In pop music, most phrases come in groups of 2 or 4 which, in turn, are 4 or 8 bars in length. The utter predictability of this often lends a sameness that goes beyond the fact that so many hit songs seem to have just one note in their chorus hooks (You…make…me…feel…like a teen…age…po po poker face…)
It wasn’t always thus. Renaissance music often had some very odd phrasing and Gregorian chant doesn’t really have recognizable bars at all. Shenandoah, an American folk song from the early 1800s has five phrases where you would normally expect four. This added phrase delays the final phrase “cross the wide Missouri” and gives it added poignancy.
The American Songbook standard, All the Things You Are (by Kern and Hammerstein) has an extra phrase at the end that makes it stand out from its 32 bar brethren. Early rock n’ roll often added extra bars. Check out the 13 bar blues in Big Mama Thornton’s version of Hound Dog.
And uneven numbers of phrases are still common in traditional music around the world. But it’s so rare in contemporary western music that using asymmetrical phrasing can make a piece stand out – often without the listeners knowing why – and be a cool hook.
One of the most temped pieces in the film world is Journey to The Line by Hans Zimmer from the movie The Thin Red Line. “Temp” is music that is put in as underscore temporarily, as a place-holder, while waiting for the score to be written. Journey to the Line works so well for everything that it has become the bane of composers everywhere. Once it’s put under a scene by the editor or music editor, it’s almost impossible to do anything better, so the director or producer begin asking you to “make it more like the temp.” (This is called “temp love”, one of the most feared artistic diseases that infect those who get to tell composers what to do.)
It is such an effective piece that Hans has told his crew to never, ever, let it be used in the temp of a movie he’s working on because he’s already had to knock it off five or six times. As a result it’s called The Forbidden Cue.
I was once watching Carnivàle, scored by the fabulous Jeff Beal. The final scene in the last episode of season one came up. “Wow”, I thought, “that sounds a lot like Journey to the Line. Hey, it is Journey to the Line!” I surmised what had happened – and confirmed it with Jeff – that some well meaning person temped it in and then the producers spent the next two weeks torturing him until they decided to simply license the original. He was gratified to know Hans had been likewise abused.
So why is Journey to the Line so irresistible? One reason is that it goes from a whisper to a roar over a period of several minutes. Yeah, but so do a lot of forgettable pieces. It has a ticking sound that implies a ticking clock. Yawn. A compelling melody and chord changes that go from dark to light (in D dorian minor – Hans’ fave.) No doubt part of it.
But the biggest reason, imo, is that it never quite feels like it has “landed.” And this is because the piece is, for all intents and purposes, the same 11 bars over and over. Not 12, not 16. 11. Hans works intuitively so I doubt he was aware of it when he wrote it, at least not at first, but there is a sense of incompleteness about an 11 bar phrase that makes the next bar feel like the completed 12th bar. Except that it’s the first bar of the next phrase so we’re off to the races again. I believe this subliminal quality of restlessness is the real reason why everyone and his editing cat reach for this one again and again.
Here is a leadsheet transcription (by Kevin Brough) of those fateful 11 bars starting about 2:52 into the piece. Almost everything before and after derives from this:
So the next time you write something that feels like it could use that extra little bit of the unexpected to make your work more memorable, you might trying adding an extra bar or phrase. Or, perhaps, take away something so that you never quite get to the end of the