On Middle Eights

Gary Barlow
And we’ll be toge-he-ther…go on, you know you want to click.

I am, right this second, listening to a R4 programme on musical middle eights. It’s interesting, and you should listen to it when you get the chance, but it’s made me wonder what the definition of a “middle eight” really is. (I looked it up on the internet, but nobody on the internet agrees with anyone else on the internet.)

Obviously it needn’t be eight bars long (and if you feel sniffy about that, you can get around it by calling it a bridge), but it does probably need to be somewhere in the middle of the song, which is to say it can’t be the intro or the outro. And yet one of the first examples given by Helen Caddick, a composer and lecturer in songwriting at Goldsmith’s College, was Eleanor Rigby, which I don’t think has a middle eight at all, but Caddick thinks the “Ah, look at all the lonely people” section is a middle eight; and if your definition is that it’s not the verse or the chorus (I think that bit is part of the chorus, but I’m not a lecturer in songwriting) and that it has a different melody or theme from the rest of the piece, then I suppose she could be right.

But then her second example was Pulp’s Common People, and her middle eight was this section:

Rent a flat above a shop

Cut your hair and get a job

Smoke some fags and play some pool

Pretend you never went to school

Still you’ll never get it right

Cause when you’re laying in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the wall

If you call your dad he can stop it all

Now, the vocal is certainly different, and emotionally it’s the punchy centre of the song for sure, but the music playing behind it is (I’m going by memory, I can’t seem to be bothered to give it an actual listen; feel free to tell me I’m wrong) the same as the rest of the song.

So I’m still not sure what a middle eight is, but I do know what my favourite middle eight is (today). What are yours? And what’s your definition of a middle eight?

13 thoughts on “On Middle Eights

  1. There’s the astonishing middle eight in the full Rainbow theme, of course. No I don’t have a link. But it’s something else – you think you know Rainbow, then you hear this and it shakes you.

  2. Adrian Ogden

    A bridge is a bit that goes between two bits – eg. verse and chorus – which are complete in themselves, but do not link smoothly. It is not necessarily a separate bit in itself, it could be an extension of the bit before it. Eg:”And when you get the chance…” is the bridge into the chorus of Dancing Queen. “Sleep with one eye open…” is the bridge into the chorus of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”.

    A Middle 8, OTOH, is a separate bit. Musically it’s different from the verses and choruses: it might be a different riff, a different key, a change from major to minor, or just the same riff a change of instrumentation. Lyrically the change might be therefore an opportunity to look at the theme of the song from a fresh perspective. Basically it’s a way to break up the repetition of verse/chorus and take you on a musical journey. You might end up back where you started, but you’ll feel like you’ve arrived there for a reason.

    It doesn’t have to be 8 bars, it could be short and sweet like the “Man, we was killing time…” section of Bryan Adams’ “Summer Of ’69”, or an extended workout like after the the second chorus of Abacab by Genesis. Or there’s the “Now I lay me down to sleep… Hush little baby don’t say a word…” section in Enter Sandman. Musically the same chords as the rest of the song, the instrumentation is just lifted from the intro, but what makes it different is the structure of the vocal line.

    That’s some thoughts for you, anyway.

  3. veal

    I think that programme is a repeat, or anyway I heard a Radio 4 programme about middle-eights last year and was as annoyed as you that some of the featured middle eights weren’t middle eights. Taylor Swift is always careful to include a well-crafted middle eight – I liked the thing (if it’s the same programme – it has to be because the Eleanor Rigby example was what made me the most annoyed) about when it comes back from a M8 the emotion is redoubled because the M8 is what the song’s really about. But a middle eight I always get excited about, anyway, is the Oliver’s Army one because of the not-pausing for breath in ‘just a word in Mr Churchill’s ear’ bit and the way it really puts a bit of meat into it.

    1. Yes, certainly the same programme. And your thing about Oliver’s Army reminds me that what I love best about the M8 in Back For Good is where it slows right down before it comes back in on the chorus. The M8 in Super Trouper just makes me cry. I cried when I listened to it while writing this blog post.

  4. veal

    On the subject of Rainbow, too, The Wombles theme has quite a good middle eight. The bit that goes ‘Uncle Bulgaria, we can remember the days when he wasn’t behind the times…’ It’s not as McArthur Park as the Rainbow one.

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