The Joker and the Queen (Ed Sheeran/Taylor Swift) – The next big wedding song? (Update 13, Feb 2022)


I’ve just been working on a couple of transcriptions for a couple of weddings that we’ve got coming up. When people request songs and we don’t already know them, I usually write them out in notes, so that when I go along to the gig, I can put that in front of the musicians, and we can just play it, and it’s very simple that way.

So I thought while I was here, I might have a look at this new song that’s come out from Ed Sheeran with Taylor Swift. It’s a nice duet, and when I heard, I thought, gee, I bet we’re going to be playing that at weddings before too long. So I’m going to transcribe it, I’m going to write out the notes, and then we’ll have a little bit of a talk about it. If you don’t read music, then that’s totally okay, I’m going to take you through it. I’m not going to put the recording on my video, because obviously, the publisher might not like that so much, but I am going to put some links to the audio from the official YouTube video, and if I can I’m going to link to the specific section that I’m talking about, so if you want to have a listen, you can. I’d urge you to go and have a listen to the song. It’s a nice tune, and I’ll be back once I’ve finished doing this transcribing and we’ll do a little bit of playing and singing and see if we can figure out what’s going on with this song.

Well, the transcription’s done, and I always say, you never really know a song until you’ve transcribed it. Or at least I don’t. It’s amazing, I’ve sat down and transcribed loads and loads of pop songs over the years, and lots of them you think, “Oh yeah, I know that song,” but then once you sit down and start doing that really close listening to it and trying to write down what you’re hearing, all of a sudden you hear all of this stuff that you didn’t hear the first time, and that’s certainly true of this song as well. So is this song a song that’s going to come up at weddings and it’s going to be, you know, a classic song that we’re going to be hearing and enjoying for years to come? Let’s have a look and we’ll try and answer that question.

First of all, we don’t have an intro on this song, it’s just Ed cranking in there with that first phrase, “How was I to know?” And that might be important, I’m just going to talk about that a little bit later, but lets have a look at this opening phrase to begin with. We’ve got this little phrase “How was I to know?” This is a nice little melodic phrase, it sort of outlines this C major 7 chord, so we’ve got the notes of that chord sort of scattered here throughout the phrase, and it gives it that sort of sweet, kind of slightly jazzy sound, I suppose you could say. It’s like a stronger melodic opening than you get in quite a lot of pop song. It covers a wider range, in this case between this C and this E down here, we’re talking a minor 6th, and that’s kind of like big in terms of pop songs, and how rangy their openings get. It also has several sort of bigger intervals in it. Well, they’re only thirds, but if you listen to a lot of pop melodies, they’re mostly made up of what we would call scale movement, okay, so they go up or they go down only in steps, one note at a time. In this case, we’re skipping over some notes and we’re sort of covering that whole range. So, to me that sort of grabs my attention a little bit, as being slightly unusual for a pop song that you usually hera. In terms of is it a good little melody to start with, I think it’s totally fine. The fact that it lands here on this E is, makes a sort of a little bit sweeter than you might ideally like. Like it’s extremely sweet. It’s right in that creme caramel kind of sweetness, which for me, maybe a little bit too much, but anyway, I think it’s a strong opening, and you know, lyrics here are totally fine, totally fit with the rhythm of the melody. I’d be pretty happy with that opening.

