What makes a song sound romantic?
When was the last time you heard a song that made you feel like dancing in the dark with some amazing person between your arms?
What was the last song that made you think of that one girl who’s beautiful and sweet or that one man who’s stronger than anyone you know?
Maybe you’ve heard a song that made you think “That sounds like the first dance at a wedding” and then the next song came on and you thought “Please do not play this at a wedding.”
What makes the difference?
There are some things that feel romantic because of personal experiences, and that contributes to a lot of the magic you feel in some songs, when other people don’t feel it.
But when so many people consider a song “romantic” that it becomes the #1 song just because it feels like love, you have to wonder: What musical ideas in our culture make “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran sound romantic to so many people?
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 “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran.
You can find the transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear this song at SongAppealOfficial.com/PerfectEdSheeran. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
I have a friend who teaches wedding dancing so that couples can look great for their first dance. Well, she told me that she had 3 separate couples learning “Perfect” at the same time.
And I was not at all surprised.
After all, the first time I heard “Perfect”, I was positive it would be the most popular first dance at weddings for a solid year, just because of how romantic it sounds.
But after a while, I had to ask: “Why does it sound romantic? Why does it lend itself so well to weddings?”
One reason “Perfect” sounds romantic to so many people is because it reminds us of romantic experiences we’ve all had, through a rhythm that reminds us of romantic dances, a tempo that reminds us of romantic events, and a chord progression that reminds us of a romantic time period.
So how can a rhythm make us think of romance?
The rhythm makes the song feel like it’s in ¾. We get 3 beats in a row, and the first beat of each of those is emphasized. So while the song technically isn’t in ¾ (if you’re wondering, most sheet music writes it in 12/8), it feels so much like it’s in ¾ that we assume it is in ¾.
Now let’s take a look at a few other pieces in ¾:
[Music] Yup. That’s “Married Life” from Up. It’s the scene where the main guy and the main girl fall in love, get married, and grow old together.
[Music] That’s “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty. It’s from the scene all about fantasizing about romance.
[Music] That’s “So This Is Love” from Disney’s Cinderella. It’s from that one scene of falling in love.
And it’s not just Disney movies. Throughout the last few centuries, songs in ¾ have been used for romantic music so often that they feel romantic, to the point that there was an awkward moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where the main characters are learning to dance to music in ¾, and the awkwardness of the moment doesn’t make the music in that scene feel any less romantic.
Not only do these songs feel romantic, not only are these songs used in romantic scenes, these songs are all played over waltzes, a dance that we as a culture associate with romance. Film critic David Parkinson wrote that “The waltz is so synonymous with screen romance that when the king sees Prince Charming kissing the hand of a mysterious ball guest in Cinderella, he orders the orchestra to switch to three-four time and retires to bed to await news of a marriage proposal”. By definition (according to Merriam-Webster), waltzes are always in ¾ time, so every time we’ve have seen a waltz, we’ve heard a ¾ song with it. By now, every time we hear a ¾ beat, we think of a waltz.
Can you feel the waltz in “So She Dances” by Josh Groban? Or in “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel? And notice how [the Moopet version from the 2011 movie of] “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppets doesn’t feel romantic when it’s in 4/4, but once it’s back in 3/4 [with the normal version], it feels romantic, even though the lyrics aren’t actually that romantic.
The waltz feeling we get when we hear the rhythm of “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran makes the song feel so much more romantic because since it acts like it’s in 3/4, we still get reminded of years of hearing ¾ songs in romantic situations and years of seeing romantic dances done to other songs in ¾.
But even though the rhythm feels like a waltz, it’s not the right tempo (or speed) for a normal waltz. Instead, it’s a tempo that also reminds us of romantic moments.
When people waltz and they’re not in the movies, they’re usually dancing to songs about this slow [“Neville’s Waltz” by Patrick Doyle from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire]. “Perfect” is about twice that fast, so a normal waltz would be fast enough that you might trip over your partner, if not your own feet. I asked some more experienced ballroom dancers and they told me they might do any number of more difficult dances to “Perfect” – anything from blues to West Coast swing to a much more technical waltz – but never anything you’d do if you haven’t been involved ballroom dance for the last few years.
So if you’re not a competitive ballroom dancer and you’re trying to dance to “Perfect”, you’ll feel that it’s too fast for a normal waltz, so you’d probably just sway back and forth. And it’s a sway you can feel. You can imagine a couple swaying to one side on this beat here. And to the other side on this beat here.
And when you can picture a couple swaying back and forth, you might picture times when a swaying back and forth would make sense – a slow dance, a first dance at a wedding, a spontaneous moment in the middle of the evening – all romantic moments.
The song reminds us of romantic moments by simply having a tempo (or speed) that’s too fast for most people to dance to, so it reminds people of romantic times that they sway instead.
But it’s not just the song’s rhythm and tempo. It’s about what chords play during that rhythm at that speed.
Like a lot of other songs, “Perfect” uses 4 chords in a row, progressing from the first chord, to the second chord, to the third chord, to the fourth chord, and then repeating. For most of the song, this “chord progression” is made up of the chords I-vi-IV-V.
You might recognize this I-vi-IV-V chord progression from the 1954 song “Earth Angel” by The Penguins. You know, that song from the end of Back to the Future. I-vi-IV-V.
Or from another song from 1954, “Sh-Boom”, also called “Life Could Be a Dream”, by The Crew Cuts, which was used in Cars. I-vi-IV-V.
In fact, this I-vi-IV-V chord progression is used in so many songs from the 1950s that it’s sometimes called “the 50’s progression”.
If you’re anything like me, you probably romanticize the 1950s, especially after enough Norman Rockwell paintings, Happy Days episodes, and Back to the Future movie nights. We think of diners, dances, and dates, just to name a few of the romantic thoughts that might come to mind when we think of the ‘50s, thoughts that might come to mind when we hear the I-vi-IV-V chord progression in “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran.
We can feel that the rhythm in this song is a waltz, but the tempo (the speed of the song) is too fast for a normal waltz. So we get the feeling of a waltz, which makes the song feel romantic and the feeling of moments that might call for swaying back and forth.
Add on a chord progression that reminds us of the romance of the 1950s and you might notice that “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran is almost an homage to “Earth Angel” by The Penguins and the 1950s classic “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers, since “Perfect”, “Earth Angel”, and “Unchained Melody” all have the same rhythm and the same chord progression.
Once you put together a rhythm that reminds us of romantic dances, a tempo that reminds us of romantic events, and a chord progression that reminds us of a romantic era, you get a song that makes us imagine a couple slow dancing during a time of diners, dances, and dates.
You get a song that reminds us of romantic experiences we’ve all had or imagined.
You get a song that sounds romantically perfect.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. I’ve got some great perks for you patrons. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
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