It usually takes me a few listens to get addicted to a song. With "Delicate", it was instantaneous. I used music theory to try to figure out why.
Sometimes you get hooked on a song and don’t quite know why. One of the nice things about doing music theory is that it gives you the tools to try to dig deeper and find out what it is about a song that makes you like it so much.
The discoveries you will make by doing this are almost guaranteed to make your listening experience even more enjoyable, even if you're just a casual listener.
If you’re a creator, this type of digging will no doubt add important tools to your toolbox.
Case in point, a little while ago the music video for Taylor Swift’s Delicate popped up on my YouTube feed. I gave it a listen and was immediately hooked. I wasn't sure why, though. It's not the kind of flashy song that immediately makes your body bounce and you just know is going to be a smash hit. It feels kind of low key, something you would play in the background at a late night get-together with a small group of friends.
The vibe and the video were nice, but I knew there was definitely more to this that I didn’t consciously pick up on, so I went digging.
Below I talk about the cool things that I found, but if you haven't heard the song yet, now is your chance:
And now, here are some of the things that I think made me like it so much:
The Tension Between the Formal and Sonic Structure
Delicate starts with something a lot of EDM-inspired pop songs do to generate more tension and make the drop more effective. Instead of the verse–prechorus–chorus sequence coinciding with a sonic setup–buildup–peak sequence, the sonic progression shifts one section over. The verse and prechorus function as a sonic setup; the sonic energy then drops down in the chorus, making it function as a buildup; and the peak only arrives at the postchorus.
Like I said, this is pretty common, but Delicate takes this concept one step further—it not only shifts the sonic progression within a meta-section, but it also shifts the dimensions across meta-sections.
Let me explain: Most pop songs consist of three meta-sections. The first two start at the verse and culminate in the chorus or postchorus, and contain a setup-buildup-peak sonic progression. The third starts at the bridge and ends in the final chorus or postchorus. It includes a larger buildup and a higher peak.
In Delicate, the bridge—which normally kicks off the third meta-section—is split between the second and third sonic meta-section. It starts at 2:44 and in terms of sonic density/energy is pretty much identical to the preceding postchorus (2:34-2:44). The energy then drops (2:55), and the bridge continues as a buildup toward the third chorus, which coincidentally is the first time in the song that the chorus functions as a sonic peak.
In other words, the third formal meta-section “leaks” backwards into the second sonic meta-section.
My first instinct was to think of 2:44-2:55 as some kind of post-postchorus. The music stays at a high level of sonic energy, which is one of the defining traits of a postchorus in modern pop, and the energy drop that follows at 2:55 sounds like a typical beginning of a bridge rather than the middle of it.
But there are two strong reasons as to why this interpretation is incomplete. First, there is already a postchorus at 2:34-2:44, just prior to this section, and I would have to build a much stronger case to argue for the presence of two postchoruses.
Second, and more importantly, this subsection (2:44-2:55) and the next (2:55-3:08) are very obviously linked as a single formal section by a nearly identical vocal melody and a unique chord progression—iii-vi-V (everywhere else in the song it's i-ii-vi-IV). The fact that this unique chord progression ends on the dominant also makes it fit into the definition of a traditional bridge.
So from a formal standpoint, 2:44-3:08 is definitely a bridge and belongs to the third meta-section. But from a sonic standpoint, the second meta-section "hijacks part of it" and extends until 2:55. This shift is very unusual and creates some nice tension between the two dimensions.
One last note on this: I’ve written about a phenomenon I called the Postchorus-Bridge Switcheroo. This is somewhat similar, but the two sides of the divide aren't linked in the way that I described above. I can't really think of any other song that does what Delicate does with the bridge.
The Sonic Arc
The three meta-sections I mentioned above each have their own role in the song, but there is also a continuous arc that connects them. This is true of a lot of songs—the first meta-section is the baseline for sonic density and energy; the second meta-section is generally busier and more energetic; and the third first drops to the lowest point of energy and then builds back up to the highest peak.
In other words, they each play a role in a journey from the baseline energy to the peak through sort of a sonic roller coaster.
Delicate's producers—Max Martin and Shellback--use the usual tools to create this arc, like adding and removing elements along the way. But they add a few more magical ingredients to make it that much more effective:
1. A subtle low-pass filter on the entire backing track, taming the higher frequencies and gradually releasing them as the song progresses. It’s barely noticeable on a local level, but if you toggle back and forth between different instances of the same section (e.g., from the first to the second prechorus), you clearly hear the difference in brightness.
