June 14, 2024


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Originally titled “If You Believed In Me” and scored for The Great Magoo, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” finally appeared under its new name in the film Take a Chance: Video

Great American Songbook composers, Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck, 1905-1986), composed music for over 500 songs during his long, successful career, even though he originally set out to become a great singer and was not particularly interested in writing songs.

His tremendous success reached across Broadway stages, Hollywood film scores and Top 10 radio hits for countless singers. In 1932, Arlen collaborated with friends Yip Harburg and Billy Rose to create one of Arlen’s best-known, enduring songs. Originally titled “If You Believed In Me” and scored for The Great Magoo, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” finally appeared under its new name in the film Take a Chance.

Form: Like so many songs from the 1930s, “Paper Moon” (as it is often nicknamed) occupies 32-bar, AABA form, with four eight-measure phrases presenting the A theme three times, interrupted by a contrasting bridge (B) halfway through. This form is ideal for presenting three (or more in this case) examples of evidence (found in A) supporting the main thrust of the lyric’s theme (shown at the bridge). Many composers found, and still find, this form (or variations of it) to be an excellent way to unify a song’s lyrics and music, and to leave an audience feeling satisfied that it all makes sense in a cohesive, understandable manner.

Harmony: In constructing a harmonic basis for this song, Arlen relied closely upon an ascending bass line. The bass ascends chromatically from I-dim7/ii-ii-V7 at the start of each A section, before emphasizing the ii-V7-I progression so prevalent in Western music. At m. 5, he employs what is known as “rhythm changes” harmony to turn the music back around to the beginning of A. In this second half of A, the bass leaps from I-V7/IV (over iii), then steps to IV-dim7/V-V7 before heading back for another go-around of A with a I-ii-V7 turnback progression. The bridge (B) begins in the area of the subdominant (IV) and ascends stepwise (at first chromatically) again before utilizing the circle of fifths to arrive back to the original tonic at m. 20. The ascending bass pattern is repeated in the second phrase of B, at which point the harmony continues upward by half step (at the downbeat of m. 23) and a series of dominant seventh chords guides the listener safely back to tonic to start the final A section.

Melody: “It’s Only a Paper Moon” beautifully illustrates why Harold Arlen remains treasured as an American melodist par excellence. Here he crafted a truly universal melody that anyone can whistle or sing and certainly remember. The melody begins with an ascending octave leap followed by repetition on one note. Then downward, stepwise motion ensues over the first two-measure sub-phrase. The next two measures answer the initial pattern with a similar contour starting with a leap of a minor seventh. This slightly narrower interval guides the melodic sequence of downward conjunct motion a step lower than the first pattern. At the start of m. 5, the second phrase begins with the requisite octave leap followed by repetition that ascends chromatically to create tension that is released in the downward arpeggiating line that follows. This quick descent is augmented by two more downward steps before being interrupted by an upward leap of a minor seventh (at m. 7). This leap resolves downward by step before plunging back to the lowest note of the phrase. This time the low pitch resolves upward to the tonic pitch to complete the first A section. Arlen artfully uses semitones in his melody to step chromatically toward the target pitches upon which his harmony hangs. Maintaining strict AABA form, this melodic construction remains consistent throughout each of the three A sections.

At the bridge, Arlen continues with the conjunct motion already begun, moving his melody line upward by whole steps or semitones for two measures, alternating with two measures of third leaps up and down (“it’s a honkeytonk parade”). This balance via alternation, using different types of motion and direction (conjunct vs. disjunct, ascending vs. descending) reflects qualities that strongly typify compositional devices common to enduring Great American Songbook standards. In the second phrase of the bridge, Arlen departs a bit from this formula for the second half of the phrase only (“it’s a melody played…”), returning to repetition paired with tension-building, ascending sequence and step progression (mm. 23-24). This thoughtful construction of a bridge segues logically and comfortably into the final A theme’s construction (also based on repetition and a loose sequence/step progression). Arlen’s power to unify a simple song in so many intelligent ways reveals a thoughtful composer whose compositional prowess and ideas are by no means simplistic or merely intuitive.

Rhyme Scheme: Yip Harburg and Billy Rose contributed their share of excellence to the song in a variety of ways. The rhyme pattern matches the final word of each four-measure phrase with the final word of the next four-measure phrase (“sea” and “me,” “tree” and “me.”) They also repeat the entire second phrase lyric in the fourth and eighth phrases of the 32-measure song, thereby strongly emphasizing the song’s main thrust, which is that life would not seem so inauthentic “if you believed in me.” At the bridge, the rhyme scheme is similar (“parade” is matched with “arcade”), with an added internal rhyme in the final two-measure sub-phrase of the bridge (“played” is also matched with “arcade”). In supplying this bonus rhyme, Harburg’s and Rose’s use of internal rhyme gives the listener a clever two-for-one rhyming payoff, which knowing audiences appreciate.

Theme: A striking feature of this song lies in its reiteration of metaphor. The lyricists’ constant comparison of real life to that which is fanciful (“It’s only a paper moon. . . cardboard sea. . . canvas sky…”) encapsulates the theme which becomes clear at the bridge: “without your love it’s a honkytonk parade. . . a melody played in a penny arcade.” Here the authors assert that life without the love of (s)he to whom the song is sung, is not real life at all. Love alone provides all that is actual in life-everything seen and experienced without the presence of love becomes unreal, insignificant, and false.

Conclusion: Harold Arlen’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” while on the surface appearing perhaps somewhat trite and simplistic, upon analysis reveals some golden lessons for aspiring songwriters. The balance painted throughout strikes the seasoned listener to be as skillful as a master painter who has achieved impeccable balance in his visual art creations. Chromatic stepwise motion paired with broken chords to form the antecedent and consequent sub-phrases, respectively, along with ascending and descending phrase contours, reveal a composer whose knowledge and understanding of structural balance remains solid without drawing overt attention to it. His collaborators’ consistent rhyme scheme containing a sweet internal rhyme inserted at the apex of the bridge serves to reward the engaged listener. Moreover, their inventive, metaphoric lyrics provide a new, hitherto uncharted angle for a popular song. They successfully highlight the real vs. imagined world as pertaining to life with or without love. The trust and faith that a love relationship confers to one’s perception of the authenticity of life have never been elucidated nearly as succinctly, nor with such simple perfection as in this fine example of a Great American Songbook standard.

"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose

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