"The Middle" was written by Jordan K. Johnson, Anton Zeslavvaski, Sarah Aarons, Kyle Trewartha, Stefan Johnson, Michael Trewartha and Marcus Lomax.
Please listen to this song completely and then in sections as you read the following analysis.
“The Middle” is an excellent example of the formula “simple and interesting" found in most well-written pop songs.
The song, (except for the bridge section) only uses three chords. Those chords are, in fact, the most commonly used chords found in traditional harmony: I, IV and V, but here they are placed in the uncommon order of IV, sub-dominant; I, tonic; V, dominant.
This loop-based chord progression provides the simple part of the formula.
The topography of the song (i.e., the length of the phrases, where they begin and end) is excellent throughout, causing interest to happen. Another important musical activity that causes interest is how the melodic phrases work with and against the simple repetitive two-measure chord pattern (i.e., the melody is either in sync with the two–measure chord progression or it is not).
Note: It is always easier to designate what is simple in a song; it is considerably more difficult to discern what is making the song interesting.
The verse: In measure 4, instead of the expected matched phrase in measures 3-4, the writers extend the phrase begun on the last eighth note in m.3 to beat one of m.6.
The last phrase of the verse ("I know we meant all good intentions.") produces the concordance between melody “G” and harmony “G” the tonic chord, and closes the 8-measure section.
The pre-chorus: The 4-measure pre-chorus (1/2 the length of the verse) begins with a one-measure back-heavy phrase "So pull me closer" followed by another one–measure back-heavy phrase that ends on do on the tonic chord. The next two measures mimic the first two, thereby closing the section (this is a strong closure in the song, an unusual occurrence in a pre-chorus, a section that usually doesn't close so strongly).
This section works splendidly because the pre-chorus function is expanded to be two-fold (what I call in Great Songwriting Techniques “the luxury airliner”: 1) it leads to the chorus, acting like a traditional pre-chorus because it causes the entire front part of the song—the verse (8 measures) + the pre-chorus (4 measures)—to be unbalanced. 2) The pre-chorus also functions like a chorus because it, like most choruses, is stable rhythmically (I mean that it is rhythmically stable within itself, not in relationship to what preceded it) and tonally stable (it cadences twice on the tonic chord) and, in addition, has a strong hooky, easy to sing & remember, melody).
Note:If you ever attempt to write a “luxury airliner", you must assure that your pre-chorus section does not outdo your chorus section. Your task is to make it sound almost like a chorus until the actual chorus arrives.
Chorus: This is a masterful section. Remember that the harmonic phrase is two-measures long—The first melodic phrase of the chorus is three-measures!—making the next phrase, which is a two-measure melodic phrase, out of sync with the harmonic phrase.
More importantly, the second melodic phrase ("I'm losing my mind just a little") in this section starts on the “G” chord, the tonic, giving the listener the sense of stability and of arrival, one of the main functions of a chorus. The 8-measure chorus contains harmonic phrases that are 2+2+2+2, while the melodic phrase structure is 1+2+2+2+1.
The tonal aspects of the melody are equally important. The chorus melody is mainly made up of the stable tones, do, mi, sol, with the important re showing up in the middle of the chorus. Most of the melodic phrases end on mi, the stable third of the key, which, however, is pitted against the IV chord, producing a major 7th (a set four dissonance) between melody to bass, causing the chorus melody to be tonally interesting throughout. Notice too how the tessitura has risen slowly from the verse through the pre-chorus to the highest tessitura found in the chorus.
Bridge: The main function of a bridge is to create contrast so that when there is a return to the previously heard sections, (sections that have already been heard at least twice), they sound somewhat fresh.
This is exactly what occurs in this bridge. Contrast is achieved by two devices:
1) changing the melodic contour. The verse and chorus sections contain phrases that have either arch or descending contours. The bridge, however begins on a melodic phase
("Looking at you, I can't lie") an ascending contour that spans an entire octave.
2) a change of harmony (although it’s not much of a change —an E minor chord appears in place of a G major triad). More important is the change in harmonic rhythm. Chords that had previously lasted one measure now last two measures, and those that had previously lasted 1/2 a measure, now last an entire measure. The change in slowing down the harmonic rhythm causes the bridge section to sound more expansive or open.
The lyrics are, no doubt, the weakest element in the song. I do like the use of the metaphoric “the middle” to indicate that the singer is asking her lover to compromise (without ever using the word “compromise”). And I do like the way the words sound with the music, how they sonically add or do not detract from the music. However, the main problem with the lyrics is the writers’ consistent choice of the sound of words over their meaning and I believe that the writers didn’t spend enough time getting out of the kitchen (what were they doing in the kitchen in the first verse anyway? And why did they get back into it in the second verse?) causing the second verse lyrics to not further the action or create interest.
This is a terrific pop song that thrives because the music is so hooky and delightful. I chose this song because it caught my attention, it pulled me into it; I needed to know why it worked so well. I hope you found this analysis to be helpful in your understanding of how the techniques I’ve written about in Great Songwriting Techniqueswork in this successful song.