Music education always & always looking forward.

Slow Symmetry, Easily Countable: Symmetrical Compound Meter in A Great Big World's "Say Something"

A very popular modern pop tune in easy-to-count 12/8.


I can attest -- I've used this song in my classroom to demonstrate a musical concept, and it worked. Last week, I introduced the concept of 6/8 time to my beginning band students. In the past, I've used the bet (that I first lost thanks to Rick Springfield) to explain a little about symmetrical simple meter, or how 4/4 tends to be the dominant meter in most of Western music. Seeing that I am without a great big radio to scan through the stations in my current classroom, this time I started with a couple of Spotify-provided listening examples. In both of my beginning band classes, as I started to explain the difference between 4/4 time and 6/8 time, I played this song. 

From the first, vague piano notes, just about every kid in the room immediately knew this song. Some of the kids in my beginning band classes, who are rapidly approaching the Too Cool for School phase of their middle school years, started singing along before they even realized, and almost seemed embarrassed. They knew every single word of this song, although some of the kids were only six years old when it was released. Listening to this song and doing what I call the "six-eight sway" (that I use frequently with my chorus) brought them together in a way I did not expect.

Suffice to say, this song was a shockingly effective teaching tool. 

Intro: Ian Axel and Chad King, who met as music business students at NYU, were often heard on television before they were heard on the radio. Releasing rights to their music led to a 2013 collaboration with superstar Christina Aguilera, who heard the original version of "Say Something" on the TV program So You Think You Can Dance? Aguilera approached the duo about re-recording the track with vocal accompaniment. After the re-recorded version was released and performed on the show The Voice, it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 & earned the duo a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

Analysis: The song has been published in 12/8 time, with a very clear outline on the repeated verse in the chorus "I'm giving up on you", where the syllabic text matches up exactly with each subdivided note in symmetrical compound meter. At its slow tempo, it is very easy to hear the subdivision and allow young students to understand compound meter. 

It might be worth discussing in more advanced secondary theory classes as to whether the song is in minor (here that would mean Aeolian mode) or major. Although the first chord in the song is B minor, the melody returns frequently to the tonic if D and the last chord of the song (played after the vocals have ceased) is also D major. The primary chord progression of the song also makes more sense as a vi-IV-I-V as opposed to a i-VI-III-VII progression. This leads to the logical conclusion that the song is indeed in D major.

Considerations for Teaching: Aside from a potentially very upsetting music video, showing the supposed death of an elderly woman and her husband wishing her goodbye bedside, this song contains no offensive language or subject matter and serves as an excellent way to demonstrate symmetrical compound meter.

Subdivision in Synths: Symmetrical Compound Meter in INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart"

Uneven Numbers & Anger: Changing Meter in Heart's "Barracuda"