Ed Sheeran is definitely paying his respects to Van Morrison here. The vocal style, the blue-eyed soul groove and melody, and the personal, honest lyrics all recall hit singles like Van’s “Into the Mystic.” But there are contemporary elements, too – an emphasis on current melody phrasing patterns and tight lyric focus that appeals to today’s listeners.
This song is a co-write with Amy Wadge, a songwriter Sheeran has worked with before. In fact, he wrote an entire EP of songs with her called Songs I Wrote With Amy. It’s a great example of a first-rate songwriter who certainly doesn’t need a co-writer. There are many reasons to collaborate: speed, new ideas and techniques, another writer’s perspective, and more.
TECHNIQUES TO HEAR AND TRY:
– Keep your lyric focused on your theme
– Use your melody to make a basic chord progression sound fresh
– Create a simple but effective instrumental arrangement
Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.).
Recorded by Ed Sheeran
Writers: Ed Sheeran & Amy Wadge
GENRE/STYLE (What is a genre?)
The song’s blend of Blue-Eyed Soul and contemporary singer-songwriter propelled this song to the top of the Mainstream Top 40 charts in the U.S. and global hit status. It has the kind of positive, love-themed lyric and easy melody that suggests it’s likely to be a standard on Adult Contemporary (AC) radio for years to come.
The rhythmic underpinnings and vocal have a Gospel/R&B flavor reminiscent of late Sixties hits in that style. The lyric maintains a tight focus with a timeless message. The chord progression is very repetitive, and relies on the melody to keep it interesting, something that’s characteristic of modern singer-songwriter hits. The song structure is fairly complex but still radio friendly with a strong, memorable chorus section.
While the different sections in this song are very clear and easy to spot, it’s a little hard to know what to call them. Song structure isn’t a science; it’s an art. Sections can be different lengths and can transition from one to another in unusual ways. But listeners always need to feel that there’s a clear pattern and the song is progressing through it. Certainly Ed Sheeran has done that here.
So, given that you could give these sections different names than I did, here’s what the basic structure looks like:
VERSE 1: “When your legs don’t work…”
?? SECTION 1: “And darling, I will be loving you…”
PRE-CHORUS 1: “People fall in love in mysterious ways…”
CHORUS 1: “Take me into your loving arms/Kiss me under the light…”
VERSE 2: “When my hair’s all but gone…”
?? SECTION 2: “‘Cause, honey, your soul…”
PRE-CHORUS 2: Same lyric as PRE-CHO 1.
The “?? section” between verse and pre-chorus works great; it’s just hard to decide whether it’s a new and completely different verse or the beginning of the energy climb to the chorus. Maybe Ed’s got two pre-choruses here. The important thing is that he repeats exactly the same structure after finishing the first chorus, reassuring the listener that the song is not wandering aimlessly. It has a solid structure with a deliberate and intentional dynamic build.
Listeners need to know you’ve got a plan in mind, a map with a destination. They need to feel you’re taking them on a journey and you know where you’re going. If they suspect you’re lost, they’ll drop out. Each section of this song has a role to play in moving the song’s energy forward, toward it’s end.
– Do It Now -
Watch the video or listen to the song and see if you can identify the sections. Notice how each section builds the energy, keeping this slow ballad dynamically evolving.
Various lyric sites give the first line as either “When your legs don’t work like the used to before” or “When your looks don’t work like the used to before.” Since the next line is “And I can’t sweep you off of your feet” I think it’s gotta be “legs” in the first line. My point is this: When you sing the first line of your song, do it with all the energy and authenticity you can BUT just be sure listeners can also understand the words.
MAINTAIN A TIGHT FOCUS: As you read through the lyrics of this song, notice how the second verse echoes the central idea of the first verse. In both verses, the singer anticipates growing old together while their love remains strong.
He creates a similar parallel in the sections that follow each verse: “I will be loving you ’til we’re 70” and “your soul can never grow old, it’s evergreen.” This is a great example of maintaining focus on a theme while keeping it interesting. He’s exploring the theme, going deeper into it, looking at it from different angles as the song progresses.
