By: Aaron Zimmerman
I Will Wait is a rock-bluegrass song in the key of Db major. Give this song a listen, and while you do, consider what about it you like. What about it is memorable? How would you describe it to a friend? Music theory is the attempt to standardize answers to these questions. See this post for more info about music theory.
When I listen to this piece, the thing that jumps out at me are the different “riffs” that make it up. A riff is a musical idea, a piece of music that is reused. Each riff is a few chords, and maybe a melody that sits on top of it. Then these riffs are put together to form the song in its entirety.
To make them easier to compare and discuss, I’ll assign each riff a capital letter.
A – Intro
The first time this riff is heard there is no melody, but it is included here for the sake of completeness.
The most notable feature of this progression is that it has two more beats than we would usually expect. This piece has a time signature of 4/4. That means that there are 4 pulses grouped together to form one unit of time. Most music written in 4/4 time would utilize riffs whose length is a multiple of 4, such as 4, 8, 16. The extra two beats in the middle create a slightly off-kilter sensation when you first listen, like you lost sight of the landmark you were using to navigate.
B – Verse
A sus chord is one in which a note is SUSpended from the previous chord. In this case, a Db is suspended from the I chord on top of the V chord. This Db is a fourth above the new chord root, an Ab. Traditionally (I.E. Bach), this sus4 would resolve down to the third (a C in this case). But in rock music, the sus chord has become accepted standalone.
C – Chorus
The melody outlines a descending Db major chord, moving from the 5th degree of the scale, to the third, and then sliding down to the 1st. The harmony mirrors this pattern, starting on the I chord, moving up to the iii, and then up to the V.
D – Bridge
Like the into, this progression plays with rhythmic expectations, holding the lyric “hands” a little longer than you might expect. This makes the “paint my” seem like the end of the measure, and at the same time seem like the beginning of the next measure. The notation of this is not important (you could count it either way), what is interesting is the ambiguity, the tension.
If we consider A’ to mean the introduction material with lyrics, the overall structure of ideas is:
A B A’ C B C B A’ D C
With the sections identified, we can look for higher level patterns in the piece. How did M&S put these ideas together, and why? After looking at it a few different ways, what seems to make the most sense to me is using the chorus as the delimiter, it signals the end of a musical “paragraph” made up of the riff “sentences”.
The idea of a chorus is that it is familiar material that the listener can “relax” during, it is easier to keep up with a song when part of it keeps coming back. Choruses lend to sing along, pub-crawl type songs, because the chorus can be picked up quickly and everyone can join in when it comes back around. The chorus is the high point of the song, the third and final iteration is a clear climax.
A B (intro – verse)
A C (intro – chorus)
B C (verse – chorus)
B A’ (verse – intro)
D C (bridge – chorus)
Usually with a “verse chorus” song, we would have “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”. But that’s not what we have here. Each iteration of “verse-chorus” is slightly different. The first one prefaces each with the intro riff, the last separates the verse from the chorus with the intro and a new “bridge” riff. And the middle version is as expected.
Ultimately theory has one purpose: to make music more interesting to listen to. So, does it make I Will Wait more interesting to label the C section as a chorus? I think so, it makes the song easier to understand, appreciate, and discuss. But what makes this song more interesting than other rock songs, (perhaps what makes it more popular…?), is that it doesn’t stop there. Great composers didn’t take a form and play fill in the blanks – they redrew the lines.
I will wait is more fun, because it strikes the balance between keeping us on our toes, with rhythm and form unexpectedness, and keeping us satisfied and comfortable by bringing back the same material, and having a good time to boot. It is like a movie with a plot twist. “I see dead people” makes you remember the movie. And rhythmic inventiveness, experimenting with variations on verse-chorus, makes you remember the song.
What do you think makes the song memorable?