It’s often said that pop songwriting has become less sophisticated, with many of today’s hits being built around a single chord progression that’s used in both the verse and chorus.
One of the side effects of this is that both middle-eights and bridges - argue amongst yourselves over whether these terms can be used interchangeably - are far less common than they once were.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is. An article in today’s Guardian speculates that TikTok, with its demand for short, hooky songs, could be partly to blame, and also suggests that artists might want to keep their tunes short and sweet in order to maximise play counts on streaming services.
The way we make music has also changed: today’s DAWs make it easy to base an entire song around a single four- or eight-bar loop, with production tricks and slight melodic changes being used to add the variation.
That said, some people have always struggled to see the point of middle eights. To them, they're just needless extra sections that have been shoved into songs for the sake of it, there only to tick a songwriting box and provide a not-needed break from the verses and choruses.
But while it's true that some middle eights have the strong whiff of a 'will this do?' mentality and could easily be dispensed with, others are essential elements of the songs they come from. They not only sound great in isolation, but also serve to enhance the sections that precede and follow them.
So let's celebrate 20 of these examples of high-calibre tunesmithery. Although some of our choices do run for eight bars - so are middle eights in the strictest sense - we've been fairly relaxed with our selection criteria. Any middle section of a song that only appears once has been allowed through the door, which means that, while recurring bridges are excluded, alternate sections of songs that run to longer than eight bars are not.
Got that? Then let's take it to the bridge...
1. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell - Ain't No Mountain High Enough
If a better pop song than this has been recorded, we haven't heard it. Lean, lithe and perfectly formed, the middle eight is an essential ingredient of Ashford & Simpson's Motown gem.
It comes after a couple of repetitions of the verse and chorus; this defiant yet tender section not only reinforces the central message of the song - that these two people are going to be there for each other no matter what - but also tees up the key change that ensures that, almost unbelievably, it manages to find yet another gear for the final third. Perfection.
2. The Beatles - A Day In The Life
After two ruminative verses sung by Lennon, the ambiguous lyrics of which were largely inspired by a newspaper account of the auto wreck death of Guinness heir Tara Browne, the song changes gears abruptly and dramatically, practically travelling through time and space, segueing from a shattering orchestral glissando to a spirited piano piece sung by McCartney in which he recalls mundane, innocent aspects of commuting to school.
McCartney’s last line, “Found my way upstairs and had a smoke/ somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” sends the tune - and Lennon - into the clouds, drifting higher and higher (in both senses of the word) until a thunderous crescendo lands Lennon back on the ground.
A watershed moment in the career of a band that has more than a few of them.
3. Aretha Franklin - Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)
For the most part, the overriding mood of Morris Broadnax, Clarence Paul and Stevie Wonder's song is one of resignation: the lover has upped and gone, and the jilted party is getting used to living life after the fact.
But the middle eight is like a window into the singer's soul - a pained plea of desperation. The orchestration helps, certainly, but it's Aretha's peerless voice and the soaring melody that elicit the emotion.
The abrupt return to the song's main arrangement only serves to emphasise that this is someone who's just about holding it together for most of the time, but unable to move on.
4. Justin Timberlake - Rock Your Body
Pharrell Williams may still be pretty hot (in herre) but in 2002 - and in partnership with Chad Hugo as The Neptunes - he was truly at the top of his game.
It might be Justin Timberlake's vocal on Rock Your Body (if rumour is correct, the song was originally intended for Michael Jackson), but the middle eight is all Pharrell and Chad.
Breaking out of the song's main key and chord progression, it's a joyous almost jazzy interlude that has echoes of MJ's Rock With You and serves as a stamp of genuine songwriting quality.
5. Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
The Boss’s signature song is speeding by mansions of glory when suddenly Springsteen eases off the throttle and takes us on a slow, surrealistic ride on a carnival of sound.
A veritable kitchen sink of instruments is tossed into the production as he cruises the girls combing their hair and sizes up the boys lookin’ hard - there are dozens of overdubbed guitars, piano and organ, glockenspiel, strings, you name it.
It’s heady and dreamy, a rush of romantic frenzy and epic sonic grandeur, and just as Springsteen professes his mad love for Wendy and his need for that everlasting kiss - huh! - he roars off into a rock ‘n’ roll street opera that takes on all comers.
