Just To See You Smile is a country song by Tim McGraw, released on August 9, 1997. It’s a great subject for analysis because it uses a number of really effective songwriting techniques that we can consider for our own compositions:

  • Cut time
  • Walking lines
  • V/V chord
  • Fadeout ending (so classic!)

Before we get into more details, be sure to give it a listen:

Prerequisites

Almost without exception, song analysis requires at least an understanding of the following:

  • Basic time signatures
  • The concept of scale degrees
  • The notes of basic major and minor scales
  • The roman numerals for chords
  • The chords in basic major and minor key

If you’re not comfortable in these areas, please consider working through those at least those lessons before you read this guide.

Analysis

Ok, now let’s break down some of the elements of the song so we can start to understand how it’s put together and gain some insight into how the song was written.

Key & Time

The song is in the key of F# major. However, the guitars are tuned down 1/2 step, so they’re really playing it as if it were in G. This was probably done because F# may have been a slightly better key for Tim McGraw to sing in. Whatever the reason, I will refer to G major as the key of the song – that will make our discussion much easier!

The time signature here is really interesting. Just To See You Smile is in cut time, which means it’s counted a felt a little differently than, say, common time.

  • Count – Cut time is most typically felt in 2, rather than in 4. The time signature is written as 2/2, and the half note gets the beat. Read this great explanation of cut time for a deeper understanding.
  • Feel – This particular song, in my opinion, has a lighter first half of the measure and a heavier second half. So, we’re counting “1, 2” and I’m feeling it like “one, TWO.” As I’m strumming it, I’m putting more emphasis on beat 2, with the snare hits in the song.

This gives the song a peppy, energetic, almost bluegrass feel. It’s actually a great contrast against the lyrics, which are quite painful.


Verse Chords

The foundational chords of the verse are:

  • I (G)
  • vi (e)
  • IV (C)
  • ii (a)
  • V (D)

These represent essentially all of the most consonant and common chords in the key of G major. So, there’s a lot of chord changing, but it all sounds really good to the listener, and every chord fits together well. Some might say these are “safe” chord choices, but it’s tried-and-true. You’re very likely to get a good-sounding song when using these.

Now, these are the chords that make up the foundation of the verse, but the song does use additional verse chords as a way to pass from one chord to another.

For example, when moving from G to e (I-vi), the song uses a D chord in between.

e|---3-------2-------0---
B|---3-------3-------0---
G|---0-------2-------0---
D|---0-------0-------2---
A|---2-------0-------2---
E|---3-------2-------0---
     G      D/F#    Em

This D chord is done in its first inversion, with the F# note in the bass. This gives the guitar part a descending stepwise bassline of G-F#-E. It’s also referred to as a walking line, since the notes “walk” up or, in this case, down.

This is a really useful compositional trick and one that this song does a lot to give things motion. It’s done again in the verse, from the e minor to the C chord (vi-IV). They throw a D in between, giving us the notes E-D-C, continuing our walk down.

It’s done once more moving from C to a minor.

e|---0-------3-------0---
B|---1-------3-------1---
G|---0-------0-------2---
D|---2-------0-------2---
A|---3-------2-------0---
E|-----------------------
     C      G/B      Am

Here’s a breakdown of the full progression:

  • I (G) – Foundational
  • V (D/F#) – Passing, First inversion
  • vi (e) – Foundational
  • V (D) – Passing
  • IV (C) – Foundational
  • I (G/B) – Passing, First inversion
  • ii (a) – Foundational
  • V (D) – Foundational

This concept of passing chords, which create the walking line, is really the selling point of both the verse and the chorus, and one of the most important insights as to what makes this song so good. If you had trouble following this portion of the analysis, be sure to click into some of the theory lessons to brush up!


Verse Melody

While there are about 7 notes in total that make up the verse melody, the idea really focuses around the 5th and 3rd scale degrees (respectively), which are D4 and B3. Many famous melodic ideas focus around the notes of the major triad (1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees) in some order, and this song is no exception. It’s focus on 3 and 5 are a big part of what makes the melody work so well here, and this is a good takeaway for us as we analyze for songwriting ideas.

