How Imogen Heap tells a linear story in a cyclical song

A song tells a story, right? But most traditional song forms are cyclical — some major component of the music and the text repeat multiple times during the song. (Think of the ‘chorus’ to your favorite song.) How do you tell a story that moves forward in time with urgency, while still using traditional, cyclical song forms? In her song “The Moment I Said It”, Imogen Heap shows that it’s not only possible to tell a linear story in a cylical song, but that playing with our expectations in a cyclical form can have a powerful emotional effect.

“The Moment I Said It” tells the story of an argument between a couple in love. It’s not clear to me whether the narrator’s lover is drunk or simply not thinking straight as a result of anger. Whatever the case, the two fight it out, her lover leaves, he crashes the car, and she loses him. It’s not explicit in the text whether he dies or simply abandons her, but lines like “Just put back the car keys or somebody’s going to get hurt” and “You’re scaring me to death” make it sound like after the “smash” she loses him permanently.

There isn’t much in this narrative that sounds like it would fit in a cyclical, repetitive song. However, Imogen Heap uses the cyclical structure of a typical verse-chorus song to build intensity to the climax of the lyric narrative — “smash” — and to generate an uncertaintly that helps us to feel the narrative more poignantly.

The above image is a formal diagram of the song, for those familiar with the music theory behind song structure. In a nutshell, this song begins with a verse, follows with a chorus, then another verse and chorus, then a bridge (new material that creates contrast with the repeated parts), a final chorus, and then a long, slow “outro”. As you listen, you can hear the verses begin with the lyrics “The moment I said it…” and “Just put back the car keys…” The choruses (except the last one) begin with “It’s not even light out…”

In order to accomplish the linear narrative in this cyclical form, Imogen Heap breaks with some of the traditional markers of these formal elements (called functions). For example, the title lyrics to a song typically repeat several times and come during the choruses. In this song, the title lyrics only come once at the very beginning. Similarly, choruses tend to have all or most of the lyrics repeat verbatim each time the chorus music appears. In this song, only some of the lyrics are the same in the first two choruses, and the third chorus has entirely new lyrics.

Harmony also tends to give us a clue regarding which formal function is in operation at any given moment: verses tend to start “on-tonic” — that is, on the main, stable chord of the key — and end “harmonically open” — on some other chord that sounds unstable and in need of some resolution. Choruses, on the other hand, tend to end “harmonically closed” — on the stable tonic chord. This song breaks almost all of those conventions. Both the verses and the choruses begin on-tonic and end harmonically open, and they end on the same chord (flat–VII).

If lyrics and harmony don’t provide the clues we’re used to hearing, then how do we know where we are in the form? To an extent, this disorientation is an important part of the narrative. While the narrator sings about “lead in your eyelids” and the fact that her “darling” is “not thinking straight”, Heap’s music disorients us as we (consciously or unconsciously) try to find our way through the song.

That said, there are still some clues that help us figure out how the form is put together, and how Imogen Heap uses that structure to communicate her meaning. First, we can hear a clear difference in energy between the three main “modules” in the song: the verse has a very low energy level, the chorus starts at a higher state of energy and increases, and the bridge is the emotional climax of the song, with the highest energy level. This energy is projected by things like adding/subtracting instruments, increasing/decreasing volume, speeding up or slowing down the melody and chord progression, etc.

But that doesn’t settle the whole question. The second module (what I call the chorus) builds in energy and only has some lyrics that are invariant between occurrences. Might it be a prechorus? Might the chorus be the climax — “Don’t…oh, smash…” — which is withheld from the first cycle in order to add to its impact when it does occur? This is how I initially heard this song. However, there are a couple contextual clues that led me away from that hearing. The first is the way these modules are arranged throughout the song. Reading “smash” as the chorus would mean the song progresses verse–prechorus–verse–prechorus–chorus–prechorus–outro. Verses begin songs, and choruses can function as climaxes, but songs tend not to end with a prechorus followed by an outro. By definition, a prechorus is followed by a chorus. And while the chorus might be withheld early in the song to intensify the anticipation for its arrival later, it’s rare to end with an unfulfilled prechorus — I can’t think of another example. Second, interpreting the “smash” section as a bridge not only gets rid of this prechorus/chorus problem, but it also fits a standard role for bridges: highlight a psychological or narrative change, which leads to a difference in the final chorus, or at least a different meaning for the same words. Interpreting this song as verse–chorus–verse–chorus–bridge–chorus–outro not only fits a more standard pattern, but it gives each module something close to its typical role in a cyclical verse-chorus song. The verse gives critical narrative details, the chorus adds emotional commentary on that narrative, and the bridge carries the pivotal moment in the plot.

That said, what’s important is not so much what we call these things as how they function in the narrative of the song. And the uncertaintly surrounding how each of these musical passages functions in light of patterns we’re familiar with is a big part of how she conveys the uncertainty and the urgency of her narrative. This song tells a haunting story, and by playing with our expectations surrounding these common, cyclical patterns, Imogen Heap is able to communicate the emotion of this narrative in ways that would be more difficult if she used a non-cyclical song structure.

This blog post is a demonstration of short-form writing about music for a public audience, which I wrote for my music theory students at CU.