Why should we study other people’s songs?
We can learn a lot about songwriting through close study of other people’s songs. It doesn’t matter whether the song is ‘great’, mediocre or terrible; a song will always teach us something about the craft if we keep an open mind and study it for long enough. It’s also good for us to analyse songs that we don’t like, or that are in styles we would not normally listen to. This can improve our critical faculties, widen our musical palette and lyrical imagination, and is therefore likely to make us better songwriters.
This is a set of teaching notes that I created for the Oxford Songwriters Meetup on 24 Aug 2016. For those who came to the workshop, hopefully these will make sense straightaway. For those of you reading this song study of ‘Hell No’ for the first time, I’d like to encourage you to work through my notes, with the lyrics open on another page, and stopping and starting the video as you go. You need to set aside at least half an hour to do this, but it’s worth it. My analysis is organised according to categories in the Songwriting Pentagon, and the Oxford Songwriting Syllabus.
‘Hell No’ – analysis
Music and lyrics copyright © Barry George Dean, Luke Robert Laird, Ingrid Michaelson
For the full lyrics, click here (opens in a new tab).
Big Idea & Title
- Not taking you back even though you want me. Strong emotional position.
- Hell No! – short, punchy and rhythmic, colloquial, catch-phrase, memorable; immediately reminded of the music; 1st and last line of chorus; gap after the last line of chorus to emphasise Title
(For explanations of the terms in this section, click here.)
- Intro I [used as ostinato]
- Verse A1 [14s]
- Verse A2 [25s]
- Intro II [36s] 8 bb. w/ Pre-chorus I [45s]
- Chorus I [47s]
- Intro III [1:09] 4 bb. w/ line from A2 (‘whatever’ in middle rather than end)
- Verse A2b [1:15] w/ Pre-chorus II
- Chorus I[1:25]
- Bridge [1:47] w/ Pre-chorus III – 2nd half breaks regularity with 7 bb. and uses material from [2:10] Chorus
- Chorus III [2:19]: variant musically and lyrically; then normal version
- Coda [2:41] – last element of Chorus, stated twice, with interpolations from pre-choruses
- Verse 1 sets the scene immediately 3 characters, situation, time, past tense. Verse 2 moves us forward to breakup of relationship, nice link to second type of ‘fake’, present and past tense. Chorus future tense, begins and ends with Title, core emotional message, 2 new characters, 2 reported conversations. Tailpieces and Pre-chorus texts are ‘hooky’. Verse 3 new info about the rocky relationship. Bridge visits new mood of wistfulness and melancholy, altered Chorus says ‘I always knew’ as distinct from ‘Mama said’.
- Colloquial, natural language
- Rhymes; ‘up and go’, ‘let him go’, ‘oh’, ‘hell no’; take him, make him, internal rhyme ‘when I wake, did we make a big mistake’; ‘always knew that a boy like you’; better, sweater; crawling, falling; forever, whatever [nice contrast of meaning]
- Rework meanings: Shoulda known better, won’t make you better; up and go, let him go
- You gonna be sad, you gonna take him back; stop crying, stop crawling [also alliteration]
- Characters: me, you, other girl, Mama, girlfriends
- Details: red sweater, nice glasses, fake red hair, in my bed; Cash and June (Walk the Line)
- Narration; reported dialogue; direct dialogue
- Varying phrase and line length
- Alternations of back and front vowels: just like me uh ah ee; stop crying o ah ee, stop crawling o aw ee; just like me uh ah ee; miss you ee oo; hell no eh oh; oh hell no oh eh oh; cash june a oo; I get it, whatever ah eh ee o eh uh.
- Line endings, almost all vowels; gonna be sad gonna take him back, percussive consonant endings reflect punchy defiance
- Hooks: intro ostinato; ascending motif, descending motif; ‘just like me’ = ‘oh hell no’ on finish; ‘oh hell no’ chorus opening; ‘whatever’, ‘I get it’, ‘gonna take him back’, ‘forget it’; groups shouts of ‘oh’ in intro and start of chorus
- Cohesion: use of 2nds in Verse and Chorus, stretched to 3 note motif in Bridge; material from A2 used for Chorus. Verse tag used in Intros and Choruses (whatever); Pre-Chorus material used in Choruses (am I gonna miss you, gonna take him back)
- Verse: Ascending-descending arches – taking us to unstable on 5 or 4, then back to 1; repetition of motifs, then varying; ends with several versions of interval of 2nd; wide intervals
- Chorus – is highest point melodically so far; emphasises sonority of major 3rd; begins with oscillating interval of 2nd; starts and ends with Title; narrow intervals
- Bridge – longer smoother lines; highest pitch (A)
- catchy syncopations
- short snappy phrases
- variation of music at line 7
- I, IV and V all the way, in different combinations, except for contrasting Bridge that uses VI (relative minor)
- Has the feel of I-IV mostly, like a 2 chord piece
- Distinctive groove – syncopations – cheeky, punchy – staccatos
- Pizzicato for ostinato
- Chorus plays a role: – ‘oh!’ – interjections; join in shouts and chorus entries; asks questions
- Intro I: pizz + drum back beat. Verse A1: same. Verse A2 adds guitar. Intro II adds counter melody. Chorus I: backing voices, drum kit. Intro III like II. Verse A2b marimba. Chorus II: same as I. Bridge: reduced percussion, sustained chords, bass countermelody, then emptier texture, pause in middle. Chorus III same as Chorus I. Coda repeats Chorus material and interpolates Pre-chorus phrases.
- Harmony/Melody: Nice Harmony clashes of IV against 5 in Melody, or V against 4 in Melody
- Melody/Lyric: Strong Melodic and rhythmic motifs for key Lyric ideas – oh hell no, just like me, whatever, gonna take him back. Lyric & Melody combination for Verse: Lyric – aabc-ddee; Music – abac[A1]-abde[A2]; silence after Title ‘Hell no’. ‘Did we make a big mistake?’ long silence afterwards
- Melody/Structure: Vary Melodic shape for Verse, Chorus, Bridge, and even Intro material
- Harmony/Structure/Lyric: shift to minor for Bridge, and wistful text
- Lyric/Structure: Verses address ex-boyfriend; Choruses address him, and refer to exchanges with Mama or girlfriends; Bridge addresses him, and include talking to herself. Bridge has change of idea (wistful wondering, and missing him)