Grandiose, messy, adventurous - it rams so many ideas and sounds together that it easily could have been a musical five-car pileup. But Born To Run, particularly its extended middle eight, is a Spectorian celebration of unhinged, reckless emotions. Stopping its explosion of desperate feelings would be like trying to stop a last-chance power drive - and you know you can’t do that. One-two-three-four!
6. Michael Jackson - P.Y.T.
Every wedding DJ should have a copy of P.Y.T. in their bag/on their hard drive. No one quite knows how to dance to it, but you can be pretty sure that everyone will strut to the floor to give it a go.
Best of all is the call and response breakdown that follows the second chorus. It might be metronomically tight and executed with military precision, but it still manages to sound like The King Of Pop and his team of crack session musicians are properly cutting loose.
Hats off, then, to songwriters James Ingram (who also played on the record) and, of course, Quincy Jones (who produced it).
7. Rush - Limelight
Having dabbled with pop and even reggae on The Spirit Of Radio in 1979, two years later Rush turned in one of their most memorable and commercial efforts with Limelight, a spirited, syncopated and enormously catchy pop-rock gem.
Guitarist Alex Lifeson churns out hooky, chunky chords and arpeggios throughout the verses and choruses, but after a single-note dive he stretches out in a spectacular, harmonic-laced vibrato solo that evokes the feelings of loneliness and fragility expressed in drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics. The mood and texture of the song changes shape - it feels like a different song completely - as bassist Geddy Lee provides an evocative, spacey sonic backdrop on synth and Taurus pedals.
Through all of this, Peart hangs back, playing a soft and languid three, adding fluid and tasteful accents, before building to a driving four that powers back to the rousing main riff.
8. The Beatles - This Boy
“Just my attempt at writing one of those three-part harmony Smokey Robinson songs," John Lennon once casually said about This Boy, the gorgeous ballad he knocked out in a hotel room with Paul McCartney in September 1963.
Of course, you can’t have three-part harmony without a trio of top-notch singers, and over gently strummed electric and acoustic guitars, Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison make miracles happen.
Already, the tune’s got everything going for it - it’s about as perfect as any song can be - and then Lennon steps forward, opens up his throat and lets loose with a gut-wrenching lead vocal that’s raw, volcanic and this-close to being unhinged.
It’s right in the range of his shattering, career-high lead singing on Twist And Show. But whereas that tune was a wild sexual celebration, This Boy is an anguished tale of heartbreak and regret, with Lennon distilling a world of hurt in his final two-measure wail of the word “cry”.
9. Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay
Posthumously becoming Otis Redding's signature song (and co-written with Steve Cropper), Dock Of The Bay is a marvel of simplicity. Musically, there's nothing particularly clever going on, but there's something about it - not least the circumstances under which it was released - that gives it a timeless quality.
The middle eight certainly helps: the horn section brings the warmth, and Redding gives a little more with his vocal delivery. And then there's that lyric: “Looks like nothing's gonna change/ Everything still remains the same.” It's been said a million times, but perhaps never quite as poignantly as it is here.
10. Blinded By The Light - Manfred Mann's Earth Band
In 1976, Bruce Springsteen was the biggest cult star in the world - even with his face on the covers of Time and Newsweek, he wasn’t selling many records - but in August of that year he would reach millions of radio listeners with Blinded By The Light via Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Their cover of the nearly three-year-old song would give The Boss his first number one as a songwriter.
The versions couldn’t be more different: Bruce’s original is a swinging jazz-rock shuffle, hampered by a dense mix that sounds as if saxophones, drums and guitars are duking it out to be heard. The Manfred Mann cover is powerfully streamlined rock - smooth and sleek, peppered by engaging, hooky guitar and organ lines.
But it’s in the hallucinatory Pink Floydian bridge section that things really get wacky. After an extended David Gilmour-esque guitar solo, a piano plays Chopsticks (where in the world did that come from?), a leitmotif that segues into a shimmering section of 10cc-ish “ahhs” that dovetails into Springsteen’s Dylan-inspired wordplay about brimstone baritones and anticyclone rolling stones.
Record buyers who first became familiar with Manfred Mann’s version of Blinded By the Light were startled to discover that Springsteen’s original had no middle eight at all.
11. Elvis Presley - Suspicious Minds
Elvis knew he had a hit on his hands when he got hold of Suspicious Minds in '69, and we're willing to bet it was the heart-snapping middle eight that sold it to him.
After all, up to that point Suspicious Minds just motors along quite happily, its melancholy subject matter buoyed up by a bouncing bassline. It's not until the whole thing drops into half time at 1:46 that the emotional power of the song really takes hold.
