“Free Fallin’” is my favorite Tom Petty song. I know that makes me sound basic, since it was his biggest hit, and the rest of his catalog is so wide and deep. But "Free Fallin'" really does it for me. In the wake of Petty’s death, I found the multitrack stems and listened to them closely. Later on, while singing the song to my daughter, I realized why I think it’s so cool: its ruthless, fearless minimalism.
Structurally, the entire song is one simple four-bar loop: I, IV, IV-I-V, over and over. The only thing that marks section changes is the sonic textures. The melody uses just three notes: F, G, and A. In the verses it's in Petty's low register, and in the choruses, it's an octave up. A lesser songwriter would thrown some variation in there, a bridge that went to D minor, or some alternative melody, or a guitar solo. Petty was courageous enough not to do that. Instead, he kept it laser focused and tight. The result is more like a techno song than a rock song, especially with the drum machine beat underneath it. Petty and Jeff Lynne wrote and recorded the track in two days, which sounds about right. There's a detailed interview with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell about the recording process, it’s fascinating stuff.
Petty's voice quality is so weird, especially up high. He's juuuuuust this side of abrasive and annoying. And his lyrics are so odd. “Free Fallin’” is a string of cliches, but arranged and juxtaposed so as to be as weird as David Lynch. What the heck is it even about? "I heartlessly dumped a nice woman I was dating, and now I want to die, or do a lot of drugs, or something." And yet, it was an inescapable hit! We must have been reacting more to the sound of the words than their content, to the long vowels.
The song’s static harmony and predictable form makes it prime remixing material. Here’s my homage, using samples of Duke Ellington, Bakithi Kumalo, Henry Purcell, Quincy Jones, Vassily Kallinikov, and John Coltrane: https://soundcloud.com/ethanhein/free-fallin-remix
You can learn more about Tom Petty here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.