When Recollection Is All We've Got: Analytical Explorations of "Catchy" Songs

October 1, 2007

I vividly recall a scene from My Best Friend's Wedding, a Hollywood chick-flick I saw several years ago: George Downes (played by Rupert Everett) is seated at a crowded table in "Barry the Cuda's" seafood restaurant, entertaining the assembled guests with a fictional tale of falling in love with Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts). With a twinkle in his eye, he begins to sing "The moment I wake up/Before I put on my make- up . . . ." Within a few seconds, the assembled cast joins in an impromptu and enthusiastic, albeit campy, rendition of Dionne Warwick's hit, "I Say a Little Prayer," swaying back and forth while clapping in time to the music.1

This scene embedded itself in my memory and cemented permanent associations between the on-screen action and Burt Bacharach's song "I Say a Little Prayer," partly through the rhythmic clapping that began half way through the song. The hand-claps felt at odds with the song's underlying musical meter, and their presence compelled me, once again, to visit questions of how analysis and performance relate to each other in vernacular settings. In particular, this staged presentation of a supposedly impromptu performance called into question the types of performances that can (and should) inform analysis, and the analytical insight into a song's structure, construction of hooks, and musical appeal that can be gleaned from amateur and happenstance performances.

Within the musical-theoretical literature on performance and analysis, both performers and theorists have frequently adopted the position that "a fine performance of a work expresses a unique understanding of its essence."2 The nature of that understanding, and the symbiotic relationship between the acts of performance and analysis, are the focus of many academic studies. Yet the presence of qualifiers such as "fine" or great or noteworthy, often applied to a performance as a criteria for its use in the analysis, implicitly focus attention on those performances that occur within some formally delineated space and are, in various ways, judged both authoritative and worthy of study. Such restrictions on the understanding of "performance," however, have fostered a disregard for impromptu, untrained, unpolished, and informal performances from a music theorist's vantage.3 The analyses presented here, on the other hand, argue that these types of performances may offer an underutilized resource to the music analyst and can enrich interpretations of how some musical works communicate with their audiences. Most importantly, an unrehearsed or amateur performance filters a song's musical contents in ways that can help explain the appeal of "catchy" songs by highlighting those musical elements of a song's hook that remain firmly intact or are even exaggerated in these types of performances.

Two case studies presented here plumb traditions that are often viewed in formal musical-theoretical disciplines as the artistically lowest tier of performance practices: spontaneous group singing, and karaoke. Obviously, the scene in My Best Friend's Wedding is a staged representation of spontaneous group singing, the handiwork of director P. J. Hogan, but it serves a useful purpose here because it is an instance of performance that can be experienced by both analyst and reader and returned to over and over again. Thus, for practical purposes, this exploration accepts the mediating effects of the film, its director, its inevitable rehearsals, and its recorded format, and treats the scene as a representation of an actually spontaneous sing-along. These analyses then follow a path through various performances, re-examinations of the song's musical elements, and finally, toward a distillation of the song's core hooks that stick in public memory and persist across abroad range of performances of that particular song.

The starting points for these analyses are mere recollections on the part of the analystmemories of amateur, impromptu performances that have been witnessed, blended with some prior knowledge of more famous, recorded versions of the songs. These memories form the first layer of information through which the song is examined. A second layer of inquiry is obtained either by a recording of the performance in question or, in the case of a staged performance, by the commercially released film. Through that medium, the performance is captured in time for manipulation throughout the analytic process. A third layer of information is extracted from an authoritative version of the song, one regarded within popular culture as either central or definitive for that particular work. This could be the songwriter's own version, the performance with widest commercial distribution, or major artist's recording from which the impromptu cover version was learned. "I Say a Little Prayer," for instance, evokes Dionne Warwick's hit version from 1967, rendering the Warwick recording an essential source for comparison in the analytical process.

A fourth layer of analytical information invokes the most abstract notion of a song as comprised of its most elemental and essential musical components. For instance, in order for all the performances of "I Say a Little Prayer" under consideration here to be viewed as instances of the same song, there must exist some song-family or categorical identity that subsumes them all.4 A prototypical version of the song, in which the song is distilled into its most necessary and characterizing components is the fourth contributor to this analytic process. This is often derived from the originator or songwriter's version, or a distillation of the socially accepted versions of the song. It is also a deeper understanding of the catchy nature of the song itself, of its core hooks or components that comprise its most memorable identity, that is the quest of these analyses.

