Asaf Peres

Ariana Grande's "No Tears Left to Cry" - An Experiment by Max Martin and Co.

Ariana Grande just dropped "No Tears Left to Cry", the lead single from her upcoming album. I don't know how it will do with the general public, but it certainly has people talking in the pop creators community. Two of the most active Facebook groups for pop songwriters and producers--Make Pop Music and the Max Martin Appreciation Society--have been abuzz since the release, hosting fierce debates about every aspect of the production, composition, lyrics, vocal performance, and cultural relevance of this song.

My first impression is that the songwriting and production team--which includes Grande, Max Martin, Ilya, and Savan Kotecha--is exploring some new territory. Only time will tell if their experiments will seduce the general public, but there are definitely a lot of interesting things in this song worth writing about. 

Check out the song:

Experiments in Deconstruction and Reconstruction

Max Martin has mentioned before that he is not shy about adapting to changing trends. He likely recognizes that the big hits today are looser and don't necessarily follow his famous melodic math. In order to loosen things up, some songs play around with unconventional melodic structures, others with adding chromatic harmony, and some even mess with the big-picture song form. But "No Tears Left to Cry" doesn't simply adapt or try to sound like another trending song. It out-loosens all of them by deconstructing everything--the melody, the harmony, the form--and then gluing it all together using his immense musical toolbox.

The Chorus

​For example, the chorus isn't nearly as tight or catchy as most of hit choruses written by Martin and his collaborators. Each subsection of this chorus is made up of four phrases, the first three being loosely related to each other and the fourth ("pickin' it up") almost completely unrelated. But several things make up for this not-very-catchy structure.

Previewing: First, There's a sonically stripped and slowed down version of the chorus as the intro (0:20-0:43), so by the time you get to the actual chorus (1:22), it's supposed to sound familiar.

(Note the text painting in the intro--Grande singing "pickin' it up" repeatedly as the tempo picks up)

Extending and gluing: The presence of the "pickin' it up" phrase is extended by having Grande repeat it as a rap.  On the one hand, this rap serves as a kind of postchorus that is born out of the chorus, but on the other hand the shifts in both the sonic energy and the chord progression tie it to the following verse (I will elaborate on the chord progression in the "Chords and Melody" section). 

Evolving and fusing together different sections: The chorus also evolves as the song progresses. At first, as I mentioned, it's disguised as the intro. Then, when it becomes a real chorus (1:22-1:54), it's split into two subsections with partially different lyrics. Finally, toward the end of the song, the chorus is extended and transformed into a 'mega-chorus' (2:33-3:36) by fusing the prechorus topline into the continuous sonic texture and harmonic progression of the chorus (3:04-3:20), and then returning for another final iteration of the original chorus topline (3:20-3:36). This creates a large-scale unified section in AABA form. 
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The Chords and Melody

Probably more than any other songwriter/producer, Martin is known for songs that stick to a single chord loop throughout all the sections and allow the topline and sonic structure to outline the form.

While in "No Tears Left to Cry" there are only two different progressions, they both do very un-Martin things. 

The intro and chorus chord progression is extremely varied by any modern pop song standard, and evolves through each of the four phrases. From i-VII-VI-VII (Am-G-F-G) in the first phrase it changes slightly to i-VII-VI-v (Am-G-F-Em) in the next. Then comes a more significant change to III-iv-i (C-Dm-Am) in the third phrase. In the fourth phrase the chord progression cycles back to III (C), but instead of immediately embarking on a path to i (Am), it lingers on III, which is also the tonic of the relative major key, and only resolves to i in the following section, by moving through a passing tone in the bass.

The chord progression in the verse, prechorus, and rap sections is much more repetitive by comparison, but it is also adventurous by modern pop standards. It ventures into non-diatonic territory by 'majorizing' the tonic--instead of i-VI-VII (Am-F-G) we get I-VI-VII (A-F-G). This was pretty common at various times in the 20th century, especially in R&B, but unusual for pop songs in 2018.

If we count each variation within the chorus progression, that's five different chord progressions in the song, including one that is not entirely diatonic.

​This doesn't seem congruent with Martin's usual approach of keeping things simple. So what happens in "No Tears Left to Cry" to make things more palatable for the listener? 

