Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Graphical and Historical Analysis (Justification?) of why I like "Over It" by Katharine McPhee

UPDATE: Linked!

I heard "Over It" for the first time in the gym yesterday. I had no idea what it was, but my ears perked up and I felt pangs of wonder. I looked up the song and found it was the first song by American Idol-er Katharine McPhee. My co-worker told me I had McPheever. I was very sad.

Embarrassed and also very embarrassed, I set about trying to figure out why I was liking this song so much. My first defense: a bit of history! The song was written by a dude who's written at least 20 or 30 all-time guilty pleasure songs, including Eternal Flame. Possibly the biggest guilty pleasure pop song ever.

My second and more scientific defense: Melodic analysis and graphs!

First of all, I must stress that my interest in "Over It" is restricted entirely to the chorus. Like many other pop songs, all the songwriting energy seems focused on giving the chorus an enormous hook, and not much is left over for the sucky, bland verses. I've heard the song 3 times now and I can remember all of the chorus and none of the verses.

What made this song's chorus reach out and stab my ears in a good way was intervals. It is common practice in nearly all compositional styles, from pop to Western Classical to traditional Indian Raga, to have scalar motion in a melody. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is "It's Gonna Be Me" by *NSYNC. Here's a non-musical illustration of that melody (pardon my complete lacking of drawing ability, even on a computer):

See? Scalar motion. The melody of that chorus goes right down the scale. If you were playing the melody on a piano, you'd be pressing consecutive keys on a keyboard.

When the movement between notes in a melody isn't strictly scalar, the intervals between notes are often small, and the size of the intervals themselves often remains consistent to create a familiar hook. "My Love" by Justin Timberlake is a great example:

That's some very simple, repetitive intervallic motion there. It's like you're going down the scale on the keyboard again, but you're playing a little hopscotch - first you use pinky finger, then skip to the middle finger, up to the ring finger, skip down to the pointer finger. 5-3-4-2 (for the first line in the graph). Very simple, nice intervals.


Now that we've established 2 common types of melodic tools, take a look at the graph for "Over It."

WHOA! What's going on here? It's jumping all over the place! 5 notes down! 3 notes up! 8 notes down! 5 notes up! Its motion cannot be predicted!

It's very, very uncommon to hear those kinds of intervals as a main melody in a song. Especially a top-40-aimed pop song, but really any song at all. Songwriters take chances in a lot of different ways, but this part of songwriting isn't often toyed with. It's maybe the literary equivalent of a non-linear narrative. As soon as I heard this, I wanted to hear it again, just because it surprised me so much the first time I heard it. Kinda like the first time you see Memento or Run Lola Run or one of them things. Kudos to you, pop songsmiths! You got me!

...I'm still a little embarrassed.

P.S. Oh, if you want to hear this crazy chorus, hit up McPhee Central.

P.P.S. There's a fair chance I'll be making the ringtone for this song.


baz said...

i've never heard this song, but i really appreciate the time you put into this post. thanks, jeff.


kathy said...

yay for jerf!

Anonymous said...

I refuse to feel guilty about loving the Bangles' "Eternal Flame" (which is, indeed, a fine example of scalar motion. So is Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."). The Bangles deserve more love than I have to give. Time, time, time, see what's become of their legacy!


Andrew Missel said...

A second yay. I always say that if you can give a good reason for liking something--and I think Jerf's dissertation qualifies as a good reason--than no one can pick on you for it, and you shouldn't feel embarrassed.

One recent song which I think benefits greatly from some unusual intervals in the chorus is the Shins' "Phantom Limb." I think it's a great song, but without those weird jumps in the middle of the choruses--the words are, I think, "stepping over" in one chorus and "follow the lines" in another, or something like that--it would be merely a good song. Those jumps are really eerie, and kind of keep the song a little off-kilter. Incidentally, I think being able to write songs which are incredibly catchy but kinda eerie and off-center is what makes the Shins great; there are plenty of bands--Fountains of Wayne, anyone?--that can write really catchy, hummable, ultimately disposable pop songs, but a rare few that can write songs that are immediately accessible AND repay repeated listenings. In 10 years, when Radiohead releases an album which consists of a recording of Thom Yorke shitting on a picture of George Bush with electronic pig squeals in the background, I think we'll all look back and think of the Shins as maybe the best band of these first few years of the century.

Also, "Irreplacable": great! Jesus, how often do you hear a bridge like that on the radio? Overplayed, and yet not played enough.

Anonymous said...

Andrew is exactly, exactly right about Phantom Limb. It sounds a lot like a decent '80s song for the first 30 seconds, but that weird interval in the chorus totally makes the song.

Jordi said...

I can NOT stop humming Phantom Limb! That and that Silversun Pickups song. Which kind of sounds a little like Arcade Fire's 'Neighborhood 1. (Tunnels)'

Nice, Jerf!

Jeff said...

I'm so pleasantly surprised that everyone has something great to say about intervals!

Good call on the interval jump in Phantom Limb, Sir Missel. I'm pretty sure the B-Side to that single pulls a similar trick, and pulls it well. Totally right, they do manage to get you the first time with their songs and be growers at the same time.

One of my favorite non-Katharine-McPhee examples of a great pop song interval jump is in "Got To Be There" by the Jackson 5. "I need her sharing the world, beSIIIIIIDE MEEE!"

Phew. Just thinking about that tritone makes me hungry.

mcgoey said...

Fightin' Stefan Debbert just mentioned the Bangles so I am contractually obligated to bring up their song "in your room," which is awesome and a guaranteed cure-all for any bedroom problems you may or may not be having with your old lady/old man.

also, this was a great post, jeff.

Chris Serico said...

Somewhat related.

Jeff said...

Ha! Awesome. Go go graphs.