Clapping Along: Metric Structure and Group Performance

The motivation for investigating "I Say a Little Prayer" was my memory of the performance in My Best Friend's Wedding, particularly the way that the singers clapped along to their own rendition. I recall the clapping seemed both in and out of synch with the music at the same time. The song itself is the product of the extremely successful songwriting team of composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. It proved to be a major pop hit for Dionne Warwick in 1967, won over an R&B audience, and was covered by Aretha Franklin the following year.5 True to Bacharach's style from that era, the song delivers its text over a constantly changing metric foundation that is projected by a clear bass line and reinforced by frequent repetitions of melodic patterns. The song offers its listeners a good exercise in hearing changing meters. Several authorsjournalists and critics includedhave commented on the metric style of Bacharach, writing such things as, "[the songs] teased with [their] uneven forms," and recounting tales of A&R men who continually wanted the meters "straightened out."6Dionne Warwick reputedly was able to navigate these metric structures with ease, which was one reason why so many of Bacharach's songs found their way in her discography.

In "I Say a Little Prayer," the chorus that Warwick delivers so smoothly in her recording begins with three phrases, each 11 beats long (Example 1). Each phrase is transcribed here with metric shifts from quadruple meter to triple meter and back; the harmonic rhythm, patterns of eighth-note anacrusis, and textual accents are the determinants of the metric downbeats in this interpretation. A schooled performer could easily sight-read this transcription, seeing, hearing, and feeling through the body the metric structure on which the chorus is constructed. That performer could also conduct the passage with strict adherence to the changing meter.

Example 1. Dionne Warwick, "I Say a Little Prayer," chorus; bottom staff shows the clapping rhythms from the impromptu sing-along version. For ease of comparison, this transcription is shown in the key of Warwick's recording; the film's version places it in A Major/f#minor and alters one harmony.


The approach taken in the film's sing-along is radically different. As might happen with any group, the assembled cast begins to clap on the back beatsbeats 2 and 4while singing the chorus. Once they established the pattern of "rest-clap-rest-clap," they continued that pattern without alteration or interruption. The bottom staff on Example 1 shows an overlay of the steady clapping pattern against the music of the chorus. Note that at the beginning of the chorus (m. 23), the claps occur on the back beats, but by m. 25, the metric shift in the music has re-aligned the continuous clapping pattern with perceived strong beats. The second phrase, which is musically parallel to the first phrase, now starts with perceived strong-beat claps (m. 26), which then morph into back-beat claps by m. 28.

To the listener, the song appears to roll along comfortably, especially for someone already familiar with the tune. Simultaneously, both auditory and visual information reinforce the regularity of the clapping pattern. When the two streamsthe music and the clappingare superimposed in performance, however, each musical phrase transitions seamlessly from beginning to end into a new musical character: although musically parallel, the phrases adopt different grooves based on the relationship between the singing and the clapping. Rather than hearing two disparate metric streams, where one is steady duple meter and the other constantly changing, or rather than hearing either stream as "wrong" in relation to a primary pulse, the listener has the option of hearing a combination pulse stream and meter (demarked by the clapping) through which each subsequent musical phrase slides or drifts into a new metric characterization. This perception grants the music an aspect of "play" or transformation that is very much alive and active as the performance progresses.

Similar analytic interpretations can be applied to the other formal layers of the song. Consider a possible recomposition and prototype for the opening melody's first section (Example 2), set in a continuous quadruple meter. In this six-bar musical excerpt, the length of individual measures and steady half-note pulse of the meter is unaltered, and each vocal sub-phrase occupies two measures. Unsurprisingly, Bacharach's composition (Example 3) does not follow this plan. Instead, it stretches the second vocal sub-phrase by an extra half-bar and a dramatic melodic leap (m. 13, circled on Example 3), then repeats the pattern with new lyrics in a musically parallel structure (mm. 17-22). Rather than exploring this phrase structure against an underlying quarter-note pulse as was applicable in the chorus, here one might consider the effect of overlaying a duple pattern alternating half notes and half rests against this verse. This pattern is illustrated on the bottom staff of Example 3. From the first half of the verse to the second half, the metric interpretation of the phrases against a steady pulse stream at the level of the half note is inverted: the first iteration of the title (mm. 15-16) begins with the half-note pulse, but the second iteration of the title (mm. 21-22) is set opposite the half-note pulse. The resultant effect from phrase to phrase is the same as the one experienced in the chorus, but at a different metric hierarchical level. Finally, one might note that the song's title occurs as the third sub-phrase in each phrase-group. In this position, it is set off from the regular duple structures of the song and stands out in a position of asymmetry, a charming parallel to the content of the text, in which the "prayer" stands out from the mundane daily tasks with which the singer is occupied. And like the metric structure of both the verse and the chorus, a disruption from the regular duple structure exists at the level of the sub-phrase structure as well.

