Adele’s “Hello” is huge. As of this writing it had spent 7 weeks as #1 in US, got bumped down to #2 for a week and went back to the top. As the lead single that practically went viral the moment it came out, “Hello” is without a doubt, an impactful song. But what’s so great about it from the pure songwriting perspective? Is the song itself so exceptional that it would have been reasonably successful had it been a different artist that put it out? We’ll take a look at the mechanics of the songwriting to answer those questions.
The song is in the key of F minor and opens with the simple piano chord progression, Fm-Ab-Eb-Db. The latter two chords are voiced so that its outer notes come down from the Ab chord. This up-then-down gesture underlines the trajectory of the song — a mixture of let down, remorse, guilt, vulnerability. Note that not all chords fall on downbeats — the chords 2 and 4 come in on the upbeat, which creates a subtle sense of urgency and keeps it from being too boring. Songwriting is not all about cool chords and catchy melodies — subtleties like that count if you line them all up to deliver a singular emotional punch.
The verse is built upon mostly the same chord progression, and the singing comes in low and untuneful, which is a tried-and-true songwriting move. An untuneful melody isn’t that interesting to listen to if you took out the words and just listened to the notes, but the trade-off here is that it focuses the audience’s attention on the words. The lines are constructed to honor the natural rhythm and up-and-down of the English language (if I were to guess she wrote the words first, or she wrote them as she sang the melody). Notice how the word “hello” comes across. It’s not “HUH-loh” but it’s “huh-LOH” and is matched by the second note going up, forming a question-like gesture. Untuneful melodies that are matched with the language’s character create a very natural, talk-like experience, rather intimate and almost confessional. Which is perfect for this song, setting up a great contrast with the upcoming chorus. The very end of the verse has a slightly hurried feel thanks to the last phrase deviating away from the preceding patterns and ending earlier than expected, with a syncopated feel. That also creates a pause and sense of anticipation for the forthcoming chorus.
The chorus goes up in range and increases tunefulness. This comes across as dramatic not because the chorus is exceptionally huge, but mostly because everything up to this point had been very restrained and understated. One of the formulas for writing impactful songs is to create drama, and quiet-verse-loud-chorus is a proven approach. Adele knows her voice and her range and just wrote the perfect melody for her to get in to and belt it out. And belt it out she does — the song has no bridge, the two verses set up the chorus twice and that’s it. Technically speaking there is nothing particularly advanced or innovative here, she just put together a competent song that was a perfect vehicle for her voice and her persona.
So my conclusion is that the strength of this song isn’t that it’s an amazing song, rather it’s a great vehicle for the performer. In order for a song to create an impact, it needs to line up four elements: songwriting, arrangement, performance, and production. In this case the performance was the queen and everything else fell in line to highlight it. I would argue that had the songwriting had a few more twists up its sleeve it may have turned the song into something that stands up better to repeated listening. As it is, you “get” everything the first couple of listens so while its attention-grabbing drama is effective in catching listeners’ attention during those early exposures, but you get tired of it quickly, too. It’s like a very sweet candy with bright, shiny colors — you can’t help put it in your mouth and enjoy it the first time but its taste is a bit simplistic and strong to be something you want to come back to over and over again.
That being said, I can’t argue that the song is wildly successful around the world. The lesson learned for the rest of us is to know one’s strength and write in a way to feature and highlight that strength. Songwriting is a fascinating art, in that more technically advanced doesn’t necessarily mean better. I could write songs that have wild chords and key changes, but a simple song like this can deliver far greater impact when the whole package is put together right. So as we work on writing more songs, let us ask the question — does the song cater to the artist’s strength? If it does, then perhaps it’s doing all it needs to do.