You can also see this in the spectrogram below. As the song moves forward, the bright yellow color becomes more dominant, which represents the increased presence of higher frequencies.
And as a side note, check out Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” for a similar effect, with a more obvious filter sweep over the first two-thirds of the backing track.
2. A 'deceptive' sonic move at the start of the second verse,which makes it momentarily sound like a bridge, but it quickly picks the energy back up. This is not a new move for Max, but effective nonetheless.
3. The third iteration of the chorus is the first time we hear it as a sonic peak and not as a buildup. This both provides an effective ending to the sonic arc and reinforces the general chill vibe of the song.
4. The chorus-postchorus juxtaposition just before the outro. This is a signature Max Martin move, which helps the song go out with a (relative) bang.
5. The use of a stripped-down version of the prechorus in the intro and the chorus in the outro. This reinforces the dominance of the sonic dimension.
Each of these moves may not be a big deal on its own, but their combination goes a long way toward shaping the character of the song.
The Introduction of Functional Harmony in the Bridge
Until the bridge arrives, the song avoids any meaningful functional harmony. The chord loop—I-ii-vi-IV—remains constant and there is no leading tone in either the vocal melody or the chords. Tension and release are achieved almost exclusively via sound production.
But when the bridge hits, the harmony all of a sudden becomes functional. The new chord loop--iii-vi-V—now includes the leading tone in two of its chords, and to add an extra boost of harmonic functionality, the dominant chord (V) lingers for a while at the end of the bridge, just before resolving to I in the chorus.
This new functional chord progression not only provides contrast, but as I mentioned before, it also unifies the bridge as a single section, overcoming the internal sonic divide.
This combination of shifts in both harmony and sonics creates a fusion between a traditional (harmonic and melodic contrast; functional dominant) and modern (drop in sonic energy followed by a buildup) construction of the bridge.
The Melody-to-Chords Interaction in the Bridge
The vocal melody in the bridge is made up of only three notes—G, E, and A—which also happen to be the roots of the three chords in this section.
This creates an interesting interaction, in which the melody “chases” the bass/root motion. At a certain point it even mirrors this bass/root motion, though this is obscured by the rhythm and metric placement of the notes.
This is one of those cool things that are hard to consciously notice but can certainly make a subconscious impact on the listening experience.
The Melody-to-Kick Interaction in the Bridge
In the second part of the bridge (2:55-3:08), both the kick drum and Taylor’s vocal melody feature the same prominent rhythmic element—a repeated dotted eighth.
The image below shows the interaction between the kick and the vocal melody over a two-measure segment (2:55-2:59). Here are a few things to notice:
1. The kick drum plays a repeated one-measure pattern, while the vocal melody’s rhythmic pattern unfolds through both measures.
2. The first three attacks of the kick and the vocal melody are rhythmically identical, but Taylor starts an eighth late, causing the kick to “chase” her.
3. While Taylor persists with the dotted eighths, the kick’s fourth hit is delayed by one 16th. The kick pattern then restarts at the next measure, causing the roles to reverse with Taylor now doing the chasing.
4. Taylor and the kick finally arrive together at the very last note of both their patterns.
This is a really cool and noticeable moment, and it’s enhanced by the fact that it happens during the “fall” section of the bridge, which lets the heavy syncopation shine.
(Bonus: Notice that while Taylor's melody is nearly identical to the melody in the first part of the bridge, there is an added syllable, and the rhythmic pattern of repeated dotted eighth is extended here.)
Well, that was fun...
Honestly, when I started writing about this song, I didn't think that so many different things would go into the magic concoction prepared by Taylor, Max, and Shellback in order to hook me and millions of others. But there ya go.
And one last note: I realize I gave the bridge A LOT of attention in this article. I often zero in on the bridge as my favorite section in a song because it's located at a strategic point and it's where the writer and/or producer can do a bunch of creative things with the already established material.
Top40 Theory is a project aimed at providing advanced music theory knowledge and composition tools to pop songwriters and producers. Join the small but growing community of highly accomplished songwriters, producers, theorists, and composers at the Top40 Theory Facebook group. You can also follow Top40 Theory’s Twitter account and Facebook page, as well as join the mailing list via the form located in the sidebar, to receive updates about new posts and other pop music theory related musings.
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Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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