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Adele’s Missing Earworm


What is a melody, and why are good ones so hard to write?…

In The Guardian Clive James writes:

It could be said that Adele is Mama Cass born again, but she needs a song to match her voice. I have listened several times to her smash hit, Hello. I was hoping that the shapely beauty of her opening phrase would hook me for what remains of my forever. But the opening phrase never really arrives. The whole number is one of those big ballads in which the singer whispers her way through a verse section that hasn’t got a melody and then goes soaring and bellowing into a chorus section that hasn’t got a melody either. The virtuosity leaves you yawning with admiration.


Adele’s monster global commercial success is not due so much to her considerable vocal talent as to her managing to write two terrifically catchy tunes (Someone Like You and Rolling in the Deep). The four year wait after the album 21 suggested she might have lost her songwriting mojo, and Hello confirms it. If Hello was her first release she would remain unknown, however fine her singing.

Music journalists write endless analyses of what makes certain pop stars and bands ‘great’, and will go on about image and rebellion and youth movements and iconoclasm and lyrics and whatnot. But no factor in determining the lasting popular success or otherwise of a musician is anything like as important as the ability to write (or hire someone to write) nagging, earworm melodies. That applies to Dylan and Bowie, Michael Jackson and James Brown, the Sex Pistols and The Jam, Madonna and Beyoncé, Oasis and Blur, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

For all their innovation and influence, The Beatles and the Stones ruled mainly because they ceaselessly churned out whistleable tunes. If Amy Winehouse hadn’t penned the ‘No, No, No’ chorus of Rehab she’d very likely be alive and happy now, a virtuoso vocalist performing to select audiences in smallish jazz clubs.

I’m fascinated by melody. Why can so few talented musicians write even one exceptional, memorable tune in their career… while a very, very tiny few can, without effort, write hundreds.

What is a melody, anyway – and how is it that a brand new one can suddenly be conjured from the ether, out of so few available notes? Quite possibly Adele has spent the long gap between Someone Like You and Hello worrying at that very question.



Nb. Dabbler Notes is like Dabbler Diary only less so, but possibly more frequent.

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

9 thoughts on “Adele’s Missing Earworm

  1. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    December 14, 2015 at 10:23

    As you probably know Brit, many of the religions of the East (Hinduism in particular) submit that, through their belief in reincarnation, ‘melodies’ already exist, and simply need to be ‘discovered’ by we less enlightened souls. But I tend to side with one of the greatest of the unenlightened tunesmiths Irving Berlin, who hinted at the hard work involved when saying ‘Talent is only the starting point’

    • Brit
      December 14, 2015 at 14:53

      I’m sure Irving’s right for grinding out operas and and concertos and whatnot, but on the specific business of conjuring up an unforgettable melody, I think it must be 99% god-given talent. A great many artists have a huge flurry of them early in their career followed by barren decades.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        December 14, 2015 at 16:52

        Or, possibly, never.

        Jesus was an only son
        And love his only concept
        Strangers cry in foreign tongues
        And dirty up the doorstep
        And I for one, and you for two
        Ai’nt got the time for outside
        Just keep your injured looks to you
        We’ll tell the world we tried

        Townes van Zandt, soundtrack from the first series of True Detective, blimey.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    December 14, 2015 at 10:35

    Malty clan theory No 512……
    Popularity is a fickle thing and is dependent upon many, and wildly varying things, in Adele’s case it may rest upon her chubby, cuddly, earthy nature and have bog all to do with her musical talent as it intermittently floats to the surface.

    No 513……Clive still has his marbles, unfortunately not all of them, Mama Cass was a pain in the arse with a voice that could sonically clean the engine of a ten year old JCB, she was, for us, the epitome of the laughable ‘west coast’ sound, that sandwich did us all a favour.

    No 514……Great lyrics do not necessarily great music make, read the libretto’s of Cosi fan tutte or Die Zauberflöte and giggle. The greatest one minute and twenty five seconds in opera Presto, su, Mario, as Tosca chucks herself from the ramparts consists of an Italian burd whining on about her recently deceased bloke as she is accompanied by a bit of a chorus, the music, however, is Puccini at his dramatic, Italian greatest. For all their innovation and influence, The Beatles and the Stones ruled mainly because they ceaselessly churned out whistleable tunes, absolutely dear boy, you have it in a nutshell.

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      December 14, 2015 at 11:27

      Hear, hear and, bloody, hear.

      And No 513. Can I frame that?

  3. john@johnmedd.com'
    December 14, 2015 at 12:58

    Melodies haunt you. So said Dodgy back when Tony Blair was still in short trousers. Mind you, Dodgy knew what they were on about; their Homegrown album from which Melodies was taken was full to the brim with whistleable tunes.

    • Brit
      December 14, 2015 at 15:13

      The Britpop phenomenon was, first and foremost, an explosion of earworms.

  4. wormstir@gmail.com'
    December 14, 2015 at 13:20

    the very pinnacle of earworm-ness resides within Baltimora’s ‘Tarzan Boy’

  5. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    Daniel K
    December 17, 2015 at 01:35

    All very true. I made it through about 1 minute of “Hello” when I realized it was a great nothingness, and that was the end of that. Bowie is also an interesting case. He wrote lots of ear worms, right up until the Let’s Dance LP. Ear worms in different styles. Then he went a bit awful for a few years. I’ve enjoyed a lot of his stuff from the early 90s on, but even the best of it lacks that elusive melodic touch that lifted his earlier stuff to another plane. Instead you get LPs that are quite good, or really quite good.

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