Learning from Sam Smith’s ‘Too Good at Goodbyes’

Teachers: click here to download an accompanying PDF fact-sheet for use in class as a discussion prompt.

Though I was born a grumpy 50-something at heart, recently I’ve been particularly dismayed by what ‘earns’ commercial and chart success.  It was Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do’ that almost tipped me over the edge.  I am actually quite a fan of some of Taylor Swift’s music, and can famously (at least amongst my students) be found head-banging to the triplets in ‘…Trouble from time to time, but this new track is, for me, the epitome of Boredom.  Either the media market has begun to exist outside of and independent from real musical culture, or my ability to appreciate pop music has plummeted to an all-time low.  Hoping for the latter (and reasoning that it’s more likely my ‘fault’, and certainly my ‘problem’), I put some effort into picking apart this week’s UK no. 1, which sits at its top spot for the second time.  The premise of my job as a music teacher is that understanding music is the key to enjoying it, after all…

Sam Smith Too Good at Goodbyes structure diagram

The diagram above (click to enlarge) shows most of my observations about how the song is put together.  A melodic analysis might also have been worthwhile, but I think the textures and timbres are of a lot more importance here than melody or melodic development.  Most positive reviews of the song seem to fixate on Smith’s vocal timbre, after all, with none that I’ve seen picking up on the relentlessly basic harmony (not because critics can’t hear it, but because it just doesn’t matter in this genre).  I have braved labelling the second half of the song as ‘development’ nonetheless, and would encourage listeners and students to pick out how the parts and the texture as a whole are varied as material is repeated; the variation is subtle enough that most listeners won’t go away remembering it, but present enough that there are a few quite pleasing shifts in affect to keep us interested.

From a structural point of view, this song is almost boringly straightforward, except for one crucial surprise: the shortening of the first chorus (marked ‘C’ in the ‘presentation’ half of my diagram) to 12 bars (or three chord-sequence-cycles) rather than a more conventional and expected 16.  This metrical surprise, along with a sudden texture change makes for a very convincing structural point, working around the lack of harmonic variation on which songwriters until recently conventionally relied for structural markers.  Increasingly, we are hearing ‘4-chord songs’ top the charts and, if we listen closely enough, I suspect there are a lot of interesting techniques like this being cleverly employed to demarcate sections and retain large-scale cohesion.  When the chorus is repeated twice at the end of the song, it occupies a more conventional 16-bars, the interruption for structural emphasis not being necessary here, and we are left without any overall feeling of metric imbalance.

I’m sure there is a lot more to be discovered in this song, and I would encourage sceptics to listen with fresh ears in particular to the instruments and textures which are very carefully deployed.  It might help to see what else is in the ‘top 40’ at the moment and notice how a balance of parallels and contrasts with the song-writing of his successful contemporaries has made Sam Smith’s music a consumable product for legitimate and creative reasons.  If you stop at “there are only 4 chords in this, it isn’t worth my time”, you’ll not only be misunderstanding the musical world of its audience, but also missing out on making a new musical discovery of your own.

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