On the mainstage, there are plenty of great singers showcasing their abilities. But none come quite as close to Adele. When this diva made her debut in 2008, she took the world by storm, making her first album go 8x platinum.
But that was just the start of things. Her career was lined up with several awards and accolades, including Golden Globes, Academy Awards, and much more. Clearly, she had a lot to offer to the music industry.
One of the many reasons that make Adele stand out so well among the crowd is her incredible songwriting abilities. In a short span of 2-3 minutes, she is able to weave audio magic with her songs.
So, the question remains, how does she manage to make such incredible pieces? It may seem like pure wizardry on first listen, but luckily there are prominent songwriting elements that make her sound the way she does.
Voice Leading to 3’s and 7’s
Melody writing is an art in its own right. There are so many different approaches to it. Yet, the end result is always to create a series of memorable notes that hit the ear a certain way. Artists like Adele have had this formula cracked down reasonably well.
Adele tends to lead her vocal melodies for most of her songs. But it’s the way she does that is truly remarkable. Taking a page out of Bebop Jazz improvisation, Adele tends to hit the 3rd and 7th intervals in relation to the chords.
You can notice this in songs like ‘All I Ask’. In the song, Adele’s strongest notes always seem to alternate between 7ths and 3rds. This creates a feeling of bouncing between melodic and melancholic tone colors. It’s a trick that she uses well to convey emotional accents in a majority of her discography.
It makes for a stark contrast to an otherwise majority of the pop genre that capitalizes on sounding radio-friendly. But Adele manages to shed the skin of easy, simple, and singalong melodies in favor of something that has more nuance and control. It aids her ability to jump out in front of any given song.
Bold Chord Choices
If melody is the meat in the sandwich, then chords are its bread. No good song is complete without a superb lineup of chords adding harmony and sustenance to it. Adele knows this better than anyone. That’s because she isn’t just using chords for bulking up her songs; she’s also using them to add some zest to the song.
One of the useful machinations of Adele is using Jazz inspired chord changes. Almost none of her songs feature a standalone diatonic chord.
They’re almost always spiced up with a major or minor 7th, diminished, or augmented interval for spice.
But she takes this concept a step further by using turnaround progressions like the I vi ii. Usually, this is the kind of progression you would see stamped onto a Jazz standard. But to find it on a Billboard-topping song is a great feeling.
The effect of this is adding contrast to Adele’s strong vocals. Instead of using derivative progressions like I IV V, the I vi ii chord progression gives off a relaxed backing template to draw more attention to powerful vocal performances.
It takes a lot to use such bold chords in a song. But Adele clearly wants to show that she isn’t afraid of separating herself to stand out a bit more.
Touching on Deep Emotions
The music of Adele clearly has a very established niche. However, it’s very different from what you hear on the radio. Adele doesn’t cover the range of topics that are already done and dusted. She prefers to go for something a little different.
Adele sits in the spectrum that covers wistful, nostalgic, and regretful emotions. These are the kind of themes you would find in her albums. By doing this, she isn’t appealing to a vast crowd. But she is fulfilling a particular need for diversification in major music releases.
On radio and airplay charts, she can be found in the Adult Contemporary category. This means that her audience ranges from 18 all the way to 50 and over. This acts as a pretty catalyst for giving the freedom to explore more profound and meaningful subject matters. And she can do it without the risk of losing her audience.
She’s able to explore these themes spectacularly with vivid emotions ranging from feelings of loss to a need for comfort and affection. You can pick these emotions out early just from the titles alone. Simultaneously, the lyrics and the chorus act as the epicenter of explosive energy to express them in all their glory.
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Cyclic Chord Progressions
Popular Western music follows a clear-cut linear progression. You go from one chord to the other before repeating the process. Musically, all you’re really doing is creating some harmonic movement that resolves back down to the tonic chord. It’s the idea of leaving home to go on a journey before coming back.
Chord progressions in Adele’s songs don’t really stick to this formula. Instead of the Western tradition of linear progressions, they borrow from the Eastern tradition of cyclic chord progressions.
For songs like All I Ask, the chords don’t really resolve back to the home chord. Instead, they take a detour by going from the major scale to the relative minor scale. Here’s the main chord progression:
C – Em – F – G – E/G# – Am – C/G – Dm – Dm7/G – A7/C# – F/G – G7 – G/B – C/E
Chords here move seamlessly into one another without there being a break or repeat. This works hand in hand with her narrative weaving of emotions of longing. These are the lyrics that are placed on top of the chords:
“If this is my last night with you
Hold me like I’m more than just a friend
Give me a memory I can use
Take me by the hand while we do what lovers do
It matters how this ends
‘Cause what if I never love again?”