Example 2. Metrically regular recomposition of the first three vocal sub-phrases, "I Say a Little Prayer."


Example 3. "I Say a Little Prayer," opening verse as sung by Dionne Warwick, showing metric expansion, shift in half-bar accents, and pattern of three sub-phrases in each unit within the verse.


Additional melodic and harmonic features of this piece provide copious musical hooks for any listener, but the metric structure is unarguably one of the piece's most salient and enticing features. Placed back in the context of its impromptu, informal group performance, the song's key musical characteristic and hookits ever-changing metric structurebecomes a contributor to the film's plot. By this time in the film, the audience knows that George is a gay, poetry-loving man masquerading temporarily as the straight fiancé of Julianne. As he spins his tale of a surreal encounter with Dionne Warwick and slips into song to entertain the assembled dinner guests, we, the audience, are fully aware of the element of camp at work in the scene as well as the social references invoked by such a performance. The other characters in the scene, however, are entirely oblivious to those interpretations as they are swept up in the song's energy. As they sing and clap along, they are gleefully disconnected from the rhythmic nuances and metric twists of the song as their clapping slips into and out of alignment with the music, just as they miss the comedic absurdity of the supposed straight fiancé bursting into a female-gendered 1960s Warwick song to toast his supposed sweetheart. In this instance, the performance itself highlights important structural aspects of the song and suggests avenues for analytic inquiry that identify the song's complex metric structure as one of its primary hooks. Yet at the same time, the performance's particularities become fodder for cultural interpretation (and subtext for the audience's amusement) within the context of the scene.

The Karaoke Incident and Melodic Structure

A second case study for vernacular performance as an avenue for musical-structural inquiry is situated in Raleigh, North Carolina's local country bar, The Longbranch Saloon. Over the past several years, the bar has occasionally sported week-night karaoke in one of the side rooms, where cover versions of country superstar Shania Twain remain perennial favorites. Her pop-infused hits allow female performers to try on her sex appeal as well as her vocal stylings, and the songs are upbeat and sufficiently entertaining to keep the audience in good spirits. Imagine the scenario where an attractive young woman takes the microphone to sing Twain's mid-tempo country-rock tune, "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask."7 The first half of the song might go remarkably well: full-throated alto resonance, clear notes, and no evidence of vocal strain. As she sings the final chorus, however, the hapless performer suddenly strains beyond her normal range and no longer can hit the high notes in the same chorus she has already sung twice. Twain's song, like much of contemporary country music, relies on principles of melody simplicity and repetition that are part of the country genre's core identity. At the same time, Twain's repertory is that of a commanding vocalist upholding a diva performance tradition. The combination of those two features would not only prove the undoing of an unsuspecting karaoke singer but would also reveal one of the clever hooks within the song.

Twain's producer and co-writer on all of her albums since 1995 is Robert John "Mutt" Lange, best known in the 1980s as the quintessential arena-rock producer who honed the sounds of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Foreigner, among others. When he began working with Twain, he brought to the country music scene an arsenal of songwriting and arranging techniques that could manipulate complex musical structures to sound like deceptively simple hooks. Twain's astounding success was built on that formula, and while critics love to deride her and fans rant about her lack of "country authenticity," her songs remain in the airwaves, dance halls, and listeners' memories.

Example 4. Shania Twain, "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!," first phrase of the chorus, shown as first heard and then in the final appearance of the chorus.


Our karaoke victim might be caught unaware by Lange's arranging techniques, prominently featured throughout the album Come On Over. As with the rhythmic ingenuity of Burt Bacharach, the musical devices Lange and Twain use are neither entirely original nor particularly surprising; instead, it is the contexts in which they are used that help generate the infectious appeal in Twain's recordings.8 "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" uses a series of modulations by major second to keep the laid-back, bluesy number sounding fresh. The chorus first is set in C Major (Example 4), but by its last appearance (at timing 3:10), the chorus's melody has modulated up a tritone to F-sharp Major. Whereas a singer needs only a safe high note of g' (G4) to get through the entire chorus the first time around, by the end, the chorus requires her to cross a singer's typical passaggio into the territory of c#"(C#5), and if she preserves Twain's vocal ornamentation, she needs even one note higher.

To the listener unconcerned with tonics, modulations, and key centers, the tune continues to "sound the same." The key changes are accomplished through a series of direct modulations, always occurring between sections of the song, and generally masked with linear voice-leading techniques. The idea of modulating up by major or minor second for the sake of increasing tension and excitement in the final chorus is as clich as the lyrics and jokes told about country music, and such an occurrence of a "truck-driver's modulation" or "pump-up modulation," as they have been called by music theorists, would hardly warrant analytical attention.9 Even successive instances of modulations are fairly common. However, the presence of three chained modulations, from C Major through D and E to arrive in F-sharp major, fully half way around the circle of fifths and half way up an octave, is highly unusual.

