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[2019-09-18] weezer_960

In Theory: 'Island in the Sun' by Weezer

09/18/2019 12:00 PM

By Greg Barr

Weezer’s 2001 single “Island in the Sun” sounds markedly different from the band’s other hits, but it went on to become the most-licensed track in the Weezer catalog. And why not? The song is extremely catchy and even comforting to the listener. Just what is it exactly that makes this song so pleasing to the ear?

For one thing, “Island in the Sun” is built on a classic, tried-and-true chord progression:

Em – Am – D – G

Or, in Roman numerals:

vi – ii – V – I

This is one of the most common and strongest of all harmonic progressions. The roots of the chords move through the circle of fifths, descending the interval of a fifth on each chord change. This is the strongest root movement possible, and which sounds very natural and pleasing to the ear. Chords are built diatonically off each root note—that is, they don’t use any altered notes. This results in a very pleasant mix of major and minor sonorities, and since it all comes straight from the G Major scale, it actually reinforces the happy, major tonality of the song.

The song picks up a lot of momentum from the fact that it doesn’t start on the I chord (or tonic) as many songs do. Instead, the vi chord kicks off the progression and when the tonic finally does arrive, it does so on a relatively weak beat 3, suspending the feeling of finality. The result is that this chord progression propels itself forward continuously, never landing conclusively on the tonic.

This forward propulsion is balanced by the laid-back groove of the song. The tempo is 115 BPM—not a crawl, but also not in a rush to get anywhere. The simple, understated drumming and supportive bass complement the song without a lot of flash. Small details like the “hip hip” backing vocals complement the groove and give the listener’s ear something to latch onto, and the fact that they fall on upbeats further emphasizes the lightness of the song.

Weezer, live in 2005


Throughout the song, the melodies remain simple and uncluttered. There are no large leaps or dramatic jumps; the melodic motion is comfortable, calming, and mellow. Rivers Cuomo uses just a few simple melodic motifs for the entire song, repeating the same melodic contour at different pitch levels to create a tune that, while varied, never strays too far from its core ideas.

Finally, the lyrics play a significant role in making this song the cheerful hit that it is. Just like the other aspects of the song, the lyrics are simple but extremely effective. Easy rhymes, carefree content—the song is a self-contained vacation for your brain, sauntering blissfully through an eternal tropical dreamland. It’s about as pleasant to the ear as a pop singles can get.

Once a full-time notetracker, Greg Barr is an independent guitar teacher, singer-songwriter, and the owner of Pinebox Studios in California.

"Weezer at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, 2015" by Lance Cpl. Asia J. Sorenson is in the public domain.

"Weezer" by James is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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