Hands Tied – Toni Braxton

This is a great example of a current Urban AC (Adult Contemporary) song. Toni Braxton needed something to put her back on the charts – something with a current sound after her mega-hits of the 1990s. This song has a melody with loads of rhythmic interest and a fresh approach to the lyric theme. Take a listen and then we’ll discover what made this song so appealing to today’s listeners.

Recorded by Toni Braxton
Writers: Heather Bright, Warren Felder, and Harvey Mason, Jr.

Lyrics are available on the internet.
Shortcut # refers to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”

Here’s a perfect example of the VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS hit song structure! The repetitive verse builds rapidly to a HUGE chorus with tons of catchy hooks and a wonderful payoff line at the end that keeps going and going and going… only to fall immediately into the start of the second verse.

Try this trick in a song of your own: extend the last line (the payoff line) with repetition or by stretching out the words until it leads right into the next section.  (Shortcut #32)

The bridge (at 2:25 starting with “Now I don’t need my hands to feel…”) is working well enough but I was wondering why it didn’t offer more of a peak moment… until the final chorus came rushing in with the kind of beautiful, soaring note (at 3:02) that can give you chills.

The verse opens with three lines that take us right into a dialogue (“You askin’ me…”,) made interesting by the rhythm of the words. These are followed by a resolving line (“you can’t be serious”). This is followed by three repeated lines that have the same melodic rhythm but are higher in pitch, starting to build tension very early in the song. You could call this section a pre-chorus but it seems to me to come in a little early, so I’m treating it as part of the verse. There’s no hard and fast rule about what to call things. If you want to call it a pre-chorus, be my guest!

The chorus itself is massive (starting with the line “Baby I can love you, love you, love you…”). It’s eight lines long and filled with catchy, singable, easy-to-remember lines. But wait! Just try singing along with it… it’s REALLY hard! Why? Because the lines begin earlier than we anticipate, they don’t pause where we expect them to, and are longer than they seem like they ought to be!

In other words, while the melody itself sounds familiar, the way it relates to the underlying beat is very unusual! This is the GREAT TRICK of writing memorable melodies in today’s R&B genre. Learn to sing this chorus melody and you’ll be taking a master class in R&B hit songwriting for an artist of Toni Braxton’s stature. (See Shortcuts #91 and #92 for more on melody phrasing.)

Notice how much repetition there is in this melody; it’s very well organized which helps to keep listeners feeling like they know where they are even as the melody nearly obliterates the familiar anchor that is the first beat of the bar. (Where IS beat 1?) Try to count along to this melody and see where Beat 1 falls within the melody phrases.

Let’s start with that title: “Hands Tied.” Unusual. A strong image. Physical. Immediately it makes you ask: What’s this song going to be about? The lyric absolutely has to answer that question and it does! . It’s a twist on a cliche that gives it a fresh approach, a sensual undertone, and a sense of playfulness, too. Remember, it’s alright to use a cliche if you make the listener hear or see it in a new way (Learn more about adding a twist to familiar phrases in Shortcut #67).

Take a look at the tight triple rhymes in the verse, rhymes like “had / intact / that.” They’re fresh, they occur rapidly one right after the other, and yet the lyric never loses it’s conversational, believable tone.

To write for the R&B genre, you need to be able to play with melodic rhythm as this song does. Learn to sing this chorus and sing along with the record. Keep the beat by clapping or tapping your foot while you sing. If you really want to embed this style, learn the chords and play it while singing. Try writing your own lyrics to the chorus melody just to see how it sounds.

The Pop genre has been incorporating more and more of this kind of rhythm/ melody interplay (Check out Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying”) and even Rock is catching the fever, so it doesn’t hurt to get a feel for it if you write in either of those genres.

by Robin Frederick