Covering the Content: Form and Instrumentation in “Arcade”

Each year, the Eurovision network’s song competitions lead to thousands of song submissions. Of these, hundreds are broadcast throughout the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Each song has its own merits and can be explored in more depth. This article begins a series of articles about “Arcade”, the winning entry of Eurovision 2019. In this article, we will establish the song’s background and begin discussion about the music theory phenomena present in the song, starting with the form and instrumentation. This can help listeners identify specific aspects they appreciate in each song.

Background of the Song

Laurence has said in interviews that this song is a personal story about the loss of a loved one and all the emotions related to said loss. While studying vocals at the Rock Academy in Tilburg and participating in the Dutch version of The Voice, he wanted to focus more on songwriting than just vocalizing and spent time writing songs instead of purely practicing his piano skills. The idea combined with his culture shock in studying in a large city relative to the small town he grew up in. The song’s main contents were lauded by Ilse DeLange, creative brain behind The Common Linnets and Laurence’s coach on The Voice, and after finishing the song with other songwriters and producers, the song came to be as we know it today.

The Details through a Music Theory Lens

As with all songs, some people like the song more than others. Modern music theory approaches generally attempt to describe what’s happening in the music without adding an evaluation to its description. The following will contain details behind the song that some people may find interesting. Some potential interpretations are provided, though the meaning of a song to any person is a personal topic and can vary greatly.

Form and Instrumentation

The form of the song is as follows:

Introduction – Verse 1 – Verse 2 – Pre-Chorus – Chorus 1 – Verse 3 – Chorus 2 – Chorus 3 – Bridge – Final Chorus 1 – Final Chorus 2 – Outro

The sections within the form are fairly standard for any pop song. There is a one-measure silence after the first chorus and after the final chorus, however, and silence in the middle of songs can be used for dramatic effect.

The instrumentation changes – differences in what instruments are playing at what time – are more interesting. The introduction and first verse start with an electric piano and vocals, as the musical idea has just been planted. In the next verse, extra piano parts, a xylophone-like arpeggio and the backing vocals from the intro were added. Arpeggiation occurs when the notes in a chord (three or more sounds that have a codified relationship with each other according to music theory) are not played simultaneously, but separately. The ending of that verse consists of two guitars playing different notes at the same time, resulting in dyads – groups of two sounds – that outline part of the chord progression. The idea and Laurence’s emotions have begun to germinate and have further to go.

After this second verse, the pre-chorus plays for the first and only time. During this section, the instrumentation switches to only the two guitars and some percussion instruments: bass drum, snaps, and cymbals. This is notable because less organic musical instruments – in particular synths and sampled instruments – are increasingly being used in most popular music, and while there still is some guitar use in the pop genre, the genre is far less saturated with guitars than in the 60’s to the 00’s, so the presence of two guitars is notable.

During the first chorus, guitars double parts of the piano line and are joined by drums augmented by sampling, bass, and arpeggiated synths with doubled octaves. Doubling is an effect when two or more instruments play the same frequencies, or pitches, on their respective instruments, and doubled octaves imply that one of the frequencies will sound about the same, just higher or lower, than the other, in order to achieve a larger sound than just one instrument or the other. Furthermore, the bass is following the bass drum rhythm, which makes the bass drum sound even bigger. The instrumentation in the verses and the pre-chorus are incorporated into the chorus instrumentation here, suggesting that the emotions are still growing.

In the third verse, drums are added to the instrumentation from the second verse. Instead of cutting out before the last line of vocals as in verse 2, the instrumentals continue playing until all of them stop at the final guitar dyad. This suggests further movement, although not in the way one might expect. It’s possible that his emotions about loss have left the intellectual cocoon that he protected himself with, and he is dealing with heightened discomfort. This portion will be discussed in further articles.

Following this increase in movement, the chorus is played twice in succession. A bell-like sound is added at the very beginning of the first of these choruses, and a cymbal swell connects the first and second consecutive chorus, the latter which adds additional auxiliary percussion and strings, the latter which somewhat mirror the rhythm of the vocal part. The additional percussive movement further indicates that Laurence’s discomfort with his loss is still intensifying.

The bridge only contains two celli (or cellos, for those inclined towards Balkan cello rock) and the electric piano, which only start playing notes at six different points in the bridge. This is reminiscent of a grave (pronounced GRAH-veh) tempo – a slow, solemn speed in the instruments accompanying Laurence’s vocals, which may indicate a state of stupor, a foreboding calm.

The final two choruses can be considered a study in contrasts, as well as the calm and the storm. Outside of the percussion, the first chorus is mainly a cappella, which means that only singers are making sounds with relevant pitch/frequency information. Drums, as a predominantly rhythmic instrument, may signify an emphatic passage of time despite the bridge’s unwillingness to move – possibly suggesting that time moves on even if a person doesn’t want it to. Similar to the third verse, the drums play until the final vocal line is reached. As that line is sung, however, a cymbal swell intensifies, leading into the final chorus. This second final chorus builds on the third chorus by changing the string part to focus on the chords playing instead of the rhythm of the vocal line. This is also the first and only time that all the instruments come together, surrounding Laurence with sound and emotions. After this tumultuous final chorus, the song comes full circle, as the outro is identical to the introduction. Did the losing game happen at all? Did he learn from his heartbreak, or is he still dreaming of an ideal that has long since passed? Is he in a better headspace? All these questions (and more) are up for the reader to interpret based on the form and instrumentation choices.

Conclusion and Continuation

While the overall form of “Arcade” does not deviate too far from standard pop songs with regards to sections, the details of its realization, starting from the instrumentation, provides an elaborate backdrop filled with tiny details that weave in and out, combining to form a cohesive whole, with a climax near the end containing all the elements found in the previous sections of the song into a pathos-invoking cry of grief about losing a loved one. The next article will talk more about how the rhythms in the song add to the message and affect of the song. Stay tuned!


Eurovision interview with Duncan Laurence

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