The following is from my book Not Fade Away (Pierian Press, 1984)
If catchy tunes are ever successfully subjected to mathematical analysis it will be a sad surprise - for melody, like the universe, would lose something if its secret were to become known. Still, it is possible to identify factors that effective tunes have in common. And, by doing so, one can begin to understand what makes them tick.
First, a good melody must create anticipation: it must make the listener want to know what will come next and then it must make him or her want to hear it all again. Usually, this is done in one of the following two ways:
Motif development. In "The Way You Look Tonight," Kern takes a phrase consisting of four quarter notes and keeps moving it higher and higher, punctuating it each time with a whole note pause. The first pause is on F, the second is on G and the final one comes on E-flat, which is the root and provides a resolution. In the meantime, the listener has been kept in a state of pleasant expectation.
The same sort of thing happens in Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched," where a simple phrase is manipulated so that on each repetition it comes to rest on a high note. In this case, however, the high note remains the same while the lower note - the first of two stepping stones - is always a half tone higher. But the effect of upward movement and of rising tension is the same. Motif development is a technique that is particularly effective in ballads, and any number of other examples can be cited, including "Embraceable You," "Long Ago and Far Away," "I'll Be Seeing You" and "You Light Up My Life" (the Debbie Boone hit by Joe Brooks; a song of the same title by Carole King does not qualify in this regard).
The hook. Melodic hooks come in many guises. They can be rhythmic and syncopated, as in "Mountain Greenery" and "Puttin' on the Ritz," and they can be based on intervalic leaps, as in the first two notes of "Over the Rainbow" or the last two notes in the title phrase of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." They can also be based on child-speech: the way children emphasize certain syllables, almost to the point of singing them. Such baby-talk hooks have been a chief ingredient in the success of many songs, including "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," "Baby Love" and "Staying Alive. "
Hooks differ from motif development in that they do not have to be closely related to the rest of the song. The closest a hook comes to that kind of unity is when it is part of a call and response pattern, as in that eminently catchy tune, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," where an initial melodic phrase ("Do you hear that whistle down the line") is answered by the hook ("I figure that it's engine number forty-nine"). Other hooks consist of departures from, rather than extensions of, what has gone on before. In "Stormy Weather," for example, the first surprise occurs on the opening note (”Don't” in “Don't know why”) which, being an A-sharp, is outside the key of the song, that being G. This A-sharp is only a leading tone and it is immediately followed by a B-natural (on “know”), which is part of the key - but this chromatic moment has piqued the interest of the listener. A little later there is an unexpected, unrelated octave leap (on "weather") which is yet another melodic surprise. "Stormy Weather" and songs of its ilk do not achieve their effectiveness by pushing a single motif toward a climax. Instead, they take the listener on a journey whose scenery has one or more unique points of interest. One of the best of the latter-day practitioners of this type of song is Paul McCartney. In "The Fool on the Hill," for example, the melody makes its way pleasantly through fourteen bars in the key of C until
it suddenly (on "but the fool on the hill") takes on a darker hue, backed by a C-minor chord. McCartney's longer compositions, such as "London Town" and "Tug of War," are extended journeys of this kind.
The Broadway/Hollywood writers were adept at both kinds of writing, though development was more characteristic of Broadway songs, while hooks were more typical of tunes written for Hollywood. One of the best of the Hollywood hook-writers was Harry Warren, whose "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," has been cited above and whose other works include "Jeepers Creepers," "That's Amore," "About a Quarter to Nine," "Lullabye of Broadway," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," and "You'll Never Know." Warren's songs do not express a persona, a style of musical thinking, in the same way as do those of The Six. He never developed into an author. Yet, his tunes have retained their appeal. Those that he wrote in 1933 for the Busby Berkeley film 42nd Street were used a half century later in a successful Broadway production of that name; and Art Garfunkel had a hit with the Warren/Dubin song, "I Only Have Eyes for You."