Same Note, Different Context

The complete verse melody spans more than an octave, hitting the highest note at E4 and the lowest note at D3. The high note of the verse is actually the same as the high note of the chorus, but the two parts of the song have a very different energy; the verse is much more calm and less energetic, so the E4 feels that way. When it’s hit in the chorus, it feels more dramatic because the chorus’s higher energy gives it that context.

This is a great compositional technique to make note of because it helps you be efficient; you can use the same notes but get a different impact based on the context.


Chorus Chords

The chorus chords are nearly identical to the verse chords, but there are some differences that keep things interesting.

  • The chord changes happen more quickly.
  • The first half of the chorus, rather than finishing with a ii-V, utilizes a vi-V to move back to the I chord.
  • The second half of the chorus utilizes a V/V, which is the first out-of-key chord in the song.

Let’s look at that V/V more closely. It’s an A major chord, which has a C# note in it. This isn’t a note that is used in the key of G major, so why does it work? It works because it’s the V chord in D major, which is where the chord progression is eventually going. It’s almost like foreshadowing, and this choice is really interesting to the ear and keeps the song fresh. It also serves to highlight the ending of the chorus. It’s a busy little chord, yeah?

One final thing to note about the chorus chords is that after that A major chord (which I’m calling an A major for simplicity, but it’s actually an A7 chord), the progression features a walking line, this time in the opposite direction of the verse – up.

e|---0-------3-------0---
B|---2-------3-------1---
G|---0-------0-------0---
D|---2-------0-------2---
A|---0-------2-------3---
E|---x-------x-------x---
     A7     G/B      C


Chorus Melody

This is an interesting chorus. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • The starting note is lower than the verse’s starting note. This is a good reminder that choruses don’t always have to be written in a higher register than the verse to have impact.
  • It utilizes wide intervals. This is the critical feature of the chorus, in my opinion. The first two notes of the chorus melody are a perfect 5th, the next two are a major 6th. This is wider than anything done thus far in the song, and really helps the title stand out. Excellent compositional idea!
e|----------------------
B|-------3------3-------
G|---0------------------
D|----------4-------5---
A|----------------------
E|----------------------
     G3 D4 F#3  D4  G3

Folk Idea

One additional melodic idea worth noting in the chorus is when Tim sings “That you want…” from the line “That you wanted me to.” The notes are B3, D4, and E4, shown below:

e|-------------------
B|---------3-----5---
G|---4---------------
D|-------------------
A|-------------------
E|-------------------
     B3    D4    E4

This short idea is actually really important and something our ears are very used to hearing. It’s used in many, many old folk melodies and it has found its way into modern music as well. It’s very traditional sounding, and it’s tried-and-true; if you incorporate this idea into your melodies, it’s almost guaranteed to sound good.

Looking at it a bit deeper, it utilizes the 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees of any major key. Using a vi chord when landing on the 6th scale degree is the most common use. You can hear this traditional folk melody idea in Gustav Holt’s Jupiter as well as Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. Listen to the first three notes of each song section I’ve linked to!


Ending

Sometimes you just can’t decide how a song should end. You try ending on the I chord, or the IV, or the vi, or some other chord you think will put a stamp on the tune. But as that final chord rings, you know it won’t leave the listener with the right feeling. What do you do?

Enter: The Fadeout. This is a classic trick that can’t reasonably be replicated live, but is a staple of studio recordings. Tim McGraw and his bandmates and producer probably ran into the scenario I mentioned above and didn’t feel a hard ending was appropriate, so they went with a fadeout. It’s great for leaving things feeling unfinished and creating a sense of longing.

Maybe it’s the generation I’m from, but I heard a lot, and I mean a lot of fadeouts in the 80s. It’s a classic trick and a must-know for songwriters. You’ll have to figure something out for the live version, but know that if a song’s ending just isn’t feeling right, this is one option you can consider.

