This beautiful hit ballad has a compelling title and a simple but very effective melody trick you’ll definitely want to try in a song of your own.
While record labels tend to shy away from ballads when it comes to releasing and marketing the big lead single from an album, in this case the label released “If I Were a Boy” as a co-lead single right along with the smash R&B/Pop Dance track “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” Both songs climbed to the Top 5 on the Pop charts and have continued to be listener favorites.
So, how does a slow, thoughtful ballad compete with one of those monster uptempo dance tracks? Watch the song video then read on to find out.
Writers: Toby Gad / Britney Carlson (BC Jean)
Recorded by Beyoncé
Shortcut numbers refer to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”
GENRE/STYLE What is a genre?
This is a power ballad in the Pop/R&B style. Power ballads generally start out with an intimate, personal sound and build to a big, anthemic ending. The tempo can range from slow to medium but should never feel rushed. The BPM (Beats per Minute) is usually – though not always – 100 or below.
The pace is primarily determined by the emotional feel you want the singer to put across to the listener – slow enough to emphasize the meaning of the words but not so slow that thoughts or lines become disconnected. You want it to flow naturally.
This song starts right out with the vocal; no waiting around for an intro to go by! We’re dropped right into an unusual situation: a girl who wishes she were a boy. The song structure is…
VERSE / CHORUS
VERSE / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS
The abrupt jump from the end of the verse to the beginning of the chorus grabs attention. There’s no pre-chorus to gradually ramp up the energy. It’s just a sudden jump from one level of intensity to another. This is an interesting technique and one that’s worth trying if you’re writing a ballad with a big, emotional chorus. It makes the chorus seem that much more powerful by contrast.
The lyrics are conversational, honest, and direct. There’s no poetic language here yet there are moving insights into the theme of being hurt in a relationship. The female singer imagines herself in the male role – the freedom, the simple everyday advantages that a boy takes for granted. This is a distinctive approach and offers a fresh emotional take on the theme (Shortcut #38).
The first verse doesn’t have an obvious rhyme scheme. No predictable ABAB line-ending rhymes. Instead, there are rhymes inside of lines. For example in Verse 1:
roll / throw / go
kick it / stick it
wanted / confronted
This kind of rhyming is borrowed from the Rap genre with its frequent, unpredictable internal rhymes.
The second verse does have a rhyme scheme on the line endings (phone / alone / go / home) while preserving internal rhymes (faithful / waiting). In the R&B/Soul genre, this kind of variation between verses is fairly common in both lyrics and melody. Just be sure to keep the chords the same and don’t change the verse so much that listeners can’t recognize it.
Notice how each verse portrays the man’s freedom while the choruses focus on how the female singer would act; she would be a “better man.” This remains consistent throughout the song giving the listener a sense of what to expect in each section.
The bridge offers a powerful contrast, dropping the pretense for a moment and allowing the singer to directly confront “you.” (“It’s a little too late for you to come back…”)
By changing a few words, the direct confrontation continues throughout the final chorus, raising the emotional urgency and immediacy of the song even higher at the end. While it’s not a good idea to change a chorus lyric, ballads allow for more leeway in the lyrics as long as there’s an honest emotional reason for doing so.
The really interesting thing about this song is that the melody is the same in both the verse and the chorus. The chorus simply moves the melody up an octave to add energy, and intensity.
This melody structure isn’t unique. You can hear something very similar in the Goo Goo Dolls’ huge Pop hit, “Iris” (aka “I Just Want You To Know Who I Am”). You can also hear it in “First Time,” a hit for Lifehouse in which the chorus melody is a repeat of the pre-chorus but an octave higher. Billy Joel does it in “Piano Man.” I’m sure you can think of more examples.
Keep repetition insteresting
There’s a lot of repetition in this song melody, to say the least. The verse repeats the same melody twice, the chorus does the same an octave higher. A melody with this many repetitive sections risks becoming predictable.
But there’s something very unusual going on… something that keeps the listener off balance. Every line of this melody begins on a different beat. Let’s take a look at the chorus to get an idea of what’s going on here. Listen to the song and count along to hear the following (Shortcut #74).
In the chorus, the first line begins on Beat 3 and ends on Beat 1 of the following bar (“If I were a boy”).
The second line begins on Beat 2 and ends on Beat 1 of the following bar. (“I think I could understand”).
The third line begins on Beat 4 (“How it feels to love a girl”).
The fourth line begins on Beat 1 (“I swear I’d be a better man”).
The chorus then repeats this series of phrase starts, adding two additional phrases at the end that both emphasize Beat 1.
Using so many different starting points for phrases, gives the listener a feeling of unpredictability. We’re never exactly sure when the singer will begin. Beat 1, that familiar anchor point, is often emphasized but is seldom the starting point.
It isn’t until the very end of the chorus, when a series of phrases strongly indicate Beat 1 (“lose the one you wanted,” “taking you for granted,” “everything you had”) that we get a sense of a familiar place (Shortcut #91).
The use of unpredictable starting points for phrases is characteristic of many of today’s hit songs in all genres. It’s turning up to a greater or lesser degree in Pop, Rock, and even Country melodies.
DO IT NOW
“If I Were a Boy” is a great song to learn if you’re interested in embedding the melody writing technique I described above. Learn to play and sing this song.
The chords are simple. It’s just | E min | C | G | D | over and over!
By learning to actually sing it and play it, you start to embed the unusual phrasing that characterizes so many of today’s successful melodies. Take just an hour and do this exercise. Then rough out a melody of your own to this chord progression.
by Robin Frederick
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. In each book you’ll find over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.