Composers like Warren were the prototypes for the Brill Building writers of the early '60s. Neil Sedaka, Jeff Barry and Carole King wrote not as authors but as musical short-order cooks. In King's case, the songs that she wrote with her lyricist/husband, Gerry Goffin, were peddled to performers with very diverse styles. They wrote hits for Steve Lawrence ("Go Away Little Girl"), Tony Orlando ("Halfway to Paradise"), The Monkees ("Pleasant Valley Sunday") and Aretha Franklin ("Natural Woman"). Unlike Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles and Paul Simon, King's melodies were not based in folk music. They were rooted instead in Harry Warren's kind of writing and in Tin Pan Alley - which, by mid-century, had become a generic term for all well-crafted songs that did not aim quite so high as the Broadway theater song. At its worst, Tin Pan Alley was a home for the musical hack. But at its best, it produced songwriters whose works were, like all great tunes, miraculous.
From 1960 to 1970 King and Goffin had seventy songs on the charts - an astonishing achievement that ought to have made them famous. Not so. In those years Carole King was well known in the music industry and to a few aficionados, but not to the public at large. (Many years later, the musicians in a Colorado-based band called Navarro, with whom she was recording, were astonished to learn that she was the one who had written "The Locomotion," sung by Little Eva back in 1962.) But in this way too she was following in the footsteps of Warren who, despite an impressive catalogue, achieved little public recognition.
Perhaps that is why King became restless in the mid-'60s. The age of the songwriter as author had arrived and those tunesmiths who did not measure up were being left behind. Measuring up meant that you had to sing your own songs. Otherwise, your work was left to the mercy of a performer. It is not hard to imagine the frustration of trying to develop a body of work when the only way it can see the light of day is through a Tom Jones or an Engelbert Humperdink. And it is easy to imagine why, given those circumstances, a songwriter might want to establish the kind of control over his or her output that had traditionally resided with the highbrows, for the composer of a symphony can rest assured that any competent orchestra will give it an accurate, if not necessarily an inspired, reading. But with pop songwriters, there is much less control. It is always possible that a song will die needlessly due to a self-indulgent interpretation. And even if it does succeed, it is next to impossible to get the public to take note of the writer's particular songwriting style and the progress of his or her musical thinking if its follow-up is sung by a different vocalist or group. Who would notice the continuum of one's harmonic or rhythmic discoveries if one song, done by the Drifters, was followed by another, sung by the Everly Brothers?
As authors, songwriters are at an enormous disadvantage. Unlike their highbrow cousins, they cannot even take refuge in the printed version of their work - sheet music - since pop music publishers have never been anxious about accuracy or thoroughness. Gershwin died in 1937 but there has as yet been no complete edition of his songs. Therefore, Carole King faced a tricky situation in the mid-'60s. Songwriters had at last come into their own as authors - but this was because they were successfully performing and arranging their own works. What's more, it was becoming apparent that great music in the rock idiom could best be written by someone in a band. The Beatles, fathers of art-rock, had in each other an experimental orchestra, just as Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony, had the orchestra of Prince Esterházy at his disposal. In the mid-'60s King became aware of this new state of affairs and wanted to participate in it, but it took her some time to decide what to do.
She made her first move along the road to authorhood by trying to establish her identity apart from Don Kirshner's publishing company, Aldon Music. She and Goffin established their own record company, called Tomorrow. It was not a success but its formation was the first in a series of events which eventually led to her emergence in the early 1970s as one of the greatest of all the performer/songwriters. Tomorrow Records had signed a group called The Myddle Class and King broke up with Goffin to marry their bass player, Charles Larkey. In 1968 she joined Larkey in a new group called The City and they released one album, Now That Everything's Been Said. It was not commercially successful but it did contain three fine songs: "Hi-De-Ho" (later a hit for Blood, Sweat and Tears), "Wasn't Born to Follow" (written earlier for the Byrds) and "You've Got a Friend" (which later appeared on her Tapestry album and which also became a huge hit for James Taylor).
This work with The City was an intermediate step, for King's success was still primarily as a writer, not as a singer. Nevertheless, she was admirably equipped to take advantage of the new circumstances in which songwriters were finding themselves. She did not have a professional singing voice - but neither did Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger or Paul Simon. Trained voices were, if anything, a drawback. What was required and what King had in abundance was the ability to sing honestly and communicate feeling. Her talent in this regard had been known for years within the music industry. The demonstration tapes by which she presented her songs to vocalists and singing groups were renowned. Many who heard them thought that her performances were better than the ones which eventually made the songs famous. In addition, she had all of the other trappings that went with writer/performer stardom. A pianist since the age of four, she was able to accompany herself in public and on recordings. As her own lyricist, she could write words that were to the point and eloquent. Topping it off, she was physically attractive in the unglamorous, earthy '60s manner.
