“[…] an anthem that would spread some sunshine on the world.”
– Quincy Jones (producer of Man in the Mirror)

This amazing song was the fourth of five US #1 hits from Michael Jackson’s Bad. It was written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett and demonstrates some nice music theory concepts for hit song writing.

Form

Song form is an important element to master in songwriting – and Man in the Mirror shows us some common techniques used in pop music. So let’s start by looking at the form.

Overall Structure

I laid it out so that you can immediately identify four big sections in the song:

  1. The first exposition of all major elements like verse and chorus
  2. Repeating the material with second versus and a double chorus
  3. Introducing variety and intensifying energy
  4. Coming back down and ending

You can take the above recipe as is and apply it to your own songwriting. It is a basic form found in many songs and musical pieces. If you want to see that clearer, you only need to generalize it further and write it like this:

A A’ B Coda

(Coda is a term for ending.) Why does this work so well? The human brain likes a balance between surprising new stuff and comforting known stuff. By repeating the A section, we comfort the listener and familiarize her with the musical material. But repeating it yet again would be boring and so we present some new material or interpret the material from a new point of view. Then we comfort the listener again by repeating material and reducing tension.

Having said that, most pop songs actually use a slightly different recipe. They repeat some of the A section material at the end instead of having a coda (resulting in A A’ B A”). These songs have to repeat stuff at the end, because their B section (also called “bridge” in songwriting) is usually quite different from the A section. But in the case of Man in the Mirror, the B section uses a lot of material from the A sections – so the song really has no need to repeat anything yet again.

And by that we already found an important song writing lesson:

You don’t always need a contrasting B section or bridge

 

This song also demonstrates an ending that is not that common in pop music: the vamp. A vamp is a short section (2-4 bars) that is repeated almost indefinitely. It is an element the two songwriters borrowed from jazz and gospel music. It works well here, because the whole song as a “gospelly” feeling and it fits the songs message, allowing everyone to join and keeping the end open.

A vamp is a short section (2-4 bars) repeated almost indefinitely. It is often used in jazz, soul and gospel music.

 

Section Length

Another aspect of the form is the length of each section. You will notice, that almost all sections have a multiple of 4 or even 8 bars. This length is very common in pop music, but also in other genres like blues, soul or EDM. 8 bars just feels natural and symmetric to listeners and is an element of comfort. The songwriters played with deliberately disrupting the symmetry twice:

  • The 10 bar chorus does not only appear in a different key, but is also a little longer than expected.
  • The 6 bar interlude feels like an 8 bar interlude cut short.

The effect of breaking this symmetry is interesting! The 10 bar chorus is longer than expected and draws the listener’s attention. It also increases tension by staying on the dominant chord 2 bars longer. The 6 bar interlude then feels cut short, because we expect to hear 8 bars. This little trick cuts the song at an unexpected point and drops us into the ending vamp. Again this draws attention, but it also helps to create that open ending feeling. The song just feels as it should continue and someone just hit the stop button too early. A nice trick to make your listeners come back for more (as I described in the analyses of Hotline Bling and Blank Space). But here it also serves the purpose of not letting the listener settle – they’re supposed to get up and do something about the problems of the world.

Deliberately break the symmetry of section lengths to draw attention to parts of your song

 

Harmonic Rhythm

Now we zoom in a little and look at the content of the sections. One tool to master as a songwriter is the conscious use of harmonic rhythm.

Harmonic rhythm is the speed with which your chords change

 

Going from slow to fast harmonic rhythm increases tension, while going the other way releases tension. Man in the Mirror uses the device harmonic rhythm very consciously. The intro and verse alternate between two chords per measure (first two bars) and one chord every two measures (next two bars). This creates a kind of “stop and go” feeling. The song feels like a car that has trouble starting – you turn the key and the engine spins a few times, but then you have to wait a few seconds and try again. In the pre-chorus the engine finally ignites and the car is driving at a slow but steady harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar. Finally in the chorus we rev the engine and bring it up to speed with two chords per bar. At the end of the chorus we briefly take our foot of the gas and let the car glide along a little with the speed it now has – we have a slow harmonic rhythm of one chord every two bars, but it is an altered dominant chord keeping the speed instead of slowing down immediately.

(Red car image created by Freepik)

To be continued…

I will continue this post soon and also talk about harmony and chord progressions (Pachelbel, Gospel). Either check back regularly or make sure you’re on my mailing list to get a notification…