Like millions of people, I am very taken by Ed Sheeran’s giant hit record of 2014-15, Thinking Out Loud, and I believe the reason for its tremendously popularity is the way it puts opposites together—specifically, casualness and passion, intensity and ease, large feeling presented within a careful framework. We respond to this because deeply it represents what we want in our own lives, in keeping with this great principle of Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the American poet and philosopher Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Thinking Out Loud doesn’t have the typical pop arrangement of verse/verse/chorus/verse, etc. Instead, it consists mainly of two large sections, each of which contains four short mini-sections that are melodically different from each other, but that build upon each other quite naturally to deliver the passionate import of the song. So, with all the emotional stir of Sheeran’s delivery, we’re also deeply pleased by a satisfying structure—including how the second half exactly parallels the melodic outline of the first.
The song begins very quietly with just a touch on the strings of a guitar chord; and Ed Sheeran’s voice is almost conversational, like a man speaking to a woman over a café table, as very spare and quiet guitar chords continue to play underneath his words. Listen:
Here, the melody rises and falls very modestly — yet there is wonder and yearning together with warm confidence in the way each line rises from the third up to the sixth, and then settles down to the tonic. So while the melody has an easy, casual way about it, there’s already a growing fervency.
Piano, drums and bass are now added to the mix as the momentum gathers. In the lines of the next mini-section, there is a pattern of notes that eagerly strive upward, settle down to something more anchored, and then rise again. There’s a pleasing relation of rushing forward and pause, as his passion continues to build.
We just heard the transitional phrase: “And I’m thinking ‘bout how…” which will lead us into the next mini-section. The melody is again different, with each line beginning with a tightly struggling, high-pitched phrase that then resolves.
And here the song hits what I — and I imagine a lot of other people — feel is its most beautiful moment. It’s on the transitional phrase “So, honey, now.” The way Ed Sheeran sings that word “now” — it seems to just flow out of him so naturally, you could almost say easily, and yet it is so passionately sung; like he’s singing it with every atom of his being:
Following this wonderful outburst is a last mini-section which I guess could rightly be called the chorus. It continues the large, excited feeling that has been reached. In the words there is a relation of intimacy and width:
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are.
In the cascading melody of each line there is a sound of struggle and gratitude, pain and triumph at once. Yet somehow, with all the feeling exploding forth, the song never loses its easy-going quality that has been there from the beginning. One reason I think is, again, those long pauses between the lines, as well as the spareness of the instrumental accompaniment. There’s a sound of casually luxuriating in one’s large emotion:
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that we all want to put opposites together every moment of our lives. We want, as we’re taking it easy, to feel it is on behalf of vivid, lively respect for the world and people. And we want to feel, too, that we are capable of large emotion, and then, when we do have large feeling, that we can be truly at ease, not uncomfortable and looking for a chance to smooth things out.
I’m so fortunate to have heard criticism of the contempt that caused me to divide these opposites of ease and excitement and to go back and forth painfully between them. And I want to change more. In one class, Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, said to me very kindly:
The thing in you that wants to be passionate about the truth and beauty in this world is you. The other thing is an imposter.
I count myself one of the lucky people living on this earth to know that having big emotion about the world outside of me is the same as true comfort for my own dear self. And I aim to feel this more and more as my life goes on.
The title of this song, “Thinking Out Loud,” itself puts together the opposites of quietude and outburst that I’ve been writing about, while also illustrating what Eli Siegel has shown are the opposites central in rock and roll: private, secret, inner feeling made into a public announcement.
Then there’s what the song is actually saying. In the first part, he tells a woman that when she grows old he’ll still love her; and in the second part, he says that when he grows old, he believes she’ll still love him. And each part culminates in his saying, “So now, take me into your loving arms” and the rest of that passionate chorus, concluding with, “I’m thinking out loud, maybe we found love right where we are.” So, like the qualities we find in the music itself, there is in the words passionate feeling together with a kind of rock-solid confidence and ease. I’ve thought about that last line and the phrase, “right where we are.” It seems to say that love can be found in the world as we find it here and now — not in some other time or place of our imagination.
I’m immensely grateful that because of what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, I’m more in love now with my dear wife Carol McCluer than at any time in our marriage. That is because we’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that our care for each other needs to be based on care for the world itself.
As you’ll hear, the second large section exactly parallels the structure of the first section that I described — both melodically and with the repeat of certain rhymes and phrases in the words, making for a satisfying relation of sameness and difference. As the song goes on, more and more is added to the accompaniment, causing the feeling to build: the piano gets busier and stronger for example, and backup singers quietly join the lead singer, sometimes harmonizing with him, other times backing him up with rich harmonies on the syllable “Oooh.” Then there’s a guitar solo. It, too, has that relation of fervency and measure that is in the song as a whole. And it leads to the concluding chorus, where Sheeran is joined even more strongly by the backup singers, whom I like to see as standing for the outside world ratifying his emotion.
I respect the singing of Ed Sheeran. I feel he is unafraid to have and show large feeling, and I love his style. I don’t know whether it would be right to call this recording great. Maybe not, but — like millions of people — I know that I like it very much. It shows that ease and large feeling can be beautifully together. And as such, it stands for what we all most deeply want. Here is the remainder:
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org