At the end of the decade she moved from New York to Los Angeles and there she consolidated her new role as a performer by playing on albums by James Taylor and John Stewart. By 1970 she was ready to record her first solo album. Somewhat apologetically, she called it Writer, as if to warn her audience that she was new to the performing game. Though it did not sell well, it was a succès d'estime and she was encouraged by her mentor, Lou Adler (who produced the album and who owned the label, Ode, on which it was released) to continue.
It was at this time that the age of the solo singer/songwriter was dawning. The Beatles had broken up, each to follow that road, and so had Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. New writers who were taking control over all aspects of their work, from the music to the lyrics to the performance to the arrangement, included Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Van Morrison and Don McLean. But it was Carole King who struck the first gusher. In 1971 she released Tapestry and it sold more copies than any previous album. Tapestry combined the professionalism of a veteran (her first success, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," was in 1960) with the excitement that attends a new writer who is finding a voice. When, later that year, she released a third solo album, Music - one that was every bit as good as Tapestry - she reached the pinnacle of her profession.
But then, in 1972, with Rhymes and Reasons, a slow descent began. As it turned out, King was not immune to the decade's dispiriting gravitational pull. There was the occasional good song - "Jazzman" from the 1974 album Wrap Around Joy and "I'd Like to Know You Better" from Thoroughbred in 1975. But her period of invincibility had lasted only a very short while, just about a year.
Of all the disappointing tumbles taken by songwriters in the 1970s, hers was the most puzzling. It seems as if she ought to have been immune to the decline and fall syndrome, for she had been writing good songs before any of the other writers came along and she was just reaching her prime after many of them had peaked.
To understand what happened, one must go back to that fateful decision, taken in the mid-'60s, to come out of the shadows and become not just a songwriter/songplugger, but a voice and author. Up to that point, King's songs had always been models of structural conciseness, making their point (which was inevitably a quick, melodic hook) with graceful economy in the face of the straitjacket limitations of the A.M. radio marketplace. In nearly every one of her hits the hook could be found in the title phrase and it was inevitably a self-contained snippet that, once finished, left no loose ends. Rarely did she engage in any slow, steady motif building as Kern liked to do. In the creation of her hooks, King occasionally came up with an intriguing baby-talk phrase ("Something tells me I'm into something good" is one) but her real distinction was the development of a style of hook that depended on the contrast between major and minor modes. In the phrase "One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl," for instance, the first two words are supported by a bar of F-major and then on "day" there is a sudden shift to the relative minor, D-minor. This shift creates a sense of expectation that is immediately satisfied by an F-major cadence. In its entirety, the hook has lasted just five bars. But it is the essence of the song. This sort of contrast is behind the charm of many of King's early numbers, including "The Locomotion," a call and response song in which the call ("Everybody's doin' a brand new dance now") is a syncopated motif riding the chord of E-flat, while the response ("C'mon, baby, do the Locomotion") does the same over C-minor (again, the relative minor). And the same kind of harmony is at work in "Go Away Little Girl," where the refrain is in G and the bridge is in E-minor (also the relative minor).
Because King was not yet writing to express her personal point of view and because she was not yet writing her own lyrics she could spend her time fashioning those hooks in the succinct manner that had always been called for in pop music. She continued to do the same thing in her first solo albums and with great success. In Tapestry, there were "I Feel the Earth Move," "Beautiful," "It's Too Late," "Way Over Yonder," and "You've Got a Friend," which all had hooks that landed on the title phrase and that made good use of the major-minor contrast. On Music the same process was at work in "Growing Away from Me," "It's Going to Take Some Time," "Some Kind of Wonderful," and "Song of Long Ago." Other numbers, such as "Carry Your Load" and "Sweet Seasons," based their hooks on major tonalities but led up to them with alternating major and minor chords. In "Surely," a very beautiful song, the unusual key of D-sharp minor predominates until the end, when its relative major, F-sharp, comes to the fore. "Music," the album's eponym, also has its major-minor contrasts but it is essentially a brief, inspired up-tempo waltz in a style reminiscent of Richard Rodgers.
In other words, King, though she had opted for prominence as a composer/lyricist/singer/philosopher, had not yet abandoned any of the tricks of the trade that had accounted for her success when she was anonymous. Though the new songs were often more complex than the old ones they always did what they were meant to do - they each created an instant or two of melodic magic.
In artistic growth, as in biological evolution, the core of the old is retained while something new and unexpected is added. In this way, the lyrics of Tapestry and Music evoked languid Malibu while the music kept its Manhattan punch. In succeeding albums, however, King let her tunesmithing atrophy while she placed emphasis on her newly won position as a songwriter with "something to say." She lost touch with the kind of songwriting that had brought her success in the first place. Her musical hooks became ill- defined, uninsistent. Instead of taut little five-bar dynamos they became weak engines that could not prevent the rest of the tune from rambling. In many of her later works the melodies tipped their hands - they were like badly written mystery stories. Or they simply bided their time between chord changes - changes that were almost always predictable. And even when these changes were unusual, they were less than exciting, since it is commonplace for a composer who is at a loss to simply jump out of one key and into another without any real plan in mind. In "You Go Your Way, I'll Go Mine" (from Wrap Around Joy), King took a turn around the cycle of fifths from E (on "you've cut the binding ties") and then from E-flat (on "making love seems so unkind") without producing any of the dizzy fun of a Kern modulation. Throwing in a "wrong" chord every now and then became her new mannerism. But chords, like notes, are only exciting in relation to one another - in patterns, such as Gershwin's string of augmented chords in "Who Cares" and Hugh Martin's series of suspended dominant ninth chords in "The Boy Next Door."
Productive longevity requires that one keep experimenting while staying in touch with the source of one's early inspiration. But by the late 1970s King's songs were no longer built around memorable hooks and her experiments were unsuccessful. She was in a real predicament. It was next to impossible for her to consciously develop her strong point, since that strong point was the five-bar stinger, the hook, which, by its very nature resists development. Unlike Gershwin, who had always experimented with subtle harmonizations, and unlike the Beatles, whose experiments had from the beginning concerned orchestration, King's music did not have any obvious point of departure, any path that was crying to be explored. Exotic harmony was not her forte: she could come up with nothing better than an unexpected chord or two. Neither was modulation. At the 17th bar of the song "Time Alone" (from Simple Things) there is a sudden change from A to G (since it comes on the phrase "no sign of the changes we have come through," it might be a musical pun) that packs no punch at all. A few bars later the song moves for no apparent reason into the key of B, where it stays, the original key of A having been forgotten. On Welcome Home, released a year later in 1978, there are equally gratuitous modulations in several songs, including "Changes" (another in-joke, maybe), "Morning Sun," and "Wings of Love."
King's other experiments usually involved song structure: adding second bridges, extending refrains, inserting instrumental introductions and breaks. Unfortunately, these worked against her because they tended to destroy the tight and seamless construction that had been the hallmark of her earlier work. Because she was now writing to express herself, she no longer had to meet the specifications dictated by pop groups who wanted only to get A.M. radio airplay. Her move from New York to Los Angeles (and then from Los Angeles to Idaho) was, literally and metaphorically, a move from A.M. to F.M. radio. She had a larger canvas now but her gift had always been for that musical miniature, the hook.
The lyrics to her new songs, whether they were by herself, by David Palmer or by her third husband, Rick Evers, were full of good intentions and utopian ideals. But they were usually vague and bland. They often lacked a focal point, unlike the lines written in the 1960s by Gerry Goffin or those written in the early 1970s by King herself. Lyrics such as "He is one/She is one/A tree is one/The earth is one" from "One" (on Simple Things) certainly took their toll on King's music.
True to her decision in the mid-'60s, she did become an author with a recognizable style and point of view. In the process, however, she seemed to forget what medium she was working in. She had forgotten that her odyssey as an author was supposed to have been a musical one. Philosophy was all very well, but it was not her profession.