“Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls: what is it about this song that makes it so good?
“Iris” has been one of my favorite songs of all time since I discovered the Goo Goo Dolls after looking into the music from Disney’s Treasure Planet because they did the music for that movie too.
I’ve loved seeing “Iris” float around social media a lot lately, but what a lot of people don’t know is that it was originally written for a 1998 Nicholas Cage romantic fantasy movie called City of Angels. It’s the classic angel meets girl, angel falls in love, and angel wants to become human to be with her. The words of “Iris” fit that so well:
And I’d give up forever to touch you
‘Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You’re the closest to Heaven that I’ll ever be,
And I don’t want to go home right now
There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in this song, but what stands out the most for me personally is the rhythm and meter. If you’ve been following me for a bit, then you’ve probably seen my videos on metric dissonance, which is what we’ll get into here.
The majority of “Iris” is in 3/4, but it switches into 6/8 at the beginning of every verse. It’s pretty common historically for 3/4 and 6/8 meters to switch back and forth because they have the same number of 8th notes in them, just a different number of beats.
The little instrumental part at the beginning is what’s in 6/8:
The introduction has a little hiccup at the end, so we’ve got
1 2 3 2 2 3
1 2 3 2 2 3
1 2 1 2 1 2
1 2 3 2 2 3
then the little hiccup.
At the end of both of these groups like this, you get two bars of 6/8 and then a bar of 2/4, which is why I wrote it in 4/4 because it switches so rapidly between 6/8 and 2/4 that it just makes sense to put it in a meter that it fits nicely in phrasing wise.
That’s pretty common when it comes to composing or editing or type setting. Oftentimes composers will set things in a way that doesn’t reflect the actual expressed meter, but it’s easier to read.
“Iris” Verses and Chorus
Once the vocals come in, it’s pretty clearly in three four.
You can hear the guitar playing 1 2 & 3 &, 1 2 & 3 &, and sometimes it sounds like he’s not even playing the 2. It kind of sounds like 1 [ ] & 3 & 1 [ ] & 3 &, which makes it kind of sound like 6/8 as well.
It kind of already is wobbling between, “Is it 3/4, or is it 6/8? Is it a compound meter, or is it a simple meter?”
For now, it seems the verses and the chorus is pretty much in 3. Just ignore the left hand in my piano arrangement of it. (I did it deliberately so that you would have a sense of 6/8 in the bass, so just ignore that for now)
The bridge is purely instrumental, and it’s really cool because it also switches between 3/4 and 6/8. Listen for just a moment before reading on.
Because it switches between both of these meters so rapidly, I transcribed it in 4/4. Counting it out would sound like 1 & 2 & 3 & rest. 1 & 2 & 3 another rest. 1 & 2 & with that little hiccup again before we get what looks like 6/8 in the bass.
There we get 1 2 3 2 2 3, 1 2 3 2 2 3 and the little hiccup that sounds like bum bum then 1 & 2 & 3 1 & 2 & 3 & bum bum 1 2 3 2 2 3 bum 1
It goes back and forth between those ways of counting, which creates instability there as well. Switching between two meters so rapidly, especially one that’s simple and one that’s compound creates a lot of tension.
Us listeners might think, “Wait where is the solid ground that we’re listening to? We want like some kind of solid beat.”
Technically, this isn’t metric dissonance just yet. We’d have to have the 3/4 on top of the 6/8 for it to be considered metric dissonance, but I did mention that there is metric dissonance in this. At the end of this instrumental bridge, we get another are two choruses in the actual thing. I shortened it for this piano arrangement of it, but the final chorus comes out of the bridge very powerfully with some strings layered on top.
“Iris” Final Chorus
In the final chorus for “Iris,” all the other instruments are pretty much the same content-wise, but the violin is different here at the end. In the first chorus, the violin holds out long notes and mostly just moves on downbeats, but in the very last course, the violin has a lot more movement. It moves on the downbeat and then on the & of 2. If we’re in 3/4, it would be counted as [1 & 2][& 3 &][1 & 2][& 3 &] with the violin movement bolded, which just happens to be the same as a 6/8 meter.
This violin 6/8 meter is happening on top of the rest of the instruments moving in a 3/4 meter. It builds up tension as well by doing this on an ascending scale. It’s leading up to something.
The chart below shows how the beats (or the stronger impulses) of the violin and the other instruments don’t line up. The downbeats line up, but beat 2 for the instruments comes before beat 2 of the violin, and the violin doesn’t have a proper beat 3.
This misalignment creates tension and is an example of what is called metric dissonance.
Metric Dissonance and Expression in “Iris”
Metric dissonance can be used for so many different effects in music. In this case, the Goo Goo Dolls were already doing some really interesting meter things throughout the piece, but at the very end, they used metric dissonance—specifically grouping dissonances—to create extra intensity and yearning in the last chorus especially.
They saved it for the end of the piece, and that reflects the sense of yearning that’s going on in the storytelling part of the song with the lyrics and the City of Angels movie.
In this post, you learned what metric dissonance is: the stacking of two different meters on top of each other. I didn’t just make it up, so if you’d like to learn more about it and its two subtypes (grouping and displacement dissonance), check out Fantasy Pieces: Metrical Dissonance in the Music of Robert Schumann by Harald Krebs. He explains using coffee beans!
One of the things I love the most about “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls is their use of metric dissonance, not just that they use it but how they use it as an expressive device.
This take-away point is applies to music theory more generally too. It’s easy to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of terminology and labelling things correctly. But at the end of the day, our goal as theorists isn’t to just identify what’s happening in the music but also why and how.
Let me know in the comments what songs you want analyzed next, and as always like and subscribe for more!