“Oh let our love survive,” pleads the King, selling it completely. The urgency of the song's plea breaks down into desperation, a shift in tone and mood that stays just the right side of melodrama. Bloody marvellous.
12. Crying In The Rain - The Everly Brothers
The result of a one-off collaboration between song machine Carole King and Brill Building staple Howard Greenfield, Crying In The Rain showcases the Everlys’ trademark harmonies, a gorgeous melody and soaring middle eight, all in two minutes.
In any other hands the lyrics might have been corny, but Don's solo vocal, stripped of his brother's accompaniment, is dripping with the sort of heartache and innocence that has long since become extinct in pop songwriting.
13. Just My Imagination - The Temptations
A Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong ballad that quickly became a huge hit for the unravelling Temptations, Just My Imagination is a masterclass in restraint and songwriting craft. There are impressive harmony chops on display throughout, but the middle eight is the grit at the heart of this particular pearl.
Recorded just as lead singer Eddie Kendrick was leaving The Temptations to go solo, he nevertheless gives a great account of himself in the verses. But Paul Williams, the troubled Temptation whose failing health and personal problems would see him commit suicide only two years after the song's release, gives the performance of his career when the song shifts gears into the middle eight.
It's a raw burst of soul that sits in complete contrast to the sweetness of the verses, a shot of despair amongst all the dreaming. Perfect, basically.
14. Victoria - The Kinks
There's only one Ray Davies. Who else could concoct the mixture of satire, emotion and rock and roll abandon that opens Arthur, Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire?
It's the work of a great songwriting intelligence at its peak, warming to themes of Britishness and the great ironies of English history on the back of The Kinks Are... The Village Green Preservation Society.
Victoria has all the key components of a great Kinks song: sharp lyrics, raunchy guitar work and a middle eight that packs a wallop. “Land of hope and the gloria, land of my Victoria,” sings Davies, pining for a long-dead monarch and her diminished empire as horns swell all around.
15. Up The Junction - Squeeze
The ultimate London love song, Up The Junction charts the highs and lows of a fractious relationship in three bittersweet minutes. Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook's knack for pop songsmithery is front and centre here, with a middle eight that proves just how worthy of those Lennon and McCartney comparisons they were.
After an upbeat first couple of verses it comes in like a slap of reality, bursting the young couple's love-bubble. “I worked all through the winter, the weather brass and bitter,” sings Tilbrook, deft chord work simultaneously setting up the jubilant third verse and hinting at darker times ahead.
It's a deceptively complex trick, but Squeeze make it sound easy.
16. The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations
It's perhaps a little misleading to call the central section of Good Vibrations a middle eight.
Ever the adventurous arranger, Brian Wilson does more than simply rework the chord pattern after the second chorus; first he completely flips the track's rhythm, then he breaks the whole thing down and builds it back up in a totally different form.
It's a middle eight, breakdown, reimagined chorus and ambitious outro all rolled into one ambitious whole.
17. Kate Bush - Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)
Running Up That Hill is a fantastic example of a subtle yet perfectly executed middle eight.
Structurally, it deviates very little from the rest of the song, keeping the same foundation of rolling drums and soft synth chords. The introduction of a rhythmic guitar lick and passionate doubled vocals seriously up the sense of urgency, though, building into a classic power ballad crescendo of reverb-soaked toms and a distorted power chord that perfectly ramps-up the emotion ahead of the final chorus.
18. Outkast - Hey Ya!
There's been some debate in the MusicRadar office about whether the section of Hey Ya! In question is technically a middle eight or a breakdown. It's certainly something of a grey area.
What is definitely true is that the passage up for discussion - with its iconic call to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" - is one of the most memorable moments in post-millennial pop music.
19. Simon & Garfunkel - America
The melodic shift through the central section of Simon & Garfunkel's ode to exploration perfectly matches the lyrical transition from wide-eyed optimism to the air of sadness toward the song's close. It perfectly changes the tone, introducing a sense of reality that bridges the gap between the hope of the first verse and chorus and their more subdued form in the later half of the song.
20. Stevie Nicks - Edge Of Seventeen
Edge Of Seventeen is another track where it's tough to define whether we're actually talking about a middle eight or not.
Effectively, from the mid-point in the song when the piano enters, the structure begins to veer all over the place.
It's certainly that crucial mid-point that kicks the song up a gear, however. It shifts both the rhythm and the feel, allowing the rest of the song to spiral off in new directions.