I first heard the song Say Something, by A Great Big World, in 2013, while watching my first, and last, Victoria’s Secret fashion show. It was the lone bright spot in what I learned was a supremely overhyped, deeply uninteresting American tradition. Wasn’t my thing.
But hey, the song was pretty good. So good, in fact, that in the years that have followed, I’ve developed something of an allergy to it. All someone has to do is say the words “Say something,” and the song worms its way into my brain. The attacks usually last a few hours before my symptoms subside. Heck, even just writing the name of the song at the start of this article caused me to break out in uncontrollable humming.
Because the song’s unbelievably catchy. Like, “ruin-your-life” levels of catchy. But why? It’s just a dumb pop song, right? The kind that’s used in Victoria’s Secret runway shows? The kind that’s not supposed to steal the spotlight from beautiful women in angel wings? So why does it?
My prevailing theory is something you’ll probably hear a lot from me if you read enough of these articles: it’s a ballad, but it’s carefully constructed to beat a tattoo into your brain. It drives along with purpose; you can actually kind of head-bang to it (albeit slowly). It doesn’t lilt along limply. Ballads don’t have to be airy, and in fact, I think they’re much better when they aren’t.
So how do you recreate this feeling? What’s the secret to making slow, beautiful songs that have a real beat to them?
The answer is that every eighth note is given weight.
There are some longer notes in the song, but they are always layered over the constant eighth notes. The song doesn’t sound long, drawn out, and slow, because the music behind it isn’t. It also helps a lot that this is another song in 12/8 (to read more about that, check this “I’m gonna lose you” article), which gives each measure more eighth notes to work with.
There you go. You know the secret. You’re halfway to re-creating the magic of this song. Unfortunately, the second part of replicating the greatness of this song is getting Christina Aguilera to turn in a great vocal performance, which might be a little harder for some of you.
Good luck, though.
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