Song Breakdown: How Ed Sheeran Uses Imbalance in his song “Afterglow” to Keep Us Hooked

Ed Sheeran’s song “Afterglow” was a lovely surprise during the winter holidays. It was reminiscent of his earlier acoustic albums, which served the song well in showcasing its intimate lyrics. In this song, Sheeran describes a moment which he calls the “afterglow” where he takes time to appreciate his partner and deepen the connection between them.

He describes this moment as a “stop” in time, as well as “losing track of time”. What struck me about this song is how he uses imbalance to move us through the Verses and Chorus, urging us forward until the standstill, “I will hold on to the afterglow.” The key is the number of lines.

Look at the number of lines in his Verses:

“Stop the clocks, it’s amazing
You should see the way the light dances off your head
A million colours of hazel, golden and red

Saturday morning is fading
The sun’s reflected by the coffee in your hand
My eyes are caught in your gaze all over again”

It is very common to repeat the first two lines of a melody, which would look like this:

“Stop the clocks, it’s amazing
You should see the way the light dances off your head
Saturday morning is fading
The sun’s reflected by the coffee in your hand”

Instead, Sheeran continues his melody, urges us forward into a third line and leaves us with a sense of incompletion. This is despite the fact that the last note of the third line ends on the tonic note! 

As listeners, we feel a sense of balance with the even number of lines in a section. When presented with a Verse of four or eight lines, it gives us a feeling of resolution. Of course, if an even number of lines in a section is paired with last lines that end on a dominant note, we can feel incompletion—it all depends on these different elements. Pat Pattison speaks of this at length in his book Writing Better Lyrics.

When we have an odd number of lines—three or six lines in a section—we feel a sense of imbalance. We want to keep listening because there’s no resolution, so there must be more to the story, right? It’s a clever trick to keep the listener hooked for that resolution, which is almost always in the Chorus, hook and/or song title.

In “Afterglow”, Sheeran presents us with an odd number of lines in not only the Verse, but the Chorus. Most of the time, we try to contrast section-by-section, varying up the number of lines, number of syllables per line, melodic range, etc. He keeps the odd number of lines to keep his hooked through to his Post-Chorus, as well as using a different melody in a higher range. 

“We were love drunk, waiting on a miracle
Tryna find ourselves in the winter snow
So alone in love like the world had disappeared

Oh, I won’t be silent and I won’t let go
I will hold on tighter ’til the afterglow
And we’ll burn so bright ’til the darkness softly clears”

Sheeran also gives us more syllables per line to create a sense of movement. It is racing us towards the hook and uses these great techniques to do so. In the Post-Chorus, we finally have an even number of lines and a resolution that feels satisfying. The word-painting is wonderful, the way he both “holds” us with these two lines and creates another dimension to describe what the “afterglow” feels like.

“Oh, I will hold on to the afterglow
Oh, I will hold on to the afterglow”

There are many techniques to create tension and release between the Verse and Chorus/Post-Chorus, and varying the number of lines is definitely one to consider. If your song portrays a character that is describing a difficult conflict in the verse, try creating imbalance with the number of lines for that extra impression of incompletion.



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