If you’re ever wondering what to write in your second verse, pre-chorus, or bridge, look at what you’ve already written. Ask yourself if there’s something you haven’t said, if there’s a deeper meaning, or more emotion, or a different angle you haven’t explored. Remember, listeners don’t know anything at all when the song starts. You’ve only got a short time to take them all the way into the emotion or situation. Give them enough information to make them feel they really understand what you’re saying.
MAKE LISTENERS FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL: It’s not enough to just tell the listener what you feel. You’ve got to make them see, touch, taste, and hear it. When you do that, you get them actively involved in the song and allow them to identify with what the singer is experiencing.
Ed Sheeran does a great job of this in the chorus of “Thinking Out Loud.” This is an extravagant, romantic love; he paints a picture of a kiss under not just one star, but a thousand. The line “Place your head on my beating heart” gives the listener something to physically feel and hear, and creates a sense of intimacy. Action words like “take me” and “kiss me” are involving for listeners.
Be sure to give your listeners something to DO during the song. Don’t think of them as passive and uninvolved. Paint vivid mental pictures for them, use touch, taste, hearing, and action to make your lyric compelling.
– Do It Now -
Listen to “Thinking Out Loud” and read over the lyrics. Notice how the focus remains on the theme: Our love is strong and will withstand the test of time. Also watch how Sheeran describes love so the listener can physically feel and see what he’s talking about. Go through a lyric of your own and see if you can get listeners more involved in feeling, understanding, and identifying with the singer using these techniques.
THE VERSE & THAT ?? SECTION: This melody is a master class in creating contrast between sections while building energy. Sheeran jumps right in with a conversational, easy going, four-line verse melody. The note range and pace sounds like that of a relaxed, speaking voice.
The next section ((“Darling, I will be loving you ’til we’re 70.”) ups the energy by rising in pitch and creates contrast by breaking up the lines in unexpected places and putting words on upbeats. Suddenly, things are getting more interesting.
THE PRE-CHORUS MELODY: The pre-chorus section (“people fall in love in mysterious ways”) smoothes out the melody, with an even, eighth-note feel while hanging around the highest notes the song has reached so far. It also picks up momentum by eliminating pauses. Notice how the third line of this section is extended so it runs into the fourth line. (“Me I fall in love with you every single day and I just want to tell you I am…”
THE CHORUS MELODY: The chorus hits the highest notes of the song on the words “Take me …” “Kiss me…” “Place your…”. Just as the lyric delivers those three action phrases, the melody punches them up with parallel high notes. A really nice touch that adds emotion to the physical action.
When I first heard this song, I thought the chord progression was more intricate than it really is. This progression is basically a repetitive, three-chord series with a couple minor chords tossed into the pre-chorus (IIm and VIm) to set the pre-chorus section apart. Everything else is just I, IV, V.
– Do It Now –
Learn to sing and play this song. Notice where the melody lines begin in each section. Check out how the melody creates contrast that defines each section and how the rising note range adds urgency and emotion.
ARRANGEMENT: The track starts out with just drums, bass, piano, and guitar. The vocal is the center of attention and remains so throughout the song. Nothing fancy here. The arrangement builds subtly as the piano moves up to a higher octave and starts to fill in a little more on the second verse, pre-chorus, etc. The vocal adds a little harmony on the second pre-chorus. A couple background ooo’s appear magically on Chorus 2. This type of arrangement is relatively easy. The players have to be tight and tasteful, resting in the groove, and keeping things cooking.
EXTRA READING: To find out more about the techniques used in “Thinking Out Loud” read the following…
In Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting:
Shortcut 59: Right Brain Language: Make Your Listener Feel, Not Think
Shortcut 62: Take Us Where the Action Is
Shortcut 69: Two Songs are Not Always Better Than One
In Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV:
Shortcut 36: Give Your Melody and Chords a Fresh Relationship
Shortcut 72: Get to Know the Basics of Arranging
Shortcut 73: Add Dynamic Energy to Your Arrangement
To study more hit songs, check out my eBook Study the Hits at Amazon.com.
by Robin Frederick