Hit Songwriting: 3 Songs by Adele

Songs by AdeleAdele had three back-to-back #1 hits on the AC radio charts – “Rolling In the Deep” “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire to the Rain”) Her powerful, expressive voice is a huge part of her success but her vivid, emotion-driven songs provide her with the perfect vehicle and it’s the combination that makes it happen. Adele has also been embraced by the Film & TV market, too. You can find a partial list of TV shows that have used her songs at TuneFind.com. It’s a long list!

I’m going to do something a little different in this “Study the Hits” post. I want to take a look at all three songs. They share similar lyric and melody writing techniques, yet they all sound quite different. I’m sure you’re familiar with these songs but I’ve included the videos to refer to as you read. Or… just watch and enjoy! 🙂

Set Fire to The Rain – Adele
Written by Adele and Fraser T Smith

Rolling In the Deep – Adele
Written by Adele and Paul Epworth

Someone Like You – Adele
Written by Adele and Dan Wilson

Lyrics are available on the Internet.
Shortcut numbers refer to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”). Both are available at Amazon.com.

GENRE (What is a genre?)
Adele’s songs appear on the Adult Contemporary (AC) and Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) radio airplay charts. Her melodic writing style, emotional lyrics, and strong vocals appeal to a wide demographic, from teens to 50-somethings, which makes her perfect for the AC radio format. Although she’s considered a singer-songwriter she has co-writers on all three songs.

Each of these three songs sounds quite different, but all feature the same commercial song structure:


Adele will often start the chorus right at the one-minute mark, which is just the right spot for a radio single. That’s about how long listeners are willing to wait for it. To keep listeners with her through the verse and pre-chorus, she fills the lyric with emotional details that draw them into the situation.

Adele’s titles are often unique and intriguing: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Turning Tables,” “Chasing Pavements,” “Set Fire to the Rain.” There are a lot of action words and fresh images/ideas in these titles, practically guaranteeing that a chorus that includes one of them will have a strong foundation.

“Someone Like You” is a much more generic title and I always have trouble remembering it. Although the song went on to become a hit, Adele was already an established star. When you’re trying to break through, give yourself every advantage with a title that’s vivid and memorable. Use action words like “rolling,” “chasing,” turning” to add energy to your title.

Learn more about writing a great title in this video.

Adele tells very personal stories in her lyrics, and she does it in a way that invites the listener inside. She shares the emotion and intimate details of her life and loves in a way that makes us feel what she is feeling. This is the key to writing powerful songs based on personal experience.

For example in “Set Fire to the Rain,” she starts by telling us what it feels like to be in love:
My hands, they’re strong
But my knees were far too weak
To stand in your arms
Without falling to your feet.

She’s describing her own feelings, but we can feel it too because she has used so many physical words to describe it: hands/strong, knees/weak, falling to your feet. We can physically internalize the emotion she’s describing. When you want your listeners to experience an emotion, remind them of how it physically feels.

She’s also taken a familiar idea – Strong emotion makes people feel “weak in the knees.” – and extended that notion in a fresh way: Feeling weak in the knees makes me fall at your feet. Now we know that the love she feels borders on worship. She has said something powerful in a way that’s both familiar and original.

Here are more ideas on how to rewrite overused phrases.

You’ll find a similar use of physical language to describe emotions, along with phrase twists like one I just mentioned, in almost all of Adele’s lyrics. Be sure you take advantage of these powerful songwriting tools in your own songs. Go through some of your lyrics to see if you can strengthen a few lines lines be replacing or modifying statements of emotion (“I love you” “I miss you”) with more physical, active language that makes listeners feel what you are feeling. (Check out “Film/TV” Shortcuts #49, #52 and #53 for more on these ideas.)

Read more about adding emotion to your lyrics here.

Set Fire to the Rain
Melodically, each of these songs “pays its respects” to a different style of music. The big, over the top emotional chorus of “Set Fire to the Rain” reminds me of some of the great female Pop hits of the 1960s, such as Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”  These emotional power-ballads allow soulful singers like Springfield and Adele a chance to blow the roof off the place.

