“SOUND & SENSE”
A Blog by Brett Allen Reeves
Why is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” a song and not a poem?
Why is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” a song and not a poem? It’s got powerful lines and provocatively blends the titular woman and Jesus Christ, among other feats of artistic alchemy. But the words spoken do not have the power of the words sung. Why not?
The answer is that songs, good songs, that is, forge the words and music together. The sound enhances the sense, the sense guides the reader through the sound.
Mr.Cohen’s masterpiece makes clear why the best poems are sung, and the best songs are pure poetry.
The Key Matters
For one thing, the song is in the Key of E. Guy Clark, the Texas troubadour and a skilled luthier, said the E chord in first position was the best way to test a guitar after it’s been worked on. It uses the lowest note available in standard tuning. The chord covers 3 octaves, with 3 instances of the root note (E). There is only one instance of the 3rd (G#) in this chord, which can easily be shifted to an A (the 4th), as Mr. Cohen does in the song’s opening measures. Toggling between the G# and A within the E chord (from E to Esus4) yields a tension that keeps the sweet sound of the major chord while complicating it sonically. Putting the song in the key of E lets it start from the lowest note on the guitar and then alternately rise up and fall back several times in the song. The music keeps stretching upward, but it always comes back to where it began.
A Melody/Progression That Rises and Falls
That rising and falling is the key to what makes “Suzanne” a great song, worthy of the name poetry–but surpassing it–because the music gives the words so much more power than they can muster on their own. The progression starts in E, then rises up to F#m, falls back to E, then rises up to G#m and from there on to A. It’s a series of stretches:
* First from the E to the F#m (the 2nd note in the E scale)
* Then a second attempt that reaches the G#m (the 3rd note on the E scale)
* And then tiptoeing, so to speak, into the A (the 4th note on the E scale)
But then, instead of rising on up to the B (the 5th), as a listener might expect, Mr. Cohen falls back to the E, before shifting up to the F#m, falling again to E, shifting again to F#m, until finally, almost resignedly, ending the verse on the E. The chorus makes the jump again to the G#m, which stretches into the A. It’s like he’s making one last effort to rise up, to get to something big, before he subsides back into the E – F#m – E.
“Suzanne,” Verse 1
The rise and fall, the twin podes of push and pull, major and minor, in the music are crucial to making the lyric sing. In the first verse, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river” and the next line, rising up melodically, imagines you “can spend the night beside her”. But it immediately falls back to the lower chord for “you know she’s half-crazy”. It’s a moment of doubt, a pulling back.
Then there’s an immediate ascent into the G#m–”and she feeds you tea and oranges”–a sensual teasing of each other’s bodies. And then to the full A chord. This is the desire building. It’s the sap rising. The pressure pushing. It’s getting good…
But no! The next line falls back to the E chord, the low end, to more doubt– “you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her”. Then the rising, again, to the F#m– “and she lets the river answer”.
What’s the River’s Answer? The Big Reveal? It’s that “you’ve always been her lover,” a line which appropriately falls back melodically into the root chord, E. We are back where we started from, but made fuller and wiser by the journey, which has been manifested by the rising and falling of the chord progression. You can see visually how the song stretches upward then returns to base:
- 1 – 1 – 2 – -2 (E, F#m)
- 1 – 1 – 3 – 4 (E, G#m, A)
- 1 – 2 (E, F#m)
- 1 – 2 (E, F#m)
- 1 (E)
Suzanne Verdal, the woman Mr. Cohen based the song on, said she thought “he made me sound sadder than I was.” But I think she misheard. There’s nothing in the lyric about a sad girl. As for the music, I think what she heard as “sadness” was really “longing”–a building of desire, without ever forgetting that that desire would never be fully quenched.
“Suzanne,” The First Chorus
If the song stopped there, it’d be a drag. But the chorus, as we’ve rehearsed, reaches upward once more, into the G#m and the A. It’s now time for the singer’s A-HA! moment. Now he knows that his desires, I want to travel with her . . . . and I want to travel blind, are something to be set aside. Because he’s found something much more powerful: you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind
The musicality is important. The melodic lift comes at the front end, with the singer’s desires.
Then the shift back to the opening tune and the E chord. The word touched coincides with the F#m, giving us a final brief lift before we subside back to the root for the word mind.
“Suzanne,” The Payoff
That wraps up the sequence, from an exploratory Verse of desire to the consummation and transformation in the Chorus.
It’s a repeated rising and falling, not unlike the way that bodily passion rises and falls. The lovers keep reaching toward climax. He’s grabbing for something purely sensual, and she takes him on a journey (she leads him “by the river,” remember) that yields a more layered experience, in which they both have perfect bodies that touch each other’s minds.
The correspondence of body and mind in the lovers also plays out in the music. The music is physics (sound) and the meaning of the words is mental (sense). The music is the body, the words are the mind. The experience would not be complete without them both. These words need the tune to lift them up and rock them back. The music needs the words to bring the listener into the scene.
Why it’s in E
A structure that rises but never hits the 5 (drowning)
Sadness, a la Suzanne herself et al, is in the music not in the words.