Now once you’ve head that first little phrase, immediately as a listener, subconsciously we’re thinking, ok, well where does it go from here? And it’s fair to say that once you’ve heard this, the second bit, it sort of writes itself, like it’s pretty predictable. Which is okay, we need a certain amount of predictability. And then we get into the third phrase, “I showed you my hand, and you still let me me win”. So we’ve got this little theme, and then we’ve got a variation on that theme, and then we’ve got, like, a little different theme, and then we’ve got the initial one again. So you could talk about this melody as being kind of like an AABA, it’s sort of like a limerick sort of form where you get something and then you get something similar and then you get something different, and then you get something the same again that sort of finishes it off. So again, it’s sort of quite predictable, quite sort of normal sounding, nothing too surprising so far, and again, that’s not a bad thing. When I say “predictable,” it sounds like I’m being judgmental, but all songs need an element of predictability, but they also need an element of surprise, so we’re going to see as we go through whether we get both of those things. It seems to have four note chords in it quite, a lot, which … So we’ve got 1,2,3,4 notes in this chord. And that sort of colourful sort of sweetness that you’ve got there is sort of characteristic of jazz chords, and again on this second chord, we’ve got 1, 2, 3, 4 notes in there, again this is slightly unusual in a pop song. Not a huge number of pop songs use this sort of four note harmony. And another thing that pop songs quite often don’t use is tonality that’s this strong. So you can think of tonality as kind of the hominess of the way a harmonic progression works. So in other words, when we establish this, this sounds like home. Already it sounds like home, okay, but we’re not really sure yet, we don’t really know. This chord, this ii chord, D minor 7, sounds like you’ve just walked out of the house and taken a step onto the front doorstep, you know, it’s not quite at home any more, but you could turn around and go back quite easily if you wanted to, yeah, it’s only just moved away from home. And then (I’m going to ignore this F for a moment). You’ve got this G7 chord here, and that G7 chord, again it’s a little unusual in pop music. The G7 going back to the C is what we call a perfect cadence, and what that is, it’s sort like you’ve gone out to the letterbox, and then you’re turning around to come straight back home again, okay. So you’ve sort of started out here, at home, you’ve taken one little step out, and then you’ve sort of moved away a little bit, and straight back home again, okay. Most pop songs don’t use that many perfect cadences like this. They don’t seem to want to identify that home key quite as strongly. If we think about a more typical pop progression, this one’s sort of everywhere in every song, including lots of Ed Sheeran’s songs, it’ll start with a I, and then it’ll go straight down to a V, but without a seventh. Now at the moment, we don’t really know which one of these is the home. It could be this, or it could be this. We haven’t really decided which house we live in yet, we’re sort of wandering around the street, maybe trying a couple of different doors and finding out which one’s which. And then the sort of slight uncertainty that comes with this minor vi chord, and then for some reason that turns into a IV chord, and then back home again, but it’s not nearly as convincing as going sort of back home like this. This is what is called a plagal cadence, this IV-I. A plagal cadence sort of brings you home, but in a sort of a less obvious way, less convincing way. So jazz progressions, and the chord progressions that they used a lot in classical music, they have a strong sense of where home is and how to get back there, whereas pop music likes to float around a bit more. It likes to use a lot of those plagal cadences, that leave it a little bit ambiguous as to where home really is. You know, you can contrast that with like the ending of a Beethoven Symphony or something, which is kind of like, you know, coming home with a policeman in handcuffs and bashing your head against the door, like it’s coming home really powefully strongly. And we feel as if that’s sort of too much these days, I suppose, so pop music has sort of drifted away from that. You could look at this song as maybe a little bit of a step back towards something a little bit more tonal, and maybe its sort of sounds a little bit classic for that reason. It sounds a little bit more like an old song than like a new song, if you like.

So after we’ve played this first four bars, there’s our opening phrase, and then we do the same thing again, slightly different second phrase, which is signalling that we’re going to maybe move somewhere else. Up until now, we’ve just repeated the first section, but now, we have this sort of interesting kind of resolution. The melody’s moving upwards, staying within the same key, still coming back home to that C chord, but it changed the whole shape of the melody, and it sort of makes us wonder, okay, where’s this going. And where it goes, is that it takes us straight out of there and into what we could call, you know, a B section here, if we call this first one the A section. So it’s really a tune in two different sections. A lot of songs have more sections than that, but this one really only two. What we might call a binary form.

And I quite like the way that this A section here sort of dovetails, sort of just continues on into the B section, okay, it doesn’t sort of start a new phrase, it sort of sustains its way through, and I quite like that it sort of blends that A section into the B. “The road that was broken bought us together, and I know you could fall for a thousand kings,” I’m taking this down an octave because I can’t sing as high as Ed can, so yeah, I sort of like the way that the A section just sort of leads its way nicely into that B section.