It’s obvious what’s happening here. Both the lyrics and chord progression work together to power the emotion of the song. The lyrics add the necessary descriptor for the emotion, while the chords place a reference for the feeling. Both of these elements work together to make the song feel like it is painfully carrying on.
It’s one thing to base your song on a topic. But to be able to breathe life into the themes with your compositional element is quite unique. And it’s one of the many strengths that Adele carries in her songs.
Using Harmonic Stress to Create Pull
Harmony can be a powerful tool for songwriting. It’s one of the fundamental elements of music and one that can be used in several ways. It’s usually thought of in the context of making sounds work together pleasantly. But Adele has other ideas for it.
Using the rules of harmony against itself, Adele manages to create strong stresses in the sound. These act as bridging points create a pull in certain parts of the song.
She accomplishes this by a combination of strengthening her vocal compression and clustering chords with close intervals. It’s a sound that can otherwise sound very jarring to the ear. But working it into specific parts help create tension wherever needed.
On their own, tricks like these are impressive enough. But Adele also manages to combine them with symbolic songwriting gestures to complete the picture. She lays down long silent pre-chorus sections that transition into explosive chorus parts. It’s a technique that she uses to impart anticipation of a life event and the buildup to it.
Intimate Lyric Writing
By far, one of Adele’s biggest strengths is in the lyric writing department. She’s been closely involved in writing almost all of her songs. And if she isn’t the chief writer for a song, then she’s definitely crediting as its co-writer.
Adele’s primary approach to writing is to be very intimate with her words. Instead of just narrating a story, her lyrics invite you inside her mind.
You’re able to get a sense of her emotions and feelings. She uses this to significant effect in the song Painting Pictures:
“I can feel the pressure pushing onto my heart
And it’s teasing me
So scratch my itch and beat my drum
So I can start to begin what’s begun.”
Feelings act as great emotional anchors to connect listeners to the lyrics. But they also double as a narrative tool to showcase life from personal experiences. Nowhere is this as prominent as in her song, Set Fire to the Rain:
“My hands, they’re strong
But my knees were far too weak
To stand in your arms
Without falling to your feet.”
In these lyrics, concepts like pain and anguish aren’t just constructs. They’re linked strongly to physical feelings like being strong or weak. Even if you can’t relate immediately to what she’s talking about, you can instantly tell how she feels.
Soul Inspired Sound
Adele isn’t just your typical pop star. She’s inspired heavily by the heritage of gala singers that came before her time. Not only is this prevalent in her melodies, but it’s also a big part of her sound.
The most significant evidence of this is in her band setup. A lot of her songs are recorded live with a live band in the studio. It’s an unusual approach in today’s world of individually tracked or sampled instruments. But instead, she prefers to go with a soul band complete with upright bass, strings, and honky-tonk keyboards.
Another place where this is noticeable is in her backing vocals. She uses a call and response choir that is reminiscent of blue-eyed soul singers of the time. This kind of soul image definitely sets her apart from the herd.
Unpolished Song Production
Flashy song productions might perk ears and sell records, but they’re not Adele’s cup of tea. She prefers to go for barebone sound production for most of her songs. It certainly helps portray her songs feel very true to life.
In her tracks, she abstains from using autotune of pitch correction to tame her vocals. Her singing comes from the heart, and it’s represented as faithfully as it can be. Production effects like reverb, EQ, compression, and delay are also left out in favor of a more natural sound.
Adele’s rendition of the classic Bob Dylan song Make You Feel My Love banks on this approach. Her lack of excessive polishing skills makes her sound come through quite strong.
For her own songs like Someone Like You, she goes for minimal piano chords to back her singing. It’s a rare quality that few others feature in their songs.
Effective Vocal Use
You can talk about any number of Adele’s qualities. However, her biggest gift to her songs will always be her vocal skills. And her songs try to take to advantage of these skills to make her shine.
Adele has an impressive three-octave range. What’s truly remarkable is that her range sits in the mezzo-soprano category. This means that she can hit a D6 at the highest and a B2 at the lowest.
In terms of female singers, this definitely isn’t the norm. But it doesn’t faze Adele in the least to explore the depth of her sound. And luckily, it’s what makes her stand out so well among other female singers.
In any given song, she’ll stay in her lowest vocal limit to build an emotional connection. Then, she’ll release high notes on the apex of the music in an operatic fashion. It makes for a grand sound that’s full of emotion and one of Adele’s most significant trademarks.
Artists like Adele build songs to intentionally make you feel a specific emotion. When you listen to those songs, you might not see the schematics, but you will see the necessary feelings. But once you crack the code, it’s easy to see where all the clues are.
All of the elements listed above should make Adele’s song formula a lot clearer. And once you get to see her artistry, it’ll make it that much easier to appreciate her craft.