Sunday Music: Analyzing Some Aretha

There’s a whole catalog of greatness surrounding Aretha, but let’s just focus on one song for a minute, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

It’s a slow burning masterpiece about bad love written by Ronnie Shannon. Shannon only wrote a handful of songs that we remember today, and this is probably the pinnacle of his writing career.

Beyond the lyrics, which are pretty self-explanatory (!), let me also point out the direction and range of the melody. Most songs, we expect to peak/climax/be most exciting in the chorus. Often times the highest and loudest note a singer will sing comes in that repeated part of the song. It’s part of what makes it called “the hook.” In this song, we move very quickly from loud and high to low and soft as she sings the title of the song. Why?

Relating back to the lyrics, this song isn’t happy, but it is sultry, dark and brooding. In a gospel song, the chorus would lift us up. But this is secular pop, and it’s about a very different kind of love. In this song, the chorus drags us down into a different type of love and salvation.

It’s magic in the way it twists our subconscious expectations by defying musical conventions. The song isn’t a downer, but that title and chorus drag us emotionally down into a dark kind of sensual love.

Below is a live version from 1968. They say that verbal is a small percentage of actual communication. Watch her expression and sway for the timing, entry points, hesitations, and conviction. Feel the climax in the bridge (you’ll know it even if you don’t know the terminology). Listen to the direction of the melody and the interpretation of the dynamics (how loud/soft sections are). It doesn’t get better than this.


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