Weekly Billboard Theory — Say You Won’t Let Go

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I don’t find much value in sappy Top 40 songs. My mindset hasn’t change with “Say You Won’t Let Go” by James Arthur. Who? Idk. Irregardless, there are some concepts that can be learned from Arthur’s biggest hit. Let’s not waste any time.

We get it, you’re moody, we get it

Say You Won’t Let Go

James Arthur

Key: Bb Major

Tempo: 95 BPM

There’s really nothing all that special about this song but people sure love pseudo-soulful white British dudes with acoustic guitars. The song is largely pentatonic (not surprising) over a very familiar chord progression (I’ll get to this later). Down below is the hook of the song. I circled the first note of the melody as it is the only non-pentatonic note. Also, if you’ve been reading along for a while you might notice that it is also a leading tone. This is one of the only moments of the melody that is non-pentatonic and it fortunately happens to be in a common location. This tension from the leading tone comes back again and again just to be resolved immediately. Again, nothing too special but it is a satisfying resolution against the majority of the song.

To the tune of “Say You Won’t Let Go” — “It’s the leading tone”

So, the next section of the song we’re going to look at is around 0:57. It’s basically the end of the verse. I’m going to quickly mention that the chord progression of the song is I-V-vi-IV: nothing special, but I’ll get back to this later. Below you’ll see the end of the verse: “Scared of letting go.” Again, I circled the non-pentatonic note. This isn’t the leading tone but it does have a function. This function is a suspension. To oversimplify, a suspension is kind of a backwards leading tone that plays on a strong beat. While the leading tone goes up, suspensions resolve down as if they are SUSPENDED above the note (do you get it?). They usually occur from the sixth scale degree going down to the fifth (la-sol), the second down to the tonic (re-do), or in this case we have the fourth going to the third (fa-mi). If you’ve ever played guitar and saw a Dsus or Dsus4, this is a D chord a suspended fourth. I’m sure you’ve heard it before.

To the tune of “Scared of letting go” — “Suspending those chords”

So, something that I left out from the description of suspensions is that they contain a note from the prior chord. A common classical music example of this would be a IV-I progression where the root of the IV steps down to the third of the I. I know that’s confusing if ya don’t have a background in this, but bear with me.

Time and time again I’ve said how pop music functions a little differently than classical music and this is a case of that. The Eb that is circled above is the root of the IV chord that sounds at that time. This means that it actually ISN’T a suspension. Did I previously tell you that it was one just to tell you now that it isn’t it? Sure did.

As a matter of fact, that D is the seventh of the IV chord and only a half step away from the Eb meaning that it COULD function as a leading tone to Eb. HOWEVER! It doesn’t. Since we never really have a cadence (like we would in classical music piece), the I-V-vi-IV progression feels like a huge extension of a I chord. All of those other chords are just passing through to make the song a tad more interesting than one chord over and over. This helps to make sense of why the pentatonic scale works so well as there are no strong dissonances to be heard. Because I am treating the IV chord as a passing chord and not anything with any real function, this means that the Eb above actually CAN be viewed as a suspension. Did I previously tell you that it was one just to tell you that it wasn’t just to tell you now that it actually is?

To make up for how confusing that can be, hopefully it’ll help you to know that it’s also text-painting if you think about it. James Arthur is “scared of letting go” of the pitches from the previous chords so he suspends them before resolving. Sorry.

Pearly whites

One last thing. This will be a much easier concept to grasp, I promise. This song has a pretty tired chord progression. This is fine as most classical music uses a pretty tired chord progression. However, I was thinking about theories regarding how to write counterpoint and how it applies to pop music earlier today. “Say You Won’t Let Go” is kind of a perfect example of this. If ya went to music school, you’ve studied counterpoint to some extent, but to sum it up you’re basically given a line of music (called the cantus firmus) and then you follow various sets of rules to write another line that goes along with the first one. If any of my former teachers are, reading this, sorry about that explanation.

ANYWAYS! If you look at this chord progression as the cantus firmus, then “Say You Won’t Let Go” (and dozens of other songs) are exercises in counterpoint to some extent. Obviously, James Arthur’s requirements to write aren’t as brutal as fifth species counterpoint but this is another way to approach writing music. I often find myself trying to come up with unique chord progressions but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m really just trying to trick myself into thinking that I’ve created something new. By accepting a common chord progression, one can focus on creating an original and interesting melody as the counterpoint to that cantus firmus. And if you’re an annoying elitist who insists that using the same chord progressions is a form of cheating, keep in mind that some of the best musicians of all time have done this. So chill out and get down with the counterpoint.

If you take away the tattoos this could be a senior portrait

Let’s look at what I’ll be writing about next week. Oh, the same top ten songs are the same top ten AGAIN? Tight. Gotta go all the way down to eleven AGAIN? Tight. This time it’s “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt which I’m assuming is a country song by the title of it alone. I never really listen to country so we’ll see how this goes next week. See ya then!

P.S. Despacito is the song of the summer. You’re welcome.