BUILDING MELODY DYNAMICS: Notice how the verse melody of “Set Fire to the Rain” includes a pause between every phrases, then picks up the momentum and energy in the pre-chorus (“But there’s a side to you…”) by eliminating some of these pauses and adding repetition (“I never knew, never knew”). Many songs increase the energy in the pre-chorus by going to a higher note range, but not this one. The insistent repetition and lack of pauses between lines does the trick.

Notice also that the pre-chorus is three lines long. Too often we get stuck in a rut, writing two- or four-line song sections. It’s the old ‘Greeting Card poetry’ trap. Snap out of it! Try dropping the last line of a four-line pre-chorus and going straight into the chorus. You’ll surprise the listener and get their attention just when you want it – right before the chorus.

When the chorus melody finally kicks in a little earlier than expected (“But I set fire to the rain…”), the note range rises, the melody stretches out, and the emotion that’s been building up is finally released.

Rolling In the Deep
“Rolling In the Deep” relies on a  Gospel-Blues feel to get the song’s message of revenge across. The 4-line verse melody is a little familiar. It’s the pre-chorus that keeps the interest going (“the scars of your love”). Again, just as in “Set Fire to the Rain,” phrases get shorter, pauses are eliminated, and the melody becomes more repetitive as the pre-chorus builds to the chorus. The chorus hits the high notes and the lines stretch out.

Listening to these two songs back to back, you wouldn’t think there’s a lot of similarity but there certainly is – in both song structure and melody dynamics. This is a great example of how the same basic elements of song craft can be used creatively to end up with two very different songs. No “formula” writing here! (For more on the melody writing techniques I’ve discussed here, see “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” shortcuts #81, #86, and #92.)

Do It Now! Listen to “Someone Like You” and see if you can hear a build in the melody from verse to chorus that uses songwriting tools that are similar to the other two songs. Notice  pauses between lines, repetition of melody phrases, and change in note range.

Write a melody that takes advantage of your strengths!
Adele gives her voice plenty of room to soar in the melodies of her songs. But any singer-songwriter can tailor their melodies to take advantage of strengths.

What makes your voice distinctive?
What’s your note range and what are your strongest notes?
Is your phrasing unique?
Which emotions do you handle best vocally?

You don’t have to be strong singer or hit high notes with power. Sometimes it’s more effective to break into falsetto and add more vulnerability. When writing for yourself, create a melody that allows you to sing comfortably and with honest emotion. That’s more important in today’s Film & TV song market than being a powerhouse diva.

Here are more tips on writing melodies that will make you sound good.

If you’ll be pitching songs to other artists or writing in genres you don’t sing well, the first step is to identify the characteristic vocal qualities of the genre you’re aiming for. For the Hot AC, hit-single style of Adele or Kelly Clarkson, you’ll be writing a big emotional release at the top of your chorus. That often means moving to a higher note range to add urgency and intensity and being able to nail it with strength! For this style, you may need to hire a vocalist for your demo – someone who can really put those big notes across.

The piano track forms the  foundation of Adele’s singles. In fact, “Someone Like You” consists solely of a piano track and vocal. There’s nothing fancy about the piano part. You could play this yourself. See the “Do It Now!” paragraph below for a link to a video that will show you how. Other hits, like “Set Fire to the Rain,” could just as easily have been recorded “unplugged” with only piano and vocal.

MIXING TIP: Listen to ‘Set Fire to the Rain” and notice how thin the piano sounds when it’s playing solo at the beginning of the track. Then, when the drums, bass, and other instruments come in, suddenly the piano sounds fine. This is a great example of an important mixing technique. Don’t try to make every individual instrument sound great – instead, find its proper place in the overall arrangement and use EQ to keep it out of the way of other instruments. If this piano had a full, rich sound on the bottom, it could have muddied the low end when the bass came in.

Here’s a YouTube video that will show you how to play “Someone Like You” on piano just the way it’s done on the record. You’ll find lyrics along with piano chords and guitar tabs for this song here.

Try writing a song with a piano part like this one. Create a melody that builds to a big release at the top of the chorus. Give your lyrics plenty of emotion that listeners can relate to. Easy for me to say but I know you can do it. 🙂 Have fun and don’t worry too much about trying to be perfect. Just write what you feel.

by Robin Frederick