We’ve all been there: it’s late, you’re at a bar, the drinks have been flowing, and on it comes – the iconic opening guitar part to The Killers’ unmistakable anthem ‘Mr. Brightside’. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, your gender, or what your background is — when Brandon Flowers lets that first verse rip, a sudden chorus of confident lead singers starts to erupt around you, singing along to every twist and turn of the jealousy-laden narrative.
How did ‘Mr. Brightside’ become the ultimate pub singalong? How does every single person, at any state of intoxication or sobriety, happen to know every word and every melodic interval that comes out of the song? Well, the answer can be found with just a little bit of music theory applied.
As is the case with most memorable pop songs, the secret to the unforgettable quality of ‘Mr. Brightside’ and its vocal melody comes down to simplicity: throughout most of the song, only a single note is sung. That would be a Db, the song’s tonic, which caries the entire verse melody except for an occasional dip into the leading tone of C.
The first time Brandon Flowers sings any other note besides Db or C is during the pre-chorus on the “I just can’t look/ It’s killing me” section. Also playing into the song’s catchiness is that, apart from a very occasional low Ab, all of the notes sung by Flowers are just five scale degrees away from each other. At any given moment, Flowers is singing a note that you can learn in a beginner’s workshop for aspiring vocalists.
As his highest note, Flowers only reaches the subdominant (or fourth) of Gb, and the song almost exclusively moves up or down melodically by a single tone. Those big jumps that you can hear happen on “I just can’t look”, “it’s just the brightside pain”, and “open up my eager eyes” are all just two scale degrees away from each other. The biggest jump in the song happens on the line “and taking control”, where the “and” is a low Ab and the “taking” starts on a higher Eb, with five scale degrees to traverse.
So what does all of this mean? It means that, if you want to sing along to ‘Mr. Brightside’ and actually not sound tone deaf, you mostly only need to know one note. Even better, that note is the song’s tonic, which automatically catches your ear even through the arpeggiated opening guitar line. You tend to naturally find the tonic even if you’re not a singer, and so did Flowers when he came up with the melody. When it comes to the song’s trickier sections, the number of notes and melodic jumps required to hit those notes are among the easiest in pop and rock music. Simply put: if you know ‘Hot Cross Buns’ or ‘Three Blind Mice’, you already know most of ‘Mr. Brightside’.
Melody is one thing, but how does almost everyone know all the words to ‘Mr. Brightside’ as well? It’s even more impressive considering how fast and furious the verse words come at you, being spat out at a rapid fire pace. Once again, it’s all about simplicity: ‘Mr. Brightside’ only has a single verse, repeated twice, with the same chorus at the end of each one. The only deviation is at the end of the song, which contains two word – “I never”. Each pass at ‘Mr. Brightside’ actually gives you two chances to take in all of the words, and when you multiply that by however many times we’ve all heard the song, it’s no wonder that the words come so naturally to us.
‘Mr. Brightside’ is perhaps the greatest case for simplicity being the primary goal in songwriting: with just five main melodic notes, including around 60 per cent of the song literally just being a single solitary note, coupled with only a single verse to memorise, the ability to recall ‘Mr. Brightside’ happens quickly and relatively accurately. It’s the perfect karaoke song, because as long as you keep up with the frenetic pace of the song’s tempo, you don’t actually have to worry about singing all that well, or all that much at all. So thanks, Brandon Flowers. You’ve saved us all the embarrassment of choosing a song way out of all of our ranges. May ‘Mr. Brightside’ continue to play at every bar until the end of time.