Parallel Intervals Between Bass and Lead Vocal

​The first thing I noticed about the prechorus was the parallel perfect fifths (off to the music theory Gulag, Martin and Ilya!) between the bassline and Grande's lead vocal.

This sequence is repeated at the beginning of each of the three phrases in the prechorus, as well as another time with the synth playing the upper melody sans the vocal line.

The chorus is a huge shift from the prechorus in terms of the melody, the harmony, and the sonic texture, but it still features parallel motion between the bass and vocal line, which acts as a glue element.

This time, it's parallel thirds (plus 1 or 2 octaves) instead of fifths. The parallel motion in the chorus is not as rhythmically in sync as in the prechorus, but is still very obvious.

(Note: Due to the length of the examples, I separated the staff and piano roll notation below)

Parallel 3rds

As a bonus, the backing vocals starting at 2:48 also move in parallel motion to the bass, with the most prominent voice moving in parallel octaves. These backing vocals are brought forward in the mix at 3:04-3:20 to continue the parallel motion because the prechorus melody and the chorus harmony are juxtaposed in this subsection and do not move in parallel.

The Prechorus Melody Stays Diatonic

In the verse, the vocal melody does hit on the C# that comes from the A major chord, but in the prechorus it sticks to C-natural and stays diatonic to the key of A minor. 

This not only helps the prechorus feel more related to the chorus, but it allows the prechorus/chorus juxtaposition that I mentioned earlier (which is probably my favorite moment in the song).

Juxtaposing sections is one of Martin's signature moves--particularly juxtaposing the chorus over the final postchorus, as he has done in Britney Spears's "Till the World Ends", Demi Lovato's "Cool for the Summer", and Taylor Swift's "Delicate". But because of the switch from a majorized chord progression to a diatonic minor one, this juxtaposition required some extra planning.

The verse melody, for example, would have sounded awful over the chorus chord progression because there would be too much dissonant clashing. The prechorus melody, however, even though it is originally heard over the same chord progression as the verse, seems to have been carefully planned to work over the chorus progression as well.

​This juxtaposition gives us a glimpse into the high-level compositional skills of the songwriting and production team that created this song, and goes a long way towards molding the scattered parts of this song into a cohesive unit.

The Absence of a Bridge

One more thing that I found interesting is the big-picture form of "No Tears Left to Cry". It's made up of two meta-sections, rather than the usual three, and leaves out the bridge. There are songs that do this--Sia's "Chandelier" or the Chainsmokers' "Roses", for example--but it's certainly not the norm. In fact, I can't think of any bridgeless song that features Max Martin in the credits.

I have no doubt that this was not a random decision, and that Martin and the rest of the team had very good musical reasons that persuaded them to not include a bridge.

If I try to put myself in their shoes, these are the reasons I would come up with:

1. A bridge’s role is to provide contrast and “loosen up” a relatively tight structure. Since there are already quite a lot of loose parts in this song, loosening it up too much more could make it fall apart.

2. The prechorus/chorus juxtaposition in a way makes up for the absence of a bridge because it fuses existing parts to create something new. It is also located where a bridge would normally be.

I'm not sure if those were actually their reasons, but hopefully they would agree with me that those are good justifications to ditch the bridge in this song.

RelatedA Sonic Twist in the Plot: The Bridge in Modern Pop

Will "No Tears Left to Cry" Be a Hit?

My gut feeling is that this song's chart performance will be similar to that of another recent hit--Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do"--which soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but fell off pretty quickly. Both songs are interesting and have received a lot of hype upon their release, as one would expect from lead singles from two of the pop world's mega-superstars would receive. But both also venture away from a lot of current pop conventions, which can make it difficult to hook the masses for a long period of time.

That said, I would not be surprised at all if after a few weeks, "No Tears Left to Cry" seeps into our collective systems and proves once again that no one can come close to Max Martin and his collaborators when it comes to knowing not what their audience wants, but what it needs

Update (APR-26-2018): A previous version of this post wrongly attributed the production of Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" to Max Martin. As was pointed out in the comments below by Marcus Labanda, it was Jack Antonoff--and not Max Martin--who produced this song. I have updated the post to remove the attribution to Martin.

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