Insights

Let’s list the things we’ve learned from this song so we can use them as a guide for creating our own song:

  • 2/2 or “cut” time
  • Key of G
  • Essentially the same progression for verse and chorus
  • Walking lines within the chord progressions
  • 5th scale degree focus note for the verse
  • Change chords less frequently in verse, more frequently in chorus
  • Utilize V/V
  • 1st and 5th scale degree focus note for the chorus
  • Highlight the most important line of the chorus with the largest melodic interval
  • Fadeout ending

Demo

Using these insights, I wrote a simple song to demonstrate how this information can be used to create something of your own. I used the insights above as a guideline, and as the song started to come into view, I strayed a bit based on my own tastes, which is good because the end result is completely different than Tim McGraw’s song.

Here are the insights I followed either exactly or very closely:

  • 2/2 “cut” time.
  • I utilize walking lines in the bass notes of the chords.
  • The focus note of the verse is the 5th scale degree (the insights say 5th).
  • The verse changes chords roughly twice as fast and frequently as the chorus.
  • I utilized V/V chords (twice rather than just once).
  • I did highlight the title line, but used a different technique (pausing the strumming).

Here are some areas where I veered off in my own direction:

  • I’m in the key of Eb major, but playing as if it were C major (capo on the third fret).
  • I start the verse progression on the vi chord (a minor) rather than the I, as Tim McGraw does.
  • I utilized chord inversions much more frequently, particularly in the chorus to help it stand out.
  • My song has a guitar solo, because I couldn’t resist.
  • I didn’t fade the song out because ending on the I chord felt great.

So you can see I used a lot of the insights gained from this song analysis, but as my song took shape, my own songwriting kicked in and went off completely in my own direction.

This is really the best of both worlds and what I’m going for in this lesson, where we can use a song that is well-written and sounds great to gather insights and give us a strong starting point. Then, when we have a cool-sounding idea, we can make some of our own decisions and really make it unique and original.

Exercise

Now it’s your turn! Here’s how to write your own song using the insights we’ve gained from analyzing Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile:”

  1. Choose a key.
  2. Play a I-V-vi-V-IV-ii-V progression in cut time to get used to the movement and feel.
  3. Find a verse riff you like and draft a melody. Focus on the 3rd and 5th scale degrees and use one as the starting note.
  4. Write lyrics to verse 1.
  5. Find a chorus riff. Consider changing chords more or less frequently.
  6. Draft a chorus melody. Consider utilizing a wide interval within the overall idea.
  7. Write lyrics to the chorus. Consider matching the song title to the widest interval in the chorus.
  8. Either choose a chord to end the song on or consider a fadeout.

By this point, you should have enough material to practice and hear the complete idea. Make your final adjustments, then write a second verse and chorus. This will give you the minimum amount of material for a complete song.

From there you can add a third verse and chorus, or a bridge and final chorus – there are a lot of directions you can go in!

Out Of Order

The list above is only a suggested order for writing. In fact, everything here is just a guideline. Feel free to do things out of order. Break the rules. There’s no right or wrong way to write a song – the goal is to reach the finish line by any means possible.

The most common thing I like to change is when I write the lyrics. Sometimes I do it after I have at least a verse riff ready, and other times I write lyrics first and then craft music around them.

If you’re stuck, try doing things out of order and you may get unstuck and spark an idea.

Final Thoughts

In this analysis of “Just To See You Smile” by Tim McGraw, we drew out a number of meaningful insights that are useful for writing songs. Things like time signature, chord progressions, even the notes used for the verse and chorus.

As you saw in my demonstration, these insights can be used as a way to kick off our own songwriting. They can act as a push to get you started down the hill (thinking of a fun sledding metaphor here), and we know we’ll get off to a good start and end up with something listenable because we’re using a hit song as the example.

As you do the exercise, I encourage you to follow leads, let ideas inspire you, and explore unfamiliar territory. Our goal is never to simply parrot what someone else has written, but to use some of their ideas and techniques to inspire our own unique work.

I hope you found this useful, and if you did write a song after following this guide, please send it to me!