Interesting lyrics, nice melody, excellent chorus and a beautiful, unique voice are all essential ingredients for good songs.
But what takes good songs and makes them classics, songs that are not only loved by millions but are classics that still pay off to the listener decades and thousands of hearings later?
The not-so-secret ingredient in every songwriter’s toolkit is the middle 8. That’s where the song seems to take a short break before coming back to its main verse and chorus.
The easiest way to explain what the middle 8 is and the variety of ways it can be used is with examples. There are numerous “best middle 8s” lists online and I’ve drawn from a few and added some of my own.
One song that consistently makes lists of best middle 8s is Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run because it’s perfect for the song, a dreamy interlude that sets up the big finale. Right after the sax solo, Springsteen loads all his listeners on a carnival ride, starting with the slow, big climb up to the first drop of a roller coaster that ends with the classic line “I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the street tonight, in an everlasting kiss.” Then the band goes down the roller coaster as the song frantically races to that huge “bom-bom-bom-bom-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BABA!” before The Boss counts the band (and the listeners) back in for that “last chance power drive.”
Born To Run has many of the most common middle 8 elements all stuffed into it – volume, speed and tone change (or the illusion of them), all used to ratchet up the emotion and tension of the song.
It's called the middle 8 because it is often just 8 bars long (8 bars in 4/4 time or 32 beats) but it can be much longer or can be used more than once, depending on the song and its length, but it eventually circles back to the payoff of that final chorus.
Some of the most memorable middle 8s sound like completely different songs, with new elements, melodies and even singers. John Lennon and Paul McCartney loved doing that in Beatles songs, practically splashing cold water in the face of the listener with the middle 8 section in songs like We Can Work It Out and A Day In The Life.
In Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, the song stops dead in its tracks for a middle 8 where John McVie drops one of the most famous bass licks in rock history, building up to the guitar solo and then a different but familiar version of the main chorus. The band borrowed from themselves for that middle 8 and finale, lifting it from a song called Keep Me There that they had recorded early in the Rumours sessions.
The prog-rock fan in me loves the middle 8 in Rush’s Limelight because it seamlessly evolves into the guitar solo (it counts in 3/4 or 6/8 (?) before returning to 4/4 and the final chorus). I’m also partial to the clever middle 8 in Blondie’s Heart of Glass, which counts in 7 (or skipping a beat every second bar), messing with the folks on the dance floor.
I also love the middle 8s that set up huge powerful and emotional punches, as the singer takes the listener into the stratosphere. That’s what Boston’s More Than A Feeling, Jann Arden’s Good Mother, Welcome To The Jungle by Guns N’ Roses and Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You have in common.
The middle 8 in Miss You by The Rolling Stones is a pure middle 8 – just eight bars that allows the song to circle back and start over, with Mick Jagger begging “Oh everybody waits so long, oh baby, why you wait so long? Won't you come on, come on?”
Taylor Swift’s Blank Space also has a pure middle 8 where she lets her foot off the gas to sum up the whole song with “boys only want love when it’s torture, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” Shake It Off also has a super middle 8 section.
Now that you’re aware of middle 8s, you’ll be looking for them in your old and new favourites. The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, Adele’s latest hit Oh My God and Lizzo’s brand-new single About Damn Time all have excellent middle 8s in them.
Not every song has a middle 8 (and there are classics like Dolly Parton’s Jolene that don’t need one because they’re perfect just the way they are) but when a good song needs that extra little something-something, a middle 8 is the best tool for the job.