, it’s multitasking.
If you’re wondering what the function of note 5 is, don’t worry. We’ll get to that in another episode. For this episode, the point isn’t what function the note is serving. The point is that the note’s function completely changes, just because of the chords around it. [Jeremiah Tabb quote:] “It really keeps this one note interesting. As the harmonic progression is moving underneath that note, you keep seeing that note in different colors, different states, and different superpositions so that the music stays engaging, even though the melody is only one note.” This is essential to enjoying “Mr. Brightside” and plenty of other songs. The same note we’re hearing over a hundred times keeps reinventing itself when it’s played in a new context and a new perspective.
That context and perspective can even change the note’s entire character so it goes from being a stable note 1 to a very unstable note full of dissonance, all because of the chords around the note.
To help explain this idea, here’s our last guest: “I am Matthew Scott Phillips. I am a professor of music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Birmingham Southern College.” When he’s not explaining music theory concepts at work, he’s explaining music theory concepts on the podcast, Music Student 101. Music theory is kind of his life.
He told me, [Matthew Scott Phillips quote:]
When you’re on the I chord and you’re staying on the 1 note, there’s no dissonance there. … But as you stay on that 1 and the other notes move, you create more dissonance, and with creating more dissonance, you create more drama, you create more tension – in some ways, you can create more drama and tension by doing that than you would if you change the 1 note. … The fact that it’s staying there creates gradually more tension, gradually more emotional material there.
So how does that work in “Mr. Brightside”? After all, music theory is a whole lot more interesting when we can actually apply it to a song that we actually like. “Mr. Brightside” starts with the melody note acting as a chord tone. It’s note 1 over chord I. But when the next chord comes in, well, Jeremiah Tabb, the host of the Hype Harmony podcast, says it better than I could: [Jeremiah Tabb quote:]
So you feel the bass line walking down, and it starts to crunch up against the melody and that adds a little bit more spice, a little bit more action, because the bass line is a half-step below the melody note. You’re not at that resting place anymore. It’s almost like the call to action in a Hero’s Journey. You know that that harmonic motion wants to go somewhere and so the melody is acting as part of that call to action because it’s rubbing up against the bass line.
The melody note is still in the instrumental part, but the dissonance between the bass note and the melody note overpowers that fact, so the melody note has become a dissonant non-chord tone. But when we reach the next chord, it becomes a chord tone again, because the chord is built to have that note in it.
Now, “Mr. Brightside” dips its toe into dissonance. Let’s go to the deep end to see how dissonant this note could be. Here’s Bryn Hughes: [Bryn Hughes quote:]
Let’s just hypothetically compose another part of Mr. Brightside…. Suppose it’s in the key of Db, scale degree 1, the I chord is the most stable place to be. But in the next chord that we switch to, suppose we went to an Eb dominant 7th chord. So what is the 7th of that chord?… The 7th is Db. So suddenly that Db is a dissonant note in that chord. It needs to resolve in some place.
The note has changed from being a stable tonic that’s already resolved, to an extremely dissonant 7th that wants nothing more than to resolve.
And while “Mr. Brightside” doesn’t actually take it quite that far, it does a great job at changing the melody note from smooth, to dissonant, and back to smooth. We get a cycle of tension and release without changing the melody at all, because the melody note starts doing different things.
We sometimes criticize pop music for being too repetitive, doing the same thing over and over, or mindlessly following trends. “Mr. Brightside” feels like a musical response to that criticism. Its melody literally does the same thing over and over again, but it recycles that old musical idea in a new and refreshing way by playing the same note in just the right way so that any chord would accept those notes and using those chords to completely change what that note does and how dissonant that note is. As the chords change around it, the note cycles through different personalities, from stable and rock solid, to dissonant, to up in the air. And once the first verse, first pre-chorus, and first chorus are over, we get… exactly the same words in the second verse, second pre-chorus, and second chorus. But again, they’re presented differently.
In that way, “Mr. Brightside” is a microcosm of pop music: It doing the same old thing this song has always done, but presenting it in ways that are so different that we feel like we aren’t even hearing the same note, until we isolate the melody. In “Mr. Brightside”, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts, because some parts change how the other parts act.
Now, was all of this intentional? Probably not. Brandon Flowers did tell Rolling Stone magazine that he wanted a monotone melody, but in the same interview, he said that the guitarist had already written the instrumental track before the guitarist even met Brandon Flowers, so there’s no way they intentionally wrote the instrumental track with an eye towards making the verse more interesting. But whether this effect is on purpose or not, the effect is still there, and the effect is still powerful.
In our interview, Matthew Scott Phillips told me [Matthew Scott Phillips quote:] “People study this stuff their whole lives and try to analyze why certain songs make us feel the way we feel.”
I don’t know about you, but now that I see how this song works, I can respect and appreciate it so much more.
Maybe that’s one reason Matthew Scott Phillips said [Matthew Scott Phillips quote:] “There’s a soft spot in my heart for this kind of analysis, where you attempt to understand “why does this song make me feel this way?” … What are they doing to create that? … This is one part of what does that, what makes it feel that way, and that’s really what music theory is trying to do. It’s trying to answer that question of “Why does this music make me feel the way it does?””
And really, that’s what Song Appeal tries to do. Every episode of this show focuses on why a song makes you feel the way you feel, what keeps a song interesting, and what gives a song appeal.
Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. You can help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
This episode talked a lot about dissonance and consonance. If you want to learn more about that, check out the course “Music as Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why” from Coursera. You’ll learn what causes dissonance and consonance, why we use the scales we use, and how culture affects the way we think of music. Visit bit.ly/MusicAsBiology to find the course.
You can find more from Matthew Scott Phillips and Jeremy Burns on their podcast Music Student 101.
You can find more from Bryn Hughes on Twitter: @BrynMDHughes.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
Thanks to the following Patrons for their generous support: