The previous post, "Song Bridges," explored a move that songwriters make.
- A bridge questions the song’s assumptions and/or discovers a new way of looking at things.
- It accompanies this questioning by traveling through new musical terrain. It has to get away from where it has been in order to gain perspective.
- As a result of this questioning and travel through new musical terrain, a song gains a deeper understanding of what it has always been.
- Because a bridge reconsiders things, it has to wait for the main ideas to be established.
One interesting variant of a bridge is a middle eight, a move common in old standards, Beatles songs, early R & B, and elsewhere.
The Setting for a Middle Eight
Generally speaking, songs with middle eights lack the repeating choruses found in modern pops songs. They are more likely to have one-line refrains that fold into the verses. Sometimes the one-line refrain comes at the end of the verse, such as in Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You,” and sometimes it comes at the beginning, such as in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The basic pattern for a song of this structure is verse, verse, middle eight, verse. The term middle eight refers to the fact that the individual sections are often eight bars in length.
What does the middle eight do? Like a bridge, a middle eight changes point of view, musically and lyrically.
Let’s first consider the musical shift.
Here, John Coltrane plays the song melody on his saxophone (the first 1:55 of the track), the pianist does some soloing, and then saxophone returns to play the second half of the melody (2:53-end).
Let’s focus on the first round of melody (0:00 – 1:55). It can be thought of as four phrases — A, A, B, A. Since there are three A phrases, I’ll refer to them individually as A1, A2, and A3.
A1 — (0:00 – 0:28)
A2 — (0:29 — 0:57)
B — (0:58 — 1:26)
A3 — (1:27 — 1:55)
Notice that each phrase of the melody serves a slightly different purpose.
A1 states the main idea.
A2 repeats the main idea, further establishing it.
B enters new musical terrain, from where it reconsiders things.
A3 restates the main idea, which now is heard differently in light of B.
The B section is the middle eight. Notice here is how the middle eight steps outside of the previously established musical landscape. (Trained musicians might observe that the song changes key here, a common trait of middle eights.) Because it steps away from and perhaps speaks back to the melody that came before, this B section sets the ground for hearing A3, the final statement of A, with slightly different ears. We’ve learned something about A by way of B. The meaning of A feels somehow expanded.
Note the structural similarity with the songs we looked at in the previous post. The middle eight has to let the main idea get established before shifting terrain to reconsider it.
Now let’s add the lyrical dimension.
The form here is a similar: verse, verse, middle eight, verse (followed by middle eight, verse, etc.).
The verses all end with the one-line refrain “My old man, keeping away my blues.”
The middle eights (“But when he’s gone . . .”), do two things:
- They shift to new musical terrain. The verses (in a major key) are emotionally brighter, whereas the middle eights (in a minor key) shift to a darker, more interior musical mood.
- They challenge the main lyrical idea. The verses detail the singers affection for ‘my old man’ and the joy he brings her. The middle eights, by contrast, describe the desperation she feels in his absence.
The meaning of the subsequent verses is thus deepened. After the singer has looked at the dark side of her love (the loneliness and lack of control she feels when he’s gone) in the middle eights, her declarations of affection mean more to us as listeners. The middle eights add important dimension. Without them, the detailing of affection might feel shallow.
Usually, a middle eight comes around twice or more in a song.
Recall that the basic form for a song with a middle eight is AABA, where the A sections are the verses and B is the middle eight. When middle eights are used, components of the song form are generally shorter. (Recall, for instance, that these songs generally don’t have standalone choruses. Instead they use verses that include a refrain, which thus does the work of a chorus—hammering home the song’s big idea.) As a result, in songs with middle eights, the AABA form extends—AABABAABA for example. So we typically hear the middle eight twice or more.
Compare that with the form of a typical modern pop song that uses full-blown choruses:
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Chorus Bridge Verse Chorus Chorus
If you think of each verse / chorus combination as an A section and the bridge as the B section, this form can be simplified to AABA. The length of the sections makes it unlikely that the bridge would reoccur, though it can happen.
What this means is that songs with middle eights work their magic through repetition of lighter elements. Perhaps the move away from this model may have something to do with how our addiction to big pop choruses has driven things.
If you want to listen to more songs with middle eights, the long list includes . . .
A slew of Beatles songs including “We Can Work It Out.”
The verses end with the refrain “We can work it out.”
The middle eights begin “Life is very short . . . ”
All kinds of Motown hits, including “Shop Around”
The verses end with the refrain “My mama told me ‘You better shop around.’”
The middle eights begin with “’Try to get yourself a bargain son . . .’”
A number of Reggae songs, including Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”
The verses all begin with the refrain “Many rivers to cross . . .”
The middle eight (which happens only once) begins with “And this loneliness won’t leave me alone . . .”
Stevie Wonder songs, including “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”
The verses all begin with the refrain “You are the sunshine of my life”
The first middle eight begins with “I feel like this is the beginning . . . ”
The second middle eight begins with “You must have known that I was lonely.”
Everly Brothers hits, including “Crying in the Rain”
The verses all end with the refrain “I’ll do my crying in the rain.”
The middle eight begins with “Raindrops falling from heaven . . .”
“Crying in the Rain” is one of the many hits written by Carole King and Gerry Goffen that use middle eights. Another example would be “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
The verses all end with the refrain “Will you still love me tomorrow?”
The middle eights begin with “Tonight, with words unspoken . . .”
Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”
The verses all begin and end with with the refrain “Lovin you.”
She adds a vocal interlude at the end of each set of verses “La la la la . . .”
The middle eights begin with “No one else can make me feel the colors that you bring. . .”
Thank you for reading. In the next two posts, I will give some examples of how analogs to song bridges appear in film and literature.