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

Tish Oney By

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One of my favorite 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.

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