Songwriting Tips, News & More

Songwriting Tip: The Prosody of Mystery in Mystery Train

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 @01:00 PM

The Prosody of Mystery in Mystery Train

By Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

 Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

Ok, so who still cares about the young Elvis and his Sun Records recordings? Simple stuff, right? Sure. Scotty Moore and Bill Black are just rock-a-billy hicks thumping away the best they can, them good ol’ southern boys.

 

So why does Elvis’ Mystery Train still feel like a mystery to be unraveled, fresh on every listening? Have you heard it recently? C’mon, download it and check it out. Then come back.

 

So? Did you try to count it out? Go back and simply tap out the downbeats. See how you do. I’ll wait.

 

It can be a little confusing. Simplify it a bit. Forget the intro and start counting downbeats one beat before Elvis comes in with “train arrive.” It’s a pretty brisk tempo.

 

How many bars do you count before he starts line 2?

 

Right. Ten bars:

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

 

Train ar-ri--------------ive sixteen coaches long

 

Then another ten bars:

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

 

Train ar-ri--------------ive sixteen coaches long

 

Pretty neat. It throws you off balance, both the ambiguous entry (did you expect it there?) and the unusual ten bar phrase. Maybe, um, mysterious, eh?

 

But made even more mysterious because of the introduction. Now count it. I’ll wait.

 

Yup, six bars, but with a wrinkle. The first downbeat is pretty foggy, with the guitar starting in the half bar and playing its figure on & 3 &, making it even harder to find the downbeat. So it’s an unusual six-bar intro.

 

Then the vocal starts back-heavy (after the downbeat) in bar seven – the actual first bar of the ten-bar verse. Even more mysterious.

 

Only when you get to the “chorus,” the conclusion of the sequence, do you get to a stable 8-bar section, where he slams the door, letting you know what the mystery train has done to him:

 

Well that long black train got my baby and gone

 

Note, however, that the front-heavy (starting on the downbeat) “chorus” picks up in the tenth (weak) bar of the verse “Well that…,” making even the stable 8-bar sequence a tad ambiguous. Then the long/gone rhyme puts the finishing touches on the section.

 

There’s prosody galore in this treatment. The verse is unstable and mysterious – even spooky – while the “chorus” leaves no hope for our hero. It’s a nifty use of a third level of phrasing – how many you have bars in a section.

 

Either Scotty and crew had no idea what they were doing, or they really did. I’d opt for the latter explanation. Even if they didn’t think of it in terms of prosody, you can. And you can use it in your songwriting.

 

Go get ‘em.

 

© 2012 Pat Pattison 

Pat Pattison is a Professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Songwriting. For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Prosody, Songwriting Tip, lyric writing, expert