This is the third in our series of track breakdowns, designed to help you understand how successful tracks are arranged.
This time we’ve put under the spot light one of the biggest track of 2015, “Can’t Feel My Face” by Canadian singer The Weeknd. Scoring 2 Grammy nominations, top spot on Billboard US/Canada and countless worldwide top 10 charts, this tune has been ubiquitous on radio and tv.
Play the video below to follow how the structure develops as the track plays. Make sure to click on HD so you can view it fullscreen and see all the details.
Break it Down
A quick look reveals the simplicity of this arrangement, like a well composed Opera all the elements have their space and come to front stage with a perfect timing.
Can’t Feel My Face follows the classic structure Verse – Bridge – Chorus, Verse – Bridge – Chorus – Middle 8 – Chorus. Each section is 8 bars long except Intro, Outro, Middle 8 and Chorus 3.
Step by Step
Producers Max Martin and Payami have done a great job at arranging Can’t Feel My Face, they play with subtleties and extra layers to keep the track evolving.
Let’s analyse the main elements to understand how and when they come into play.
1. Drums (Red)
The kick is a standard four-to-the-floor pattern, providing a foundation upon which the bass plays a syncopated groove.
At bar 20, a clap with a long reverb is used as a transitional element.
Jumping to bar 41 – the kick, snare and hat are muted for four bars to create a mini break before the second chorus. Here finger snaps replace the kick pattern, keeping the straight rhythm going.
There are also two subtle percussion elements, the first starting at bar 45 “Flanger Hat” and the second one at bar 74 “Shakers”. These 2 percussive layers deliver a feeling of change and progression in rhythm sections that might otherwise feel like they’ve just been copied and pasted.
2. Synths & Pads (Blue – Turquoise)
Pads and Synth chords usually fill the role of providing an underlying progression. In Can’t Feel my Face they are creatively used to create transitions. This is achieved through filtering and reverb sends, connecting the following sections with an increase in tension.
Starting at bar 82 we have “Hi Pads”. This new layer creates extra tension before the Outro. Tension and release are essential parts of an arrangement to take the listener on a journey.
3. Vocals (Yellow)
The vocals which were co-written by The Weeknd are super catchy or as Rolling Stone puts it “There are enough hooks in this one single for a dozen chart-toppers”. Like the drums they have a lot of subtleties that create a rich texture.
Notice how the first two words of the verses come in at the end of the proceeding bars rather than on the first beat of the verse. This gives a sense of anticipation and forward tension in contrast with the choruses which start straight on the bar.
After the first chorus, the producers strip back to just the vocal before bringing all the other elements in, giving a dynamic transition back to the next verse . At this point the track repeats Verse 1 and 2, and so something else is needed to build the arrangement. This is attained with the guitar (in brown) and ad libs (“yeha”, “hu”, “ha”).
Let’s focus on the Chorus sections now. In the second chorus there is a new vocal layer that we’ve called “special elements”. It’s a very subtle comping of The Weeknd’s whispers and soft beatboxing. It’s actually quite hard to spot these but they almost subconsciously give this section a different feel. They’re easier to hear from bar 90, where the mix is stripped back.
The second chorus is twice is as long as the first and this extension is created using what we’ve labelled as “vocal answers” – a filtered delayed layer which repeats the main line. This shows how extra parts of a track can be created by using variations on an existing theme – you don’t always need to create new parts.
Again bringing things in earlier than expected there are harmonies that make this chorus sound complete and full.
Another interesting use of the vocals is at the end of the Middle 8. Here a “hu” scream with a long reverb tail is the main transitional element into the last chorus. The same technique is used to close the track.
What can we learn ?
There are a lot of tips to learn here for both music producers and singer-songwriters.
The Weeknd adds a lot of interest using very subtle layers in the orchestration to differentiate parts that might feel like repetition otherwise. The arrangement also frequently removes existing parts to make space in the track, rather than adding them in.
Pre-empting sections in a track by bringing in some elements early is also a great way to ease transitions and keep everything flowing smoothly.
Download our free Logic template for Can’t Feel My Face and use it for your own projects.
Simply open it up in Logic and replace the midi clips with your music.