Genius Melodic Gestures #1:
“Lovely,” by Billie Eilish and Khalid

lovely-blog-image

What makes this excerpt genius?

  • The melody perfectly reinforces the message of the lyrics.
  • It does so using only 3 pitches.
  • The lyrics are masterfully spare.

An overview.

Early storytellers (from Shakespeare’s era and before) would often begin by offering a plot synopsis. Since modern folk detest spoilers, we’d never consider such an approach. Or would we?

These opening gestures of “Lovely” follow in that early storytelling tradition. Right up front, Eilish and Khalid spell out the song’s story: a familiar tale about an oppressive relationship. Yet as we’ll soon discover, this is all to set us up for a plot twist. The relationship described in “Lovely” is not between two people, but the codependent relationship we each have with ourselves. According to this song, the only way to resolve the pain with our incorrigible “partner” is to come to the place where we can say, “Welcome home.”

Time to listen. 

”Lovely,” by Billie Eilish and Khalid 

The Details.

[1] The song begins with one of the simplest melodic patterns of all time: the “Auxiliary figure.”

The first and last notes of an Auxiliary figure match. That might not seem significant; but it is here. See, depending on the rhythm, moving away then returning to the same note can create a sense of closure (finality). And here, Eilish puts her first and last notes come on strong beats: the perfect recipe for closure using an Auxiliary figure.

So although she thought she found “a way,” her notes disagree. The “way” found turns out to be a dead end—that is, until she sings the same 5 words with the same notes to the same rhythms again. But…

[2] In this second gesture, Eilish adds a word!  (The word “out.”) And this new word is given A NEW NOTE—(G)—an escape route from the dead end Auxiliary figure. And at the same time, that G resolves the harmonic tension of the melody’s sus note: A moving to G (4→3). In this way, the harmonic resolution at the end together with the new note signals hope.

[3] The lyrics for the third gesture tell us that whoever this “you” is will never go away. Eilish enforces this by ending with the same dead-end finality as the first gesture.

[4] And finally, the lyrics of the fourth gesture pose a puzzle.

But you never go away,
So I guess I have to stay now.

Why would “I” have to stay if “you” never go away? How can that be a healthy relationship?

Notice that the notes and chords for the fourth gesture are identical to the second (save for the pickup). If gesture two ends with a harmonic resolution, gesture four ends with a “harmonic resignation.” I’ve never heard that term before, but it fits here. Here, the melody and chords don’t feel so much at peace as worn out. At least to me. What do you think?

Takeaways and practical applications.

Try writing a song where you begin by telling what the song is about, yet with something that bothers the listener.

Don’t underestimate the strategic power of a 2-pitch gesture. And the careful (meaningful) addition of other pitches.

Each of Eilish’s four gestures have the same identical core: the notes A-B-B-A-A, in the same rhythm. Yet none of the four gestures match perfectly. Try that sometime (with your own core of notes.)

Sometimes an apparently uninteresting part of a song can hold great significance. Try to imagine “Lovely” without its first verse.

A final note.

It’s highly unlikely that the first verse of “Lovely” is anyone’s favorite part of the song. It’s not catchy. Other parts of the song feel far more “expressive.” Yet I hope you appreciate the craftsmanship, as well as a deeper sort of expression—a kind that gnaws at our fundamental understanding of the way things work.

And I’m curious, how do you explain the song’s title?

Last question: is there any significance that this song uses the same main chords as “Eleanor Rigby?”

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that effective composers do intuitively. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you create the same effects in your own music.

One Response

  1. I had not heard of this song.
    I went and listened to it.
    Then I read your blog post.
    Then I read the lyrics.

    Your take was quite interesting.
    I love creating layers and links with the lyrics and music.
    I like the bit about comparing the auxiliary figure with thinking you found a way out.
    But nope!

    Interesting about the chords being similar to “Elleanor Rigby”.

    The foreshadowing.
    The three note verse melody.

    You are right, that section may not be people’s favorite section,
    but it provides contrast to the other sections.
    Hence, making the other sections stand out more.

    I want to listen to the song more and keep in mind what I read from your blog post…
    See if things sound different to me upon further listening.

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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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