The Structural Hook: Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb” (1979)

Baumgardener's Bridge, Lancaster County
The hook is usually something that swells up at a moment you can point to, but sometimes it’s more structural and surrounding: something is getting to you in a song and you come to see that it’s an unusual large-scale design. For example, the refrain in “Walk Away Renée” by The Left Banke always arrives too big and soon, like a tidal wave, because the verse seems like it’s going to go a normal sixteen bars but only goes eight.

“Walk Away Renée” verse + chorus

At the other end of the segment-length hook spectrum, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” has a refrain that lasts nineteen measures—more than a minute—way, way beyond the eight-bar norm for pop choruses.[1] The length is partly disguised by a verselike quality, including some variation of words in its second occurrence; it shuttles back and forth between four-bar sections based on the chord changes of D-A and C-G, each section stately in itself because it repeats a 2-bar statement.

“Comfortably Numb” chorus

As a result, when you get to “I have become comfortably numb” in measures 17-19, you feel as though you’ve gone through a long climbing tunnel and now you’ve come out in a bright and different place.

See Andrew Goodwin’s ambitious structural analysis in the post just below on “Whole Lotta Love.”

Also see my reluctant note on Madonna.[2]

*

2/8/17  Here’s another good one: in Jump, Little Children’s “Say Goodnight” (1998), the chorus, once it clearly gets started at 0:57 and 2:07 after a transitional section, takes ten measures to arrive at its gloriously repeatable peak, where you find out what the chorus is.

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[1] For comparison, notice what a strong (and nicely appropriate) feeling of endlessness Aimee Mann gets by prolonging the “It’s not going to stop” chorus of “Wise Up” just four bars beyond the normal eight.

[2] There’s a remarkable structural hook in Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.”  In roughly the first half of the song, up till 2:20, there are 61 measures of 4/4 time, of which the huge majority, 45, have no beats.  That’s right, the ratio of beatless measures to measures with dance beats is 45 to 16.  Pretty spiritual, huh?  (After 2:20 there are 90 measures to dance to.)

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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