Don’t Stand So Close to Me

dont_stand_classroom

In 1980, a rock band called The Police recorded a song about a raging infection and the social distancing it required. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” tells the story of an adolescent girl who becomes lovesick over her teacher. But rather than giving appropriate guidance, a person in authority offers happy-talk in an attempt to gloss over a serious problem.

Sound familiar?

In any well-crafted song, the lyrics only tell part of the story. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is a well-crafted song. We can attribute the unique ways it speaks to us to Sting’s unorthodox musical methods. I want to look (briefly) at four in this post.

[1] the form (how this verse-chorus structure differs from all others)

[2] the harmony (how ambiguity and clarity create multiple levels of meaning)

[3] the rhythm (that Sting uses only one rhythmic pattern for the entire melody, and why this is a good thing)

[4] the melody (how the choice of melodic figures )

A biographical note. It may help to know that Sting taught high school English before joining The Police. He explains, “I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom. I’d done teaching practice at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them! How I kept my hands off them, I don’t know.” As I hope to show, this song speaks to much more forbidden love.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police

the form

In a typical song, the verse tells a story, describes a situation, or presents a dilemma. The chorus provides an emotional response to whatever issues the verse raises. So song structure is an exercise in juxtaposition, bringing together what we know with what we want.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” breaks with this model. The chorus refuses to acknowledge the gravity of a student consumed by temptation. Instead, her teacher worries about appearances. I can’t think of another song with this degree of disconnect between the verse and chorus, especially when we factor in the musical elements.

the harmony

Three aspects of harmony come into play: the harmonic rhythm, the chord progressions, and a key change.

[1] Harmonic rhythm. Sting engineers the pacing and placement of chord changes to make the verse undulate with ardent urgency. First, he runs moderately-fast chord changes atop a mostly-static bass line. Then he scrubs most of the downbeats. Without a gravitational nucleus for each bar, turbulence can (and does) build quickly. Finally, he puts a dissonant chord in the middle of each bar (F/Eb; F/G). While dissonant can mean “harsh,” it can also mean “uneasy,” which describes these chords and the sense of alluring risk they create.

 

[2] The chord progression. This chord progression is intentionally restless. In a “balanced” progression, the first chord feels stable. In fact, many musicians refer to it as “home base.” The final chord can either return home or play a chord that leads back home. But here, the chord progression verse resists harmonic stability from start to finish.

Not so with the chorus (below). Its progression is perfectly poised. But this sudden lurch into equilibrium feels bizarre. In an instant, we go from something sensual and tempestuous to something bright and sunny, superficial, wholly out of touch. Sting creates this contrast by playing the two most basic chords in music (I and V) to a rhythm befitting a happy-clappy children’s song. Over this dysfunctional backdrop, the teacher attempts to divert attention from a combustible situation by repeating an inane catchphrase.

 

[3] The key change. To draw an even sharper distinction between the verse and chorus, Sting changes key. Very few songs set the verse in one key and the chorus in another. But Sting takes this a step further, choosing two strongly-contrasting keys. (Some would even say that his keys clash!) And with no attempt to make the modulation smooth?

 

Why such a disconnect between keys? Partly so the teacher can put himself on a different plane than his student. He distances himself to maintain his reputation. True, but there’s also something more intriguing at work.

The first time we hear the chorus, we hear a teacher shushing a student’s inappropriate crush. All we know from the first verse is how the student feels. It’s not until later in the song that we realize that the teacher is hiding something. He desires an underage girl, but can’t admit it – not only to the school but to himself. The unrelated key affords him some emotional distance. But this distance – this self-deception – opens the way for him to take advantage of his young student.

the rhythm

Knowingly or not, Sting adapts a device from the 13th-15th centuries called “isorhythm.” Isorhythm is a Greek word meaning “the same rhythm,” i.e., rhythmic pattern. Now zillions of songs use a repeating rhythmic pattern in the accompaniment (e.g., the bass line, strumming pattern, or drumbeat). Hardly any“recent” melodies (post-Renaissance) use the same rhythmic pattern all the way through. I can only think of two: “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and “America the Beautiful.”

I’ve notated the verse over the chorus to show that they match perfectly, save for one note. The audio plays both sections together. It’s a bit of a train wreck, but try to hear past that?

 

Why use one rhythm for two melodies?

There’s a practical reason. As we’ve seen, the contrast between the verse and chorus in this song is extreme. Is Sting using one rhythm to draw a connection between the two sections? Perhaps. But again, I think there’s something more intriguing at work.

What if synchronizing the melodic rhythm is an under-the-radar way to play upon the student’s desire for connection? The lyrics say, “Stay away, I’m too old for you,” while the rhythm suggests, “Only the two of us understand what makes our connection so special.”

the melody

The verse and chorus not only share the same melodic rhythm, but they also have the same contour. We could simply say that this is variation, which happens all the time in music. Musicians often change things around just for fun. Yet in cases like this, the precise effects that Sting is after are the result of carefully calibrated adjustments.

Let’s start with the chorus (on the bottom line below). The melody uses the two most basic melodic figures in music and presents them in their simplest versions. We hear an arpeggio on the tonic chord and a 3-Note Scale on Do-Re-Mi. Use a similar formula if you ever need a recipe for a melody that “smiles.”

 

Now for the verse (on the top line above). The three notes in the first figure (Bb-A-F) don’t spell a chord or scale. And they don’t fit with the prevalent harmony (only the 5th is a chord tone). The first figure (Bb-A-F) has an asymmetrical shape: a step plus a leap. “Asymmetrical” is in no way a criticism. Here, it creates intrigue and adds a sense of longing. By contrast, the figures in the chorus feel “too” symmetrical. (Two leaps for the arpeggio and two steps for the 3-Note Scale.) No imbalance, no tension; everything’s hunky-dory.

The melody for the verse is irregular, impulsive, full of pent-up desire. The chorus confiscates that melody, then musically airbrushes away any scandalous bits.

Anyone who pays attention to the lyrics of this song will catch its obvious meaning. But it’s not until we ask how the chorus fits in that we begin to realize that the song is not “about” an illicit affair. It’s about the ease and danger of self-deception. Our concern with appearances. Our discomfort with others’ problems. Our rush to airbrush away pimples and perversions. And that positions of authority afford a unique power to deny reality.

It’s this last point that rings especially true at this time when our president won’t give us accurate information about the coronavirus. Recognizing this, we can see how he also exemplifies every flaw I listed in the previous paragraph.

But unless Sting is as good a prophet as he is a songwriter, this is not a song directed at just one person. Isn’t it interesting that the hook of the song, the bit we most love to sing, challenges each one of us to the core?

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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