Part 1 - The Inside of the Tune: Analyzing the Bridge in Pop - Elizabeth Newton and Franklin Bruno
Episode 617th February 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:32:52

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In part 1 of this week's episode, Elizabeth Newton and Franklin Bruno discuss the ins and outs of the bridge in popular songs.

This episode was produced by David Thurmaier.

SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

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SMT:

SMT-Pod theme music playing

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this episode, Elizabeth Newton and Franklin Bruno discuss the ins and outs of the bridge in popular songs.

Elizabeth:

Hey everyone, I'm Elizabeth Newton - a writer and musicologist. I am here today with Franklin Bruno, an interdisciplinary writer and musician. Since 1990, Franklin has released 20 albums of original songs, and his poetry, music criticism, and research appears at venues from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism to the 33 1/3 series, for which he wrote a book on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. I first encountered Franklin's work when I came across an article of his in which he theorizes the ontology of pop music. Arguing against accounts that center recordings, Franklin defends popular song as an entity all its own.

Elizabeth 1:10

In Franklin's forthcoming book, he traces the history of pop song through the bridge, a short section of music in the middle of a tune that serves as some kind of transition. Historically, the bridge developed as the B section of a 32-bar AABA form. In contemporary pop music, we often think of a bridge as something that happens once, after a few alternations of verse and chorus, before a final repetition of the song's hook. It turns out that bridges are where a lot of pop music's magic happens. As Thelonius Monk was said to have put it, "The inside of the tune makes the outside sound good." So Franklin, my first question for you: In your book, how do you define the bridge?

Franklin:

Hi Elizabeth! Thanks a lot for talking to me and suggesting this. So, the quote that you mention is something that Theolnius is said to have said to Steve Lacy, in the 60s, when Lacy was in Monk's band for a while and learning his music. And this is one of Monk's few comments on sort-of compositional form. And if you know Monk's music, it makes sense that he would be talking in terms of the bridge because many Monk tunes from "Round Midnight" to "Well You Needn't" are in the AABA form you described. So, that's why I used the "inside of the tune" as the title of the book because "take it to the bridge", famously from James Brown's Sex Machine, was a little bit too easy, so this is a little bit less familiar but equally striking representation of what the bridge is. So my working definition of the bridge is a section or passage of a song or recording or performance (I want all those ontological categories to be on the table) that works within the whole of the song form or musical form to produce effects of contrast, transition, and retransition. Contrast is probably the easiest of those to express, something different happens in the bridge, normally the melody is different - most obviously the words are different.

Franklin:

There is often some degree of harmonic contrast, although not always as I hope we'll see in some examples, but frequently in some traditions and some genres the bridge frequently modulates or at least has different chords (or the same chords in a different order) or a different harmonic rhythm. There's often some contrast along that parameter. And in rhythm, the rhythm arrangement might be different - you might have stop time in the bridge, you might go from a straight 4 to a swung feel, or a Latin feel, or vice versa as in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." And, increasingly in popular music since the Rock era, the bridge is often a site for changes in arrangement and production and timbre and texture. Although, I shouldn't say that those things are never the case in pre-Rock music. So contrast I want to be very general along just about any possible musical parameter. And it can also apply to lyrics too, the lyrics can express an alternative viewpoint, it might be in a different grammatical form, and also they can be prosodically different - the rhyme scheme and the syllable count might be different.

Franklin:

So all of those things are in play as to contrast. Transition is the general sense, and it's hard to express this without very commonplace, but in some ways questionable, musical metaphors. The sense that the bridge is taking you somewhere else, that you're going somewhere, that's on a route or on a trip, and probably somewhere other than where you thought the rest of the piece of music was going. And then retransition is the notion that what happens at the end of the bridge, is that it turns out that where you were going was where you started. What happens at the end of most bridges? You get another A section in the AABA form you mentioned, and in the Monk tunes I mentioned and in "Night in Tunisia." Or in pop/Rock forms, usually another chorus or a verse then chorus comes after the bridge. So, you're going somewhere, but it turns out that the bridge is leading you to a return, a reprise of something that already happened.

Franklin:

And another point about that is that there is almost always some kind of gesture at the end of the bridge that highlights that retransition, it's a moment of drama often. And that can be done in a number of ways - often there is a harmonic link, maybe most typically the bridge will end on the dominant, usually the V or the V7 or other substitutions, again a big generalization. And then going back to the tonic at the start of the next section. So, a V-I or a dominant-tonic cadence is very common at that point. But, there could be also lots of other things working in concert with that such as a vocal turn or a drum fill or a particular new rhythmic figure near the end of the bridge, and so on. So there's lots of possibilities there. So, just a couple of other definitional points before we go on. I do want to say that my background is in philosophy, but partially because of that, I am aware that I am not producing or really trying to produce a socratic definition. These are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a bridge (ahistorically). I am hoping that it's a useful generalization for a large class of cases, and some phenomena that initially seemed disparate but also I want it to be a starting point for an inquiry about hard cases rather than the end point of an analysis. So, it's just to have something on the table.

Franklin:

Two other things that I wouldn't say are exactly definitional but fairly important, maybe the most obvious: the bridge happens somewhere in the middle. There can be kinds of arrangements that start with a fragment of the bridge, sometimes the bridge is reprised at the very end of the song. But in general, if we're talking about a bridge it's going to occur at least once in the middle of the piece of music. It often, as you said, occurs only once (though there are lots of exceptions to that). You often get a full or partial reprise of sections of the songs including the bridge as is the case with most Beatles records before I think about 1966. And it's often a quality of turning a fairly short song into a record of commercially viable length. You want to go back to the bridge at least once. Also, because it appears less often, partially, it's also hierarchically considered less important than other parts of the song. It has a subsidiary quality; it's usually not the part of the song or record that has the hook, that has the most catchy material that you'd be inclined to hum if someone said "do you know that song?"

Franklin:

Some bridges are very hard to remember or sing - I always have trouble remembering exactly how the bridge of "Single Ladies" goes, "Soul Man," by Sam and Dave is a song that does have a bridge but hardly anyone ever thinks of it. So, this is interesting because given that popular music is strongly associated with the ideas of immediacy and musical directness, and sometimes even with simplicity (whether that's considered a good thing or a bad thing). And with mass accessibility, popular in that sense, it raises this question: well, why is there often this bit of the song that sort of doesn't obey that imperative? Why do we have this complication? What is that for?

Elizabeth:

Yea, I'm thinking about how this definition might play out in practice. And I'm thinking about a pop artist today Taylor Swift. On Spotify, fans have made dozens of playlists that highlight just Taylor Swift's bridges with playlist titles like "Taylor Swift bridges that are God-tier" and "Taylor Swift bridges that even a civil engineer couldn't build." And I notice that a song that comes up at the top of a lot of these lists is Swift's "All Too Well."

Music:

["All Too Well" playing"]

Elizabeth:

And what I gather from you is that what listeners call her "bridge" isn't quite a bridge it's really more of a dramatic chorus. And so what listeners are identifying as a bridge there isn't quite what you would define as a bridge. So, could you say a little more about how you distinguish bridges from other sections such as a pre-chorus or something? Or what is it that's going on?

Franklin:

Yea, let me say about that example. First of all, I hadn't heard the civil engineer playlist, I like that a lot. It is definitely the case that Taylor Swift especially within the current economy of pop chart artists is much more likely to have a bridge in her songs than many. And I think that's partially because she comes out of a professionalized national songwriting tradition and probably came up in a kind-of apprenticeship where rules of song form were often obeyed. Although, it would be interesting to look at changes within country. It wouldn't have been the case that a country song at a certain period would likely have a bridge, but I think it did become more the case later possibly in the 80s.

Franklin:

And I think that fans respond to that as actually a way of noting that she is serious or advanced in some way in her craft. There's somethin going on with her dedication to the tradition of songwriting. I'm not saying it's absent from other artists, but I think it's something that her fans want to focus on. And I think it's sort of related to a "tour" thing that's been going on with her. The case you mentioned "All Too Well" is a strange case in that after the second chorus - there's verse, pre-chorus, chorus...verse, pre-chorus, chorus - then you hear the dominant chord, actually, a big dominant chord before what might be the bridge. And then you hear what I would tend to classify as a group of variant choruses.

Franklin:

With new lyrics and a more intensified arrangement. But the same progression and roughly the same melody always ending with the title "All Too Well, I remember it all too well." And it actually ends on a tonic. She sings "all too well" differently, the phrase extends so that it lands on the tonic rather than going into the loop progression of the rest of the song. And then there is a kind of pause and she goes into a final verse. So, it's a puzzle case, and that's part of why I want to say: don't take my definition as having the force of law. In previous conversations, we talked about this question of whether it's a bridge, and I do want to say I just happened to see her interviewed on Seth Myers. And she said in the new extended version that she's releasing on her Red Taylor's Version, there's a whole bunch of lines including part of the bridge that I cut out. So she refers to it as a bridge as well. So I am not going to tell you that Taylor Swift does not know which parts of the song are which parts of the song, right? But it's an unusual case in that it doesn't do some of those things.

Franklin:

I think of it as an intensification rather than a transition. But, your mileage may vary is all I'll say about that.

Elizabeth:

"All Too Well" is a little bit of an exception. Maybe we could take a more straight forward example of a Taylor Swift bridge. I'm thinking, for example, of "We are never, ever getting back together" Can you talk a little bit about how the bridge works in this song?

Franklin:

Right, so this is from the same record as "All Too Well," Red, in 2012, and I should say co-written and produced by Taylor Swift, Max Martin, and another Swedish producer who goes by the name Shellback. And we're just going to play the bridge but you probably want to listen to the entire song because bridges are only bridges in context, it's a relational concept. But overall, the overall song form, is that there's a verse, where you get a lot of details about this on-again off-again relationship, and why it stinks. And that's kind-of in a conversational voice, a lot of syllables. Then you get a pre-chorus, which is more expansive, and a little bit more fuller voice, and different melody. And then you get the big "breakout chorus" with the title and you get that material. And then all of that is repeated: you get another verse that gives you more details, you get I think a pre-chorus with the same lyrics, and you get another chorus. And then something else happens - and maybe that's a good place to play that section.

Music:

["We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together" playing]

Franklin:

Okay, so you hear a few things going on there. Right at that moment, the start of that section, the texture, the production changes radically and suddenly. Most of the rhythm track seems to drop out. There's a different filter on the voice. I feel like she's singing in a little bit of a different tone too in those first couple of lines a little bit dreamy or introspective. And she's singing about what she used to think about love and relationships. There's a little bit of "Both Sides Now" in here, I think. But the lyrics are "I used to think that we were forever ever" and that's the first time she's said forever in the song. And then "and I used to say never say never" which is another way of saying "forever." So there's this inner play in different sections in different sections of the song, a lot of it revolves around the words never, ever, forever, and together are kind of the central nodes of the song that get permuted in different ways and in different sections.

Franklin:

So, we get that couplet which also has a little bit of a different melody than any previous section, it's related to the pre-chorus I think. And then you get this spoken section where you hear her as though she's on the phone talking to a friend. And this is a moment of great intimacy - it gives you the sense that you're on the phone with Taylor Swift and she's confiding in you about her relationship. And this is a kind of fan service, this is another thing that I think is producing the strong feeling of identification that fans have with her. But it's also a partially generic move - there are a number of Taylor Swift songs that have partially or completely spoken bridges - "Look What You Made Me Do" and "Shake It Off," And it goes back to girl groups like the Shangri-Las and there are moments like this in Britney Spears and so forth. So, it's placing itself in a tradition as well.

Franklin:

And then at the end of that, she says that this is exhausting. I love the fact that she says "exhausting" because she's describing the relationship, but there's also a certain sort of formal exhaustion. There's nowhere else for the record to go except for back to the chorus where we sort of run out of new stuff. And what happens is she says "like ever" in this sassy way and then you get the big full vocal production sound comes back in. And you get this big "no" that sails, soars over the re-entrance of the chorus of "we are never, ever getting back together."

Franklin:

So all of those things are happening and two other points I would make about this are that you do hear, like I said, there's kind of a drop out at the start of the bridge and you don't really hear the guitar part. But then gradually, the rhythm track comes back in, I'm sure a lot had to be done in digital editing to get this the way they want. And the guitar part that runs through a lot of the song comes back in, and so there's this sort of build back up to the dynamic level that you need to get into the next chorus. And also, I hadn't realized this, even when I started thinking about the example, but the bridge (and in fact, every section of this song) is over the same 4-chord harmonic loop. C-G-Dsus-Em and played in voicings that keep the G&D constantly played. If you found the chord shapes on the guitar you would see "oh this is it, it's actually pretty easy to find." And in Roman terms that turns out to be IV-I-V-vi. So this loop doesn't actually begin on the tonic it begins on the IV. And sometimes the vi doesn't get played, some phrases end by staying longer on the V or the dominant. And that's what happens actually here at the end of the bridge.

Franklin:

So this is an example of what I was saying about bridges often ending with a dominant. Although in this case, it does go back to the IV rather than the I. And, there's no key change - there's no modulation, there's no change in what the harmonic basis of the different sections of the song are. One reason I mentioned Max Martin, other than just to give credit for the collaboration, is that this is very characteristic of his productions of the teens and of the whole chart-pop style that is still with us but may have peaked right around this time (2010-12). You have various Katy Perry songs, and Lorde's "Royals" and so on. Where every section of the song is the same 3 or 4 chord loop. And not that Max Martin was involved in every single one of these, but I think of him as the kind of standard bearer.

Franklin:

Any many of those songs don't have a section that you would easily call a bridge. And it's interesting that in this case, the convention of there being harmonic contrast at the bridge (a modulation or a new chord progression) is not observed. And this is partially a generic and historical and stylistic thing that's happening now. But, nonetheless, just about every other possible parameter is being brought to bear on differentiating this section from the rest of the record. So, that's one of the reasons why I want my definitions to be very general so that we can take in cases over a fairly long period of pop history that don't have all the same qualities. You don't want to define bridge in terms of "it modulates to another key and goes back through the V" - not always true. But, you have other options.

Elizabeth:

So I'm thinking about these conventions that you're talking about, and in this particular song, the way that that dominant functions in order to set us up for this climactic moment where we return to the chorus. And that moment where the chorus hits and returns, it feels to me like a drop. And I think that's what a lot of listeners find so exciting about the music. So I'm curious how the idea of a drop, like in dance music and in club music, how does that relate to your idea of the bridge?

Franklin:

So, I should say right off that I do not consider myself an expert scholar in EDM. So, someone who is would make much finer distinctions about how the concept of the drop and the techniques of the drop work in genres like dubstep. But, in general terms, what is going on in that music is not so much in terms of song form. It is creating tensions and release and the return of the beat of the full arrangement after a section where things drop out. Certainly what happened in pop production at a certain point is this idea got imported into a more song-based idea of sectional form. And you might even as a dance music purist be offended that pop in the "chart-pop" sense, is kind of appropriating this other form. But that's what pop does.

Franklin:

And what I would say is that in this case, you don't get the kind of thing that you get in many EDM drops. The digital equivalent of a sped-up drum roll moving into the next section. But, I do think that that moment of getting back into the higher level of intensity with the chorus is in this general category. And, I think that at least in context of popular song writing and production, it's a new or novel means to a very old end. You could do something similar with played drum fill or other arrangement features. So, this again, I don't want to harp on the definition, but again I think that this is a place where you don't want to tie the ideas to a particular genre or period. But also look at how devices that are strongly associated with different production styles or periods or genres end up fulfilling some of the same kind of very broad functional categories.

Elizabeth:

In your book you talk about soul and Motown music, and I'm wondering if maybe we could take an example from these genres. We've talked about the tune "Tracks of my Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. What's going on with a bridge like that?

Music:

["Tracks of My Tears" playing]

Franklin:

So, this project for me hasn't been about "oh here are my favorite bridges" or "here are the greatest bridges." But, that is a bridge that I unreservedly love. And again, just to give the credits correctly: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1965, co-written with Pete Moore who was one of the Miracles and the main vocal arranger for the group and Marv Tarplin, who was the Miracles' main guitarist. Who, unlike a lot of the Motown studio musicians, mainly worked with the Miracles and lots of Smokey Robinson songs kind of began apparently from a guitar riff that he would come up with. So, again, just to give a little sketch of the whole song which you probably know but should listen to.

Franklin:

No pre-chorus, although pre-choruses were very big in Motown. Verse, that gives various representations of what the singer's emotional situation is and that he's hiding the fact that he's in love and that he's heartbroken under a happy facade. Then, the chorus comes right after that; you get a triple rhyme to the title "Tracks of My Tears." Then, there's a little thing the "I need you, I need you..." that happens a couple of times. People will sometimes call that a link. All of that repeats and then you get the link again. Then that little chord sequence continues and it's just two chords C and G. The song is in G, and the verse and chorus they both start on the I. It's very I-IV-V. There's some passing chords, but it's all diatonic. Then at the bridge, you start getting this pattern of C to G with the G on an off beat, you get a different syncopation, and he sings different lyrics and there's even a little bit of call and response.

Franklin:

Outside, the Miracles sing, I'm masquerading, says Smokey, inside my hope is fading. And I couldn't help when I thought we were going to do this. The bridge is about the inside and the outside, it's about the relationship between the inner state and what he's showing the world. Anyway, it continues over the same bit, rhymes come faster now: "just a clown, oh yea, since you put me down." Then you get a huge retransitional moment: "my smile is my makeup, I wear since my breakup with you." With this internal rhyme (signature Smokey Robinson).

Franklin:

Over really emphatic triplets. I happen to look at a couple of chord charts for this (which, go to the record obviously). It's usually given as those notes like G-F#-Em over and over, but I hear the E minor very strongly. That's the only place you get the relative minor in the song, you don't hear E minor anywhere else. Then "with you" D-dominant, ready to go back to the chorus. Two other little things I'll point out about that. This is a common theme for Smokey Robinson - "Tears of a Clown" a few years later is really a variation on the same concept. Really especially in this song, it's hard not to hear in the context of a racial masking and the understanding of Motown as a crossover act, in ways that go back to probably Paul Lawrence Dunbar. So I think that is at work in what Smokey Robinson was up to here even though it's in the frame of a romantic ballad.

Franklin:

And also, those triplets, that are very clear in the vocal line - different melodic rhythm than anything else that happens in the song. But, you hear them echoed in the arrangement of other sections. There are triplets in the horns behind the group. And unfortunately with Motown, it's often hide to find credits. I couldn't easily find a credit for who maybe the arranger was, but it says it was the Detroit Symphony Orchestra who was playing on that. So somebody at Motown wrote some triplets for these classical musicians to play. I would like to think, noticing that there's this nice touch in the bridge that we will anticipate in the arrangement.

Elizabeth:

Yea, I'm thinking about this idea of masking that you bring up and what might be going on in the bridge or what kind of expression is reserved for the bridge? Or that the bridge enables? Just thinking about song form I think of an aria, which is this place which is musically rich and really impressive, but also a place in the narrative where someone is sharing their inner mind and not necessarily contributing to the plot. I'm curious how this comes up in the place of bridges? I can kind of imagine it both ways that the bridge is the place where any kind of exposition is paused and it's just a place of musical richness. Or on the other hand, I could see that maybe the bridge in this case with "Tracks of My Tears," the bridge is a place where something could be advanced or expressed that isn't surfacing in the rest of the song.

Franklin:

Yea, I think that's tricky. In this song, the imagery really is very unified. It's not as though it's only in the bridge you understand that he's unhappy. I've thought that too, there are plenty of songs where the bridge actually doesn't "say" anything different. "And when I touch you I feel happy inside, it's just a feeling that my love I can't hide." I don't know how much that adds to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." But, there are examples where the lyrics (I'm sorry to go to the Beatles too many times) "A Day in the Life" is notorious. What's going on - Paul McCartney is suddenly singing about being on the bus right after John Lennon has described terrible things in the newspaper. Then somebody spoke "and I went into a dream" and then you go back into the thing. It's kind of an outer-inner or maybe inner-outer - I don't know which is the figure and which is the ground in a case like that.

Franklin:

In "We are Never Ever Getting Back Together," the vocal filtering in the bridge and the different degrees of outwardness or performativity or force of the singing do map how much you're supposed to see the sentiments expressed as introspection. So definitely, different parts of the song can represent different mental states. And sometimes the bridge can be a place for second thoughts or ambivalence or enriching or complicating things. By the way, I don't know what opera you're seeing, but one funny comment that I came across is the very old-school musicologist Wilfrid Mellers complaining about Rossini's arias that begin with some material, repeat it, and then have some kind of contrasting development, then end by going back to the first thing with a coda to build up the applause. And he sort of says this disdainfully, as if this is very formulaic. So I'm heaping praise on the bridge, but there are also views on which this form it's predetermined that the bridge will get you back to the chorus. Maybe this sense that there's complexity or ambivalence or a development is a kind of illusion ultimately in the service of just getting back to the hook.

SMT:

Visit our website for supplemental materials related to this episode at smt-pod.org. And join in the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Please join us for Part 2 of this conversation. Thanks for listening!

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