No Strangers to Scoring Natural Emotions (Adele & Goransson)
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
This tune has gotten a fair amount of attention from me in the last month or so. The album as a whole is a great piece of pop work with dozens of musicians collaborating on Adele’s vision. The opening tune has a distinct retro flavor with Ludwig Goransson’s cinematic flair. While the rest of the album is solid, this stands out as unique. The harmony and melody is sophisticated without being off-putting. Rhythmically the backbone is simple, but the slow tempo of 55bpm allows a lot of room for swirling subdivisions. The vocalize at the end has a massive range of rhythmic ideas flowing over the top of the verse arrangement. I don’t often think of Adele as a flashy singer, but the bit of improv at the end of this track really lets her shine. In my opinion, the lack of potential editing is all the more compelling. There was plenty of opportunities to cram her performance into a rhythmic or harmonic “grid.” I’m really glad they let the human shine.
Instrumentation & Form
The tune starts with the Rhodes Piano setting the foundation. Quickly joined by Adele the duet travels through a verse before being joined by a 4 part String Ensemble. Once we move into the chorus of the tune the electric piano starts to develop more of a washed sound with delay and reverb turning it’s bell tones into a pad. The strings take the more of the soundstage while the sampled vocals reminiscent of mellotron provide little textures when the melody isn’t front and center. This builds until we arrive at the end of the chorus with a short 3 measure bridge taking us to the outro, which is the Rhodes and Adele playing through another verse without lyrics.
A very traditional form of AABA.
The idea of F major as a key center is stretched throughout the song. Secondary dominants area tool we’re seeing often on the A chords leading to our relative D minor. We’re also seeing some D majors functioning similarly towards the two chord, G minor. Remember that this idea of a Dominant 7 chord (typically the 5 of a key) resolving up 4 scale degrees can be mimicked by “out of place” major chords as well, not just dominant 7 chords.
Borrowed Qualities and Planing
All of the chord’s roots from the verse line up with our F major scale. F G A Bb C D E F. Nothing to adventurous in that regard. But we do see the qualities of these chords deviating throughout, keeping it familiar while subtly mutating. The two places that we step out (aside from our secondary dominants) is the Bb minor in measure 5. This “planing” motion from G minor to Bb minor resembles the root motion from F to A while boldly pushing out of the key. It also allows for some interesting melodic developments we’ll get to in a bit. The final deviation is the A diminished chord in measure 8. There are a lot of theories I could play with here, but nothing solid. If I had to put a guess on it, it’s really a two chord for the ii V i of G minor.
This last piece isn’t stretching the key at all, but it’s a classic voicing that has so much power. Bb/C is the IV chord placed over the V. Our two most powerful chordal destinations in a key together. It also gives this wide, extended and suspended harmony. From the perspective of C you get the b7 (Bb), 9 (D), and 4 (F). A great setup for the ending cadence of a section.
G Whole Half Diminished Scale
One of the most intriguing parts of this melody is the phrase “Every anniversary I’ll pay”. This sequence uses the G Whole Half Diminished Scale. It’s an 8 tone symmetrical scale. G to A is a whole step. A to Bb is a half step. Bb to C is a whole step. C to Db half. Db to Eb whole. Eb to E half. E to F# whole. F# to G half. It fits over the G minor planing to Bb minor so easily, and arrives on the major third of the C6 with ease.
The verse melody as a whole covers a very wide intervalic territory. Each phrase nearly covers an octave on its own. The whole section spans from F below middle C to C an octave above. Over an octave and a half. Breaking it down I see 5 phrases.
Phrase 1 is a fairly linear curve.
Phrase 2 is slightly lower, with more shape. It resolves in a similar place to phrase 1.
Phrase 3 is the longest and most intricate. Moving higher.
Phrase 4 is very short with the highest pitch and widest leap. Very exciting
Phrase 5 is a repeating ramp shape that calms us into the ending cadence.
Above is just the color coordination and functional analysis with the note heads traced from the melody. You can see where ideas reoccur and how much motion there is from a more intuitive perspective without all the music theory there.
The last point I’d like to mention is the rhythmic variations between 16ths and triplet 1/8ths. It’s a foreshadow of sorts. The chorus is primarily straight. The 3 measure bridge is leaning into the triplets hard for the first half. The second half going back into the 16ths. This I can’t make up my mind mentality resonates with the lyrical story.
The chorus has several tricks up it’s sleeve. The first potent element is that Em/F acting like dominant chord. It’s the first scale degree we hadn’t seen harmony from in the verses. I’ve tried to look at this from several angles. I could see it with the F in the bass and the B in the alto melody creating a tritone (dominant-ish sounding a la G7 or Db7). Or it’s implying a C major 7 over it’s IV.
Next is the Pedal Point throughout the first two measures. This is a very economic way of creating forward motion. The F is our key center, certainly not a “wrong” note. It oscillates between dissonance and resolution every other chord. During the Dm chord we have the cello hanging on to the G from the previous A7 chord before resolving to the A on beat 4. Here again we can relating the pedal point to hanging onto the past, a concept represented in the story as well.
The finale idea I want to reveal is Csus7b9 chord in measure four of the chorus. There is this trend in the piece that uses the same root with different qualities for variation. We see and A major, A7, A diminished and A minor throughout. At this moment we’re moving from G minor G half dim. over C. I don’t think this is some fancy inversion because C sounds strongly as the root of the chord. When looking from there we can hear this as a suspended chord that wants to lead to C7. Db leads to C and F to E. A very clever use of half diminished chords I haven’t seen before. This idea of looking for several qualities inside of a group of notes can help us see into how the chord is functioning. Noticing the G half diminished allows us to look at the eighth measure and see that this time it is a fancy inversion, over Db.
All in all, this is a very clever composition that utilizes the priorities of film scoring quite well in a pop arrangement. The ability to take emotional concepts and plot narratives and translate them into music is something a major of musicians never develop so literally. Phenomenal work from all parties involved.
You can download the score here.