By Theodore Lai, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
As I’m writing this, the upbeat anthem “Some Nights” is playing a perpetual loop in my brain.
This article is an essay on Earworms: music that seems to get stuck really easily in our heads. It’s something everyone has experienced: a catchy tune that replays itself over and over like a broken record. Some last for a few hours, some for days.
So what makes a song so sticky? Why are we able to recite entire lyrics but can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday? What magical power does pitch and rhythm give to words that they can arbitrarily latch onto our subconscious and make or spoil our day?
So I’m a logical person. And I have to attempt to arrive at some conclusion to such an intriguing problem. Take the song currently in my head. Here’s a transcription of the line that begins 1 minute 30 seconds into the record. The phrase lasts for 10 seconds, and it is the defining tune of the song.
“Some nights I wish that this all would end, ‘cuz I could use some friends for a change.”
Any seasoned musician will tell you that music is made up of 3 primary components: melody, harmony and rhythm. Melody defines the changes in pitch that produce different musical notes to create phrases. Harmony is the backbone of melody, a skeleton from which melody is produced. Rhythm defines how long (or short) notes in the melody should last.
The first bar begins with the root note C. The minor third interval that bridges the second bar outlines the change in chord progression, as will be seen in the harmony. This doesn’t last for long; the passing note G to E produces another minor third interval bringing the melody back to the root chord. The passing note D to the root note C further outlines the chord. The melody takes a break with the rest at the end of the second bar, and helps to define the first 2 bars as “part 1” of the melody.
Bars 3 and 4 form “part B”, as a form of call and response to part 2. Bar 3 begins with C, a continuation from bar 2’s ending note, before a major 6th interval to A. This signifies progression into a different chord, a change similar to that in bar 2. The passing note G to E forms the minor 3rd interval that brings the melody back to the root chord, once again similar to that in bar 2. The 3rd bar closes with the passing note D to the root, again similar to bar 2. The last auxiliary note in bar 4, D, brings the melody to a different chord, as well as creates an unresolved feeling which calls for a continuation.
“Some Nights” is written in C Major. The melody begins on the root chord, before transiting to F major (chord IV). The minor third interval, as highlighted in the first melodic note of bar 2, acts as the third of the transition chord. The harmony, after the brief progression to chord IV, shifts back to the first chord. This pattern of I-IV-I-IV can be seen throughout the melody. It should be noted that the melody uses minor third intervals with every plagal cadence (IV-I), a result of which is a resolving feeling throughout the song that lends to its catchy effect. The melody ends on the dominant chord (G major), with the 5th as a note in the melody line. This half cadence, with its feeling of suspension, accompanies the unresolved effect in the last note of the melody.
It should be noted that the term “rhythm” can be applied to the melody and harmony lines, but in this context is being examined in the percussion section of the song.
The rhythm figure follows closely to the pulse of the time signature: each accent lands on the beat. The figure is powerful and exciting, almost like a tribal beat, giving the song its color and energy.
“Some Nights” is mostly characterized as being a chorale sung in close harmony, very much like an anthem. Supporting instruments can be heard throughout the piece, notably a piano playing the chords, and an electric guitar accompanying the chanting sections of the song. It should be noted that the quartet arrangement of Fun, with every member a vocalist in additional to musical instruments, is reminiscent of Queen and The Eagles. Nate Ruess’s vocals have also been compared to Freddie Mercury’s loud and flamboyant style.
Lyrically, the song is an expression of self-identity and ambivalent feelings towards one’s path. The lyrics place the singer in the first person, questioning his past and wondering if he made the right choices in life. The phrases are expressions of vacillating feelings and inner turmoil (some nights I wish my lips could build a castle, some nights I wish they’d just fall off). He reminisces about the past (I still see your ghost), and questions if the values and beliefs he has built up over his life are justified. (Oh Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for, what do I stand for?) He is unsure of himself (Stops my bones from wondering just who I, who I, who I am) and feels cheated at what life has earned him. (So this is it? I sold my soul for this?) Ultimately, he feels that life is not what he thought it would be, but still feels that it is enjoyable and meaningful. (Man you wouldn’t believe, the most amazing things, that can come from, some terrible nights)
So why is “Some Nights” so sticky? Perhaps it’s the song’s harmonic composition. The plagal cadence used throughout the piece is a strong characteristic; the resolving feeling that results brings a feeling of completion. Perhaps it’s the simple melodic structure that can be easily hummed to. Perhaps it’s because we can all identify with a song about identity and self-doubt.
Or perhaps it’s simply because “Some Nights” is powerful, youthful and energetic. And anything with passion and spirit is difficult to forget.