The B section, if you look at the shape of the melody here, it’s a lot more scales, just going up and down, apart from this big jump here, everything sort of is in scales, and it’s a much more normal pop melody than the opening is, because yeah, it just sort of floats its way up and down. It does have a melodic shape, and it’s got some nice things about it.

Let’s go to the next verse now, and we’ve got Taylor Swift singing here, and she’s singing the same melody as Ed was singing, and in the same pitch, and that’s a little bit unusual. Ed’s got a pretty high voice. I wouldn’t have said that Taylor Swift has a very low voice, although she’s singing these notes okay, she’s getting the pitch. But to me, it sounds just a little bit uncomfortably low for her. If it had been me, I might have shifted the key up, maybe a minor third, here, just so that instead of Taylor Swift having to sing right down here, you know, it’s fine for me, but not so much for her. If she’d been singing here, I think that would have put her into the same kind of vocal range as Ed was singing, sort of relative to her normal pitch. And Ed’s got a very high voice, so he could easily match all the harmonies and everything that are going to come later if he took it up a minor third, and it would just stop this from sounding quite as much as if Taylor Swift is singing right down in the guts of her range, which just doesn’t sound totally comfortable to me. But anyway, what do I know.

She does the same melody, and they join together and do some harmonies along the way. The harmonies are mostly in thirds, they’re these quite sweet things. Sometimes there’s three, mostly there’s two. You can tell, by the way, that Taylor Swift, some of her sort of country background comes out, in lines like this, where she’s singing the high part, you can see that most of these chords here are a third apart, and that means that when you’re singing the harmony, the contour of the harmony flows very naturally with the contour of the melody, and so when somebody who’s sort of untrained sings harmonies, they’ll tend to gravitate towards these sort of thirds, so these two lines sort of sound they same, they have the same shape. But here, “a palace and diamond rings,” the melody, and then if you look at Taylor’s line up the top, she’s going … now that little C up here, this top note, it breaks the pattern. It steps outside of those thirds, and it puts a fourth there instead, in other words it’s a bigger jump than it would be if you were just following the contour of the melody. And she’s doing that for a reason, because as a country singer you want that note there, this C, to fit in with this chord here, and if it was a B, it would not quite sort of fit in, so she’s jumped like an extra semitone up there. And to me that just speaks a little bit to her country background, because country singers do that sort of stuff all the time. They’re very good at finding their way through harmonies while maintaining the sort of ‘correct’ notes of the chord, maybe because they mostly play guitar as well, they can sort of hear that stuff, whereas pop singers quite often sort of invent new chords as they do the harmonies. And they both sound good, but it’s interesting to see those sort of things coming out.

So Taylor’s verse happens, they do another chorus together with lots of harmonies, and then we’v egot a fairly nondescript instrumental verse, with just strings playing the melody again. I’m going to come back to that. And then another sort of B section, that finishes in a very simple ending where they just repeat the last phrase in a fairly straightforward way.

Let’s just talk about the lyrics for the moment, and obviously if you’ve heard this song you know that it’s got lots of playing card references, the joker, the queen, all this sort of stuff, more specifically in this case, it’s kind of like poker references, which I’m not sure about. Anyway. Those kind of references have obviously been used before in many many songs over the years. One of my favourites is the Sting “Shape of My Heart” off the Ten Summoners Tales album, and I think it’s kind of like a really potent set of symbols, that we can use and that everybody understands. We don’t have all that many cultural references that are like that, those relatively timeless, relatively universal symbols that everyone’s going to understand and get the reference, and those archetypes of kings and queens and jokers and that kind of thing, they sort of speak to all of us across probably most cultural boundaries, and allow us to tap into a tradition. We’re a bit short on other references to do that, particularly now that not everybody understands the old references from the classics that we might have used in the past, or the biblical references, so you know, it’s either this kind of thing or it’s The Simpsons or whatever, you know, and you don’t really want to write a love song about The Simpsons.

