What makes a song feel energetic?
Have you ever heard a song that made you feel like singing along at the top of your lungs?
Have you ever heard a song that made you want to dance even if people were watching?
Have you ever heard a song that took you from feeling depressed to feeling like getting out and doing something, and maybe even conquering the world?
What causes that?
I’m Hunter Farris, and you’re listening to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” So on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason we like “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/TheMiddle. You can also support SongAppeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
A lot of the time, when we like a song, it’s because of how much energy we can feel from it.
Of course, there are a lot of ways musicians can do that.
“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi feels energetic because of how high it is, so the sound waves move through the air faster.
“Through the Fire and the Flames” by DragonForce feels energetic because of its sheer speed.
“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran feels energetic because of its rhythm.
“Smooth” by Santana ft. Rob Thomas feels energetic partially because of how many instruments are involved, so it has a whole lot of volume.
But what happens when you take away all of those?
What happens when Jon Bon Jovi or Steve Perry isn’t the one singing the high notes. Instead, it’s a female singer on a chorus that rests firmly between E above middle C and the next E up?
What happens when you take the speed from 300 beats per minute like DragonForce, down to 107 beats per minute?
What happens when you change the rhythm from something elaborate like “Shape of You” into just a ticking clock?
What happens when you strip the volume down to just 2 instruments: a belting voice and a drum track?
You get “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey.
It doesn’t have most of the normal, simple tools that an energetic song uses, and yet the melody alone feels like it’s full of life, energy, and power.
Because energy isn’t just about what the notes are or what instruments are used. It’s about how much change there is in between the notes – it’s about the intervals and the frequencies in “The Middle”.
The chorus of “The Middle” gives itself more energy by jumping between larger intervals than we might expect.
Asaf Peres, from Top40 Theory (another website that breaks down pop songs for their music theory), defined an “interval” as “the distance between two notes” and when the notes change in “The Middle”, that distance is further than you might think.
We’re used to notes changing by 1 half-step or two half-steps. In “The Middle”, the most common interval is 4 half-steps (which is an interval called a “major third”), and the notes never change by only 1 half-step. If you want more specifics, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/TheMiddle, where I’ve included a few charts that show the exact intervals throughout the chorus and how often each interval happens.
You’ll find in those charts that these jumps between notes only happen every once in a while – the notes only change roughly 56% of the time. But that’s one of their greatest strengths. The song gives us time to get used to a note by playing it a few times in a row, like “Baby, why don’t you” or “just meet” or “me in the” or “middle”, or I could go on. But you get the idea. We have time to get used to each note before the melody changes to a different amount of energy as it uses larger intervals than we’d expect.
And the change in energy is significant. When we talked about “Just the Girl” by The Click Five and “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne in Episode 002, we discussed how pitch is sometimes measured in “hertz”, which is just a fancy way to say “cycles per second” or “the number of times something happens every second”. In music, “hertz” refers to the number of times sound waves move through the air every second. That means that when Maren Morris sings higher notes in “The Middle”, there is literally more energy moving through the air.
Assuming Maren Morris’s voice is auto-tuned so that she’s singing the pitches at exactly the right hertz, when she sings a B during this line [“baby, why don’t you”] we get used to feeling the sound waves move through the air at speed of a little less than 500hz. Then when she jumps up to a D at the words “just meet”, the sound waves move through the air at almost 600hz.
And when she sings “losing my”, she starts at the same B with less than 500 hz, then jumps to an E at almost 650 hz.
And this increase of 100 hz or more keeps happening over and over in the chorus.
And sometimes the melody drops from a D to a G like in this line [“mind just a”]. During those notes, the sound waves move through the air almost 200 cycles per second slower during the G than during the D.
Again, if you want more specifics, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/TheMiddle, where you can find another chart showing the exact change of hertz between notes. You’ll find that the examples you just heard are exactly how the entire chorus plays out.
The energy builds faster than you or I appreciate sometimes, then it drops even faster than it builds. In this melodic roller coaster, we get some notes with relatively low amounts of energy so we can appreciate the higher notes when they come back just moments later. When the hertz changes this much during the song, the melody gives us a genuine thrill.
Thrills and chills come because of contrast. When you haven’t drunk water for a while, water tastes so much better. When you’ve just had spicy food, sweet food tastes that much sweeter. And when you’ve had low energy in a song for a while, high energy feels even higher.
You see, the power in a song isn’t just about what the notes are, what the speed is, what the rhythm is, or what the volume is. It’s also about how much change there is in between the notes.
That’s why the melody alone of “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey sounds upbeat, even though it doesn’t take any of the traditional paths to energy. Instead, “The Middle” focuses on changing its intervals and its hertz so that we get used to feeling a certain amount of energy and then making it spike for a few seconds to give us a song that makes thousands of teenagers scream and shout like they’re in an 80s concert. That’s how it can reach the extremes of energy while the pitch, speed, rhythm, and volume stay roughly in the middle.
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. Again, thank you so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible by the following patrons: