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Foster The People’s current hit song, “Pumped Up Kicks” is a good model for a song that uses one set of chord changes that serves as the progression for the entirety of the song. Our instincts usually tell us that using the same progression for a verse, chorus and bridge can be problematic: how do you create enough diversity and contrast to keep listeners hooked? “Pumped Up Kicks” does this by creating a chorus melody with a strong hook, and a melody that constantly reiterates the tonic note.
Here’s a map of the formal design for “Pumped Up Kicks”:
The song is very catchy, and the simplicity of its form is key. Even in the instrumental break that happens after the second chorus, the chord progression stays the same: Fm Ab Eb Bb.
And there’s something very hooky about the chorus itself. Even though it comes across as being quite different from the verse in both melodic structure and vocal production, listeners (probably subconsciously) hear it as a logical endpoint for the verse structure.
The verse focuses on the dominant (5th) note of the key (Eb major), acting almost as a plateau pitch. The dominant note, more than any other note, injects a strong feeling of anticipation into a melodic design. In other words, melodies that sit in and around the dominant note tend to keep listener listening. For what? The natural resolution of a dominant pitch: the tonic note.
The chorus gives us that tonic pitch over and over again. The chorus melody is constructed of short phrases, all of which either start on the tonic, or move quickly to the tonic. This constant moving toward and away from the key note in quick succession makes the chorus very singable, very memorable, and extremely catchy.
These kind of “ear-worm” songs that you just can’t get out of your head need very little else to keep listeners entertained. So the song succeeds with nothing but a simple 4-chord progression and a simple essentially-no-bridge formal design.
There are small elements introduced later in the tune, elements that help provide a small touch of variation: the whistling chorus (2’48″) and the chorus with reduced instrumentation at 3’03″.
Songs that exhibit almost no change in tempo, instrumentation or harmony are risky, and demand a chorus that uses a strong hook, where the melody, and especially the song title, are fun to sing.
“Pumped Up Kicks” succeeds because of simplicity. The lyrics are spellbinding, around the issue of gun violence and absent parents. It can be very effective to almost belie the profundity of a lyric by setting it to a cheerful, bouncy chorus. The starkness of the vocal production in the verse helps give a sense of isolation and aloneness. It all works beautifully.
The song, in short, is a model for a basic songwriting principle that composers need to remember: In the balance between complexity and simplicity, the latter almost always wins out.
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