So, I think using those kind of references is totally good, and totally fine, and when it’s done well, but Sting or by Kenny Rogers or whoverer, it works fantastically well. I would say in this one, he’s kind of overdone it a little bit. Let’s just go and have a little look. In the first section he’s sort of reasonably light on. He has a few that are in there, but if we keep going through the verse, this should say ‘fold’, by the way, not ‘fall’, the chorus, the B section, maybe this is a poker reference too, joker, queen, played, this is the second verse where he really starts going to town. I dunno, I’m going to leave ‘guessed’, but he probably thought that was a poker reference too. I kept my cards, called my bluff, saw through all my tells, all in, and we left together. Okay, so if you look at how many reference he’s trying to cram in here, I that’s kind of overdoing it a little bit, and it ends up being sort of more like a word game than like a love song. And I also feel as if talking about things like folding, and going all in, it’s kind of the vocabulary of the World Poker Championships, it’s not really the vocabulary of this sort of classic iconography that Shape of My Heart goes for, you know like there are aspects of this sort of language that you can use and it’s really universal, and there’s other bits of the language, yeah, like ‘saw through all my tells’, this doesn’t really come from the classic language that we’re looking for, it’s more specific to something that’s not very romantic, which is people sitting around a poker table.

So yeah, that’s kind of my take on that. When you hear ‘You could fall for a thousand kings”, this is a really classic line, I don’t know if Ed’s going back to his Game of Thrones days when he was writing that, but that’s kind of got something. It might be a little cliched, but it’s got a connection to a tradition that makes it feel sort of timeless. But that’s not the case for all the playing card references in this thing. So yeah, I reckon he could have gone a little bit easier.

Just talking briefly now about the production, and what it sounds like, there are a few clues, I think, in here, which suggest that it’s not a very refined production. Like for example, the fact that there’s no intro and there’s no outro. Now I think that’s fine, that works great, totally valid choice, but, k’now, just an interesting kind of data point. The fact that when Ed is singing, and maybe Taylor too, I’ll check, but certainly when Ed is singing in the first verse, we’ve got a piano melody under his voice, playing the same melody, which, singers don’t usually like that, and the rhythms don’t quite match, sounds a bit sloppy, mm, okay, it’s the sort of thing you might expect in a demo recording rather than like a polished studio recording. Towards the end, in the last verse, there’s a pretty obvious piano clam, like a wrong note that really shouldn’t be there, maybe would have warranted another take, normally, unless you were making a demo recording. And then we’ve got that sort of bridge with the strings where really nobody’s put too much effort into making that sound good or interesting, so there’s that. And it sort makes me wonder a little bit whether this song was some kind of record company obligation, rather than a song that was really constructed with a whole lot of care. It’s interesting that the video clip, which is quite sweet, by the way, you should watch it, but the video clip has actors standing in for young versions of Taylor and Ed, and you don’t ever, I don’t think you ever see, the actual people singing, which again makes me wonder, were they actually in the studio at the same time? Quite probably not? So maybe this song can go down as just one of those things, a little bit like one of those 1980s cross promotions that you get in sitcoms where the cast of one sitcom will show up in the other, you know, like it’s just one of those sort of commercial kind of productions that is done for maybe slightly cynical reasons, and we shouldn’t expect it to be a classic song that we’re going to be listening to for the next 20 years.

You have gathered from what I’ve been saying that I don’t really think this is going to be the next classic wedding song. I mean people might like it a whole lot more than I do, so that’s okay, if you want to have it at your wedding, by all means do, I’m happy to play it for you, but I don’t it ranks up there amongst the best Ed Sheeran songs, and I don’t think it ranks up there among the best love songs that people might have for their wedding. It’s not the worst, you know, like I’ve played at weddings where people have not really listened through to the lyrics very carefully and have ended up with songs which sound romantic from the title, but when you listen through, not very romantic at all. Best example I can think of is ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. Sounds fine, but have another listen to the lyrics, and yeah, not quite what you’re looking for for your wedding.

So I don’t really think that this one’s going to be up there, I could be wrong, let me know what you think in the comments, and I’ll see you again next week.

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