The modulatory karaoke incident prompts an investigation into one of the core paradoxes in country music. How do songwriters working in the contemporary Nashville country scene embrace simplicity, tradition, and musical transparency, on the one hand, and write unique hits that showcase exceptional talent, on the other? Like most genres that tie their musical ideologies to some concept of roots, tradition, and authenticity, commercial country music has never demanded that its musicians perform music that is actually simple; rather, it has demanded that its recordings must merely appear simple. An analytical survey of hit songs from the past fifteen years yields a catalog of formal structures, poetic devices, harmonic progressions, and melodic contours that fulfill this intent: transparency for the listener, but achieved through compositional craftsmanship that celebrates the professional career of the elite songwriter.10 Among these techniques, modulation is merely one of the more benign.

Of the 45 songs that Mutt Lange and Shania Twain co-wrote and recorded in the 1990s, 30 of them feature some type of modulation. In a very un-scientific survey, I played several of these instances for nearly 300 undergraduates in a course on the history of country music and asked them to describe their responses.11 The class population consisted of a few musicians, but mostly students not majoring in music with no formal training or vocabulary to describe key changes. Many of them could identify the moment of transition, but could not articulate what was happening. This anecdote supports one explanation for the power of this particular compositional device: the listener's experience is refreshed with something different, while the most salient and identifiable elements of the song, namely the lyrics, melody, and harmonic progression, remain, perceptibly the same. Although there are many more sophisticated compositional devices in Twain and Lange's work that could give rise to a more complex and artful analysis, the use of modulations ties directly to the experience an amateur performer would have with the song and leads to one of the defining paradoxes within the country music genre's philosophy.

Returning to the realm of professional performance, one might observe that Twain's negotiations of these musical hurdles impact her own vocal stylings. At the moment with the highest vocal range in "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" Twain crosses her own vocal break and switches to a head-tone with a startling change in vocal timbre that becomes a hallmark of her performance. An even more prominent example of this timbral switch occurs in her overwrought wedding ballad, "From this Moment On," which features a powerful vocal build-up toward a bold climax.12 The listener is set up to expect Twain to burst over the top of the phrase in a climatic arrival (Example 5). Instead, as Twain sings the top C-sharp, she backs off the note entirely (circled on Example 5) and switches from a belt quality to a pure head-tone. Listeners easily perceive the registral change as an audible "catch" in her voice on the way back down from the note (occurring at timing 3:02 in the recording). One can only speculate as to the artistic motivation behind that performance, but her listeners hear a pop-chanteuse songstress navigating between the vocal demands of a commercial song, country's ideologies of transparency and simplicity, and the limitations of her own voice, and the results become an indelible part of the song's character.

Example 5. Shania Twain, "From this Moment On," vocal climax.


In both the karaoke experience and in the commercial recordings that are the primary vehicles for these songs to reach their listening audience, aspects of the song's melodic structure strongly affect the vocal delivery that the performer can offer. Conversely, the changes in vocal timbre required by the songs themselves mark the aspects of range, register, and modulation that so sharply characterize this repertory. In combination, the vernacular performances in analytic combination with the commercially released version point to the ways that commercial country maintains an idealized, simplified tradition while marketing superstars with stand-out performances.


When a group of friends launches into song, or when a karaoke singer grabs the microphone, to a greater or lesser extent, the version of the song that emerges has passed through the filters of the casual performer's recollection. That filtered version, filtered by memory, by quick acquisition, or by untrained powers of observation, has often discarded certain elements of the song while retaining its most salient features, hooks, or the essence of its memorable appeal. And from the resulting impromptu, informal, and happenstance performances come potential for analytic insight. There remains great understanding, of course, to be gleaned from close study of authoritative versions, from accepted "great" performances, and from source materials whose provenance is tied to compositional authorship. But there is also much to be learned by observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies that emerge so prominently in amateur performances. The analytic synthesis of those different kinds of performances often reveals both structural insights into the song's compositional hooks and the ways in which those songs function more richly within a particular cultural setting. Toward this end, performance and analysis studies, particularly those of popular music, might benefit enormously from more attention to the casual performances of catchy songs that linger in our collective memories. The bits and pieces we remember from those performances may be, in fact, the most essential key to a song's character.

List of References

DeMain, Bill. "There's Always Something There to Remind Me: The Burt Bacharach Story." The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (Rhino R2 75339, 1998).

