By Leah Kardos
Leah Kardos is a senior lecturer in music at Kingston University.
“Not me,” I hear you protesting. “You don’t speak for me.” And perhaps that’s right – perhaps you, dear reader, have more elevated taste. After all, a simple tune with fairly banal romantic lyrics backed by four chords and a cod dancehall rhythm can hardly be said to be positioned on the cutting edge of music.
But among pop music fans, you’d be in the minority.
Released back in January 2017 as one half of a double lead single from the album ÷ (Divide), Shape Of You been around for over a year now. And it’s been inescapable, saturating the cultural atmosphere via radio playlists, Yates’ wine bar jukeboxes, busking pitches and M&S food adverts. It’s one of those songs most people know through exposure – even those who have never actively sought to listen to it (full disclosure: prior to writing this piece, I was one of those people).
In our shiny new era of digital streaming, we can get a fairly accurate sense of how often media is consumed – and it seems that a lot of people have actively sought to listen to this song, again and again and again. Aside from winning the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance last month, the song boasts staggering statistics.
It’s the most-streamed track of 2017 and the most popular song ever on Spotify, having notched up 1.5 billion streams. It reached number one in the singles charts in 44 countries, spending over a year on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and currently holds the record for the number of weeks spent in the Billboard top 10. The official YouTube video has racked up more than 3.2 billion views – and isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.
And, despite a late challenge from Dua Lipa, who has garnered five nominations for her breakthrough hit, New Rules, Sheeran’s song is widely considered favourite to win Best Single at the 2018 Brit Awards.
So what is the secret of Sheeran’s success? Ignoring the lyrics – and Sheeran’s boy-next-door appeal that sets him apart from the commercial crowd (and which obviously plays a large part in his success) – on the face of it the musical and sonic elements at play appear simple. There is a cycling progression of four chords – familiar, well-worn changes to any ear raised on pop music. Speaking of pop music ears, those acutely attuned might notice a similar harmonic sound and a lift of the log-drum intro from Sia’s Cheap Thrills (2016), and the odd melodic contour lifted from TLC’s No Scrubs (1999), to whom the publishers eventually gave some credit.
The looping chord progression is a Sheeran speciality – rather than a lazy detail or evidence of basic musical understanding, Ed constructs his compositions so that they can work in a live context with his looping technology. On stage, the looper works as a simple recorder, playing back layers of material that are created in real time, allowing the performer to build textures and combinations, stacking and nesting musical ideas.
Loopers take practice, and nerve – watch Ed perform on a looper facing a crowd of music legends at the Stevie Wonder All Star Grammy Salute in 2015 – but when used with skill they can make a one-man show sound like a full band, showing audiences how intricate and economical arrangements can be crafted in real time.
Shape Of You was made for this with its textural and dynamic changes, its distinctive elements combined and held within the bounds of a simple chord progression. The puzzle pieces fit, reconfigure and slide into place in a satisfying way – familiarity and invention at the same time.
Scale of success
The melody in Shape Of You uses a pentatonic scale, possibly the most used scale in the history of music. The simple scale made of five notes (“penta”, meaning five) is responsible for so many of our most enduring melodies from Amazing Grace or My Girl by the Temptations to popular contemporary hits like Sam Smith’s Stay With Me and James Bay’s Hold Back The River, as well as some of the most frustrating ear-worms – Cotton-Eye Joe by Rednex, anyone?
From ancient music traditions from China, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia, reaching back to the most primitive bone flutes and folk music from all around the world, this simple scale is as easy to play as it is to touch the black notes on a piano or pluck the open strings on an guitar. The scale is so embedded in our brain’s language centres that we all seem innately able to sing and understand it.
Consider the classic track Superstition by Stevie Wonder, which also uses a pentatonic scale. Here, Stevie stacks up numerous pentatonic riffs and phrases – the melodic cohesion achieved by the pentatonic scale’s lack of dissonance allows for a different type of complexity to emerge in the rhythm, syncopation, texture and articulation of each layer, the movement and energy between call-and-response phrasing.
A similar thing is happening in Shape Of You, wonderfully demonstrated visually at the 5:30 mark of this video take down of how the track was made, published by the New York Times late last year.
Then there’s that Dem Bow beat. That dancehall-inspired skip in the rhythm which we’ve been hearing a lot lately (from Rihanna’s Work and Justin Bieber’s Sorry to, more recently, Duo Lipa’s New Rules). However erroneously labelled “tropical house” by Rolling Stone, that clean, on-trend pop production and propulsive rhythm finally allowed Sheeran’s music to enter the club.
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