Song Analysis: “Pumped Up Kicks” (Foster the People)

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Foster the People: "Pumped Up Kicks"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”:

Pumped Up Kicks Formal Design

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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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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23 Comments

  1. Aaron

     /  August 3, 2011

    I like the song and find it to be very catch for the reasons you state, but it reminds me of another song that I can’t place. Do you know of any other songs with a similar progression from the 80′s?

    Reply
    • I was thinking the same thing when I first heard it. At first, I wondered if it was reminding me of “Hit Me WIth Your Best Shot” (Pat Benatar), because of the melodic shape of the start of the chorus. The background vocals remind me of the background vocals in The Eagles’ “One of These Nights.”

      Reply
    • Michel

       /  December 15, 2011

      I’m on a blog rampage, looking high and low too for that 80′s song the chorus reminds me of! This is the kind of stuff I remember from way back when I was really young, so it’s stretching the limites of my memory so painfully it hurts not to be able to find a name for it.

      My finger would be on the production of the chorus: that nearly a cappella that sounds like it’s sung by LOTS of people, the dancehall-like echo. I know it’s silly to say, but it sounds like it would be sung by a Black artist. The way the vocals are compressed would also be responsible for the sound.

      We need an eighties expert!

      Reply
  2. You are right. There is a song with a chorus melody that sounds identical to Pumped Up Kicks. I heard it on an oldies channel a few weeks back. I didn’t catch the name then and I can’t find the song ANYWHERE or any reference to the similarity — which is why I’m on this blog.

    Reply
    • Brian Longfellow

       /  October 25, 2011

      It reminds me of the male vocals on “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.

      Reply
      • cristy

         /  November 11, 2011

        totally different then that song. This is going to drive me crazy until i figure it out. It sounds like a song i listen to back in the day i was even singing the chorus i remember from the other song i can not remember until i realize its not even the song i was singing. I was like, “WOW” i dont know the words like i thought. My husband tells me this is a new song you couldnt of none it. I was like know it’s not. lol Crazy

    • cristy

       /  November 11, 2011

      thats funny i am on here trying to figure the samething out the chorus sound way to familiar.
      I’m an oldies person and thats what it sounds like to me 60′s or 70′s not sure

      Reply
      • Dean

         /  December 6, 2011

        When I heard this I had the same thought and said to my friend, “I haven’t heard this in ages.” and he said, “It only just came out.” So your not alone.

  3. drpedigo

     /  November 15, 2011

    Am I the only we that thinks the hook sounds like Phil Collins Invisible Touch

    Reply
    • I hear what you mean – a dominant note leaping up to several tonic notes in a row, which is the main part of the hook in both songs. Good ear!
      -Gary

      Reply
  4. Jamie

     /  November 15, 2011

    This is one of the most used chord progressons of al time. Oasis uses this in wonderwall and other songs. Just about everyone uses this. The progression is a ii, IV, I, V. Any combination of these has been in play musically since Western music began. I really dig the song, but if you think it sounds familiar its not because it sounds like a particular song; It sounds like most songs.

    Reply
  5. Eric

     /  November 30, 2011

    According to the sheet music, this song appears to be in F minor: http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtdVPE.asp?ppn=MN0097702

    Reply
  6. John

     /  January 22, 2012

    it reminds me of toploader – dancing of moonlight the ref part

    Reply
  7. I came here for the same reason that most of the people have responded above. I heard Foster the People’s “Pumped up kicks” and first thought, “yeah, I remember this song from my childhood!” and then was a bit surprised to learn that it was a new song, with a similar melody to “Dancing in the moonlight” by Toploader. Thank you John for listing the name of the song, because this quizzing of my brain has been driving me absolutely silly. However, the song that I was thinking of was “Dancing in the moonlight” by King Harvest from 1972, which redone by Toploader in 200, if I am not mistaken. Great postings everyone!! And many, many thank yous to you all! :-)

    Reply
    • I meant 2000 for Toploader’s rendition of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the moonlight”. My apologies for the typo–I was so excited to figure out the original song that I was thinking about. :-) Again, thank you Mr. Gary for having this blog and helping me out! :-)

      Reply
  8. Chris

     /  May 27, 2012

    Didn’t see this posted here, but I thought I’d mention how similar the chorus of this song is to “Cleveland Rocks” by Ian Hunter. The song was covered in the 90′s (Drew Carey show theme song) with a few melodic changes that are even more similar to Pumped Up Kicks (link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJ3plaSowWc). A quick Google search and you will find that FTP singer Mark Foster is actually from Cleveland.

    One of my favorite songs regardless. Pumped Up Kicks is a genius of a hit.

    Reply
  9. Malcolm van Coller

     /  January 19, 2013

    Malcolm – Johannesburg South Africa
    I also am stumped by this song, but unlike everybody else here, the fimiliar part for me is the chorus. “Round and and” & “all the other kids” are the words and melody I remember and that sound to me that is was used in the 70′s. I told my son that this must be a remake and he just laughed at me.
    I have a large collection of MP3 music and this sounds to me like something Linderfarne did. I listened to all their songs I have and its not them. Next I listened to “Part Doll” but not that either. None of the songs mentioned futher up are the song that I have running around in my mind.

    Reply
  10. Larry

     /  November 24, 2013

    I think it sounds a little like David Bowie/Queen-Under Pressure.

    Reply
  1. Songwriting Link of the Day June 22, 2011 | Creative Music

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