Why it's a Great Song #1: American Pie
So today I'm pleased to start a new series within my blog called Why It's a Great Song. I'll be taking some of the most popular songs of all time and putting them under Dr Fox's microscope to examine exactly WHY and HOW they are great songs. So let's get things under way with our first song of the series: American Pie (Don McClean).
1) Mixture of main instrument The song begins on the piano for the first verse/chorus. It then changes to a mainly guitar accompaniment with a few sprinkles of piano for effect. Towards the end of the song it changes back again to the piano, then back once again to finish with the guitar. This keeps the listener interested by virtue of variety.
2) Strong opening line
"A long, long time ago I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..."
This could be the beginning to a great novel, or an epic poem. But it's not, it's a song. It's up there with "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". Don McLean grabs us by the ears straight away and doesn't let go.
The way in which the tempo pauses slightly on the words "ago" and "chance", The slight mis-timing between piano chord and lyric on the words "music" and "happy". The split piano chord right before "But February...." These are all great examples of tension being created by the performer(s). Tension is what keeps us the listeners on edge - are we going to get our resolution or not?
4) Confounding expectation with tempo
The first verse and chorus are both rather slow and relaxed - is this a ballad of sorts? But for the second verse onwards (apart from the very end) the song picks up in tempo to become a classic sing-a-long rock song. Aah, and it feels so good.
5) Playing with the fifth (V) chord
One for the musicians amongst you. A little trick I've used myself in a song or two, notice the little "turn" on the fifth chord at the end of each verse. It goes from A11 - A9 - A - A11 - A - A9 - A or variations on that. It's a nice technique that creates a bit of musical interest. Some writers would have just held the A chord, but that's a bit boring.
6) Memorable chorus
Not only does it rhyme (Pie, dry, rye, die), but the melody repeats three times too. This makes it very easy to sing along to and remember. It's in your head now, right?
7) Myth of meaning
There are various Youtube videos and websites dedicated solely to deciphering the meaning of the songs lyrics. We are never entirely sure what it all means, but it probably means something to all of us in different ways. Don McLean himself explains it best when asked what was the meaning of the song: "I don't ever have to work again". Legend.