Everett, Walter. "Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon's Crisis of Chromaticism," Understanding Rock, ed. John Covach and Graeme M. Boone. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Josefs, Jai. Writing Music for Hit Songs: Including New Songs From the '90s. New York: Schirmer Books, 1996.

Latham, Edward D. "Analysis and Performance Studies: A Summary of Current Research." Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 2 (2005). http://www.gmth.de/www/zeitschrift.php

Leong, Daphne, and David Korevaar. "The Performer's Voice: Performance and Analysis in Ravel's Concerto pour la main gauche." Music Theory Online 11/4 (September 2005). http://www.music-theory.org/mto/issues/mto.05.11.3/toc.11.3.html

My Best Friend's Wedding, dir. P.J. Hogan, distributed TriStar Pictures (1997).

Neal, Jocelyn R. "Country-Pop Formulae and Craft: Shania Twain's Crossover Appeal," Expression in Pop-Rock Music, revised edition, ed. Walter Everett. New York: Routledge: 2008.

Ricci, Adam. "A 'Hard Habit to Break': The Integration of Harmonic Cycles and Voice-Leading Structure in Two Songs by Chicago." Indiana Theory Review 21 (2000): 129-146.

Sayrs, Elizabeth. "Narrative, Metaphor, and Conceptual Blending in 'The Hanging Tree'." Music Theory Online 9/1 (March 2003). http://mto.societymusictheory.org

Schmalfeldt, Janet. "On the Relation of Analysis to Performance: Beethoven's 'Bagatelles' Op. 125, Nos. 2 and 5." Journal of Music Theory 29/1 (Spring 1985): 1-31.

Twain, Shania. Come On Over (Mercury 314-536 003-2 1997).

Zbikowsky, Lawrence M. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


1This scene occurs at timing 48:49 in the film; the clapping starts at 50:36. On the DVD release of the film, this is marked as "chapter 16." "I Say a Little Prayer," by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, published by New Hidden Valley Music Co.

2Schmalfeldt, "On the Relation," 1. These generalizations also emerge in Leong and Korevaar, "The Performer's Voice," and Latham, "Analysis and Performance Studies."

3Exceptions to this tendency occur in repertories and traditions imbued with folk-authority, such as down-home blues or hillbilly music, some styles of bluegrass, and various so-called world-music traditions, where performances that are considered untainted by cross-cultural contamination or refinement are highly valued.

4Zbikowsky, Conceptualizing Music, addresses the ontological issues with musical categorization and the concept of a prototypical version of a song in great depth; see especially chapter 5.

5The song reached #4 on the Billboard pop chart in Warwick's version, and #10 in Franklin's the following year.

6DeMain, "There's Always Something," 15. In many instances, the Artist and Repertoire (A&R) personnel for a record label are responsible for selecting songs for individual artists, and it would be in this role that they might comment on certain features of a song. Even the Wikipedia online article about the song attempts to explain this feature of the song, "Like several other Bacharach compositions, "I Say A Little Prayer" uses a very unusual time signature. Its chorus repeats a pattern of two measures in 4/4 time followed by one in 3/4, making it effectively 11/4 time" (). The Wikipedia article's description does not take into consideration the musical criteria for perceiving musical meter, however, and offers an interpretation (two measures in 4/4 time followed by one in 3/4) that actually contradicts both the bass line's articulations and the harmonic rhythm of the song's chorus.

7Co-written by Lange and Twain, published by Zomba Enterprises, Inc. The song appears on Twain's Come On Over album.

8For an expanded discussion of Twain and Lange's compositional and arranging devices including modulation, in this song and others, see Neal, "Country-Pop Formulae and Craft."

9In spite of both the ubiquity and musical simplicity of the technique, musical-theoretical literature has no shortage of discussions of this modulatory technique. See, for instance, Josefs, Writing Music, 94-97; Everett, "Swallowed by a Song," 117-118 and 151 note 18; Ricci, "A 'Hard Habit to Break'," 130-132, Sayrs, "Narrative, Metaphor and Conceptual Blending," note 11; and Neal, "Country-Pop Formulae and Craft," 294-295. Terms for the device range from arranger's modulations to truck-driver's modulations, pump-up modulations and the Barry Manilow modulation.

10The country music industry has long celebrated the professional craft of the songwriter, and more so than in most musical genres, the publishing industry and inner workings of the recording industry celebrate these individuals.

11These students were in my "History of Country Music" course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

12Co-written by Lange and Twain, published by Zomba Enterprises, Inc. The song appears on Twain's Come On Over album.

8210 Last modified on April 22, 2013