Anatomy of a Classic Song

A recreation of the score to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reveals musical elements that undergird the iconic pop anthem.

More Than Music

All this is epilogue, though. Aiming for the song’s ultimate effect is more than even a songwriter of Simon’s caliber could hope for in writing it.

Simon has told interviewers that he knew immediately that he had written something special, something exceeding even his high standards. He has cited the rendition of the spiritual “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” sung by Reverend Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones as providing musical and lyrical inspiration. The line in the spiritual, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name,” reveals the connection.

In the video the The Harmony Game, Simon speaks briefly about the simplicity of his lyrics mentioning these:

When you’re weary, feeling small/ . . .

When evening falls so hard, I will

comfort you.

He recalls thinking, “It’s too simple. But of course, that’s what made it so universal.” Throughout, Simon used phrases that many would offer as comfort.

The melody is one of Simon’s best, extremely sing-able and catchy. The first half of the verse hovers around a G above middle C. In an interview, Garfunkel stated that in an early take, he was not singing the octave glissandi in bars 15 and 43. Simon rightly asked him to put them back in, restoring one of the song’s first melodic hooks. The melody is long for a pop tune, with the last line of each verse, “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,” always sung twice. The intensity increases each time the melodic action goes up an octave.

The third verse introduces the trademark two-part harmony that Simon and Garfunkel (S&G) were known for. Simon has said that he always felt that the lyrics to this verse didn’t fit with those of the first two. Its first line, “Sail on silver girl,” probably sounds more oblique or exotic to listeners than what Simon told one interviewer he was writing about. He said once that it referred to his first wife (Peggy Harper) discovering her first gray hairs.

In bar 80, as the production builds toward the climax, Garfunkel sings forcefully. He hits the song’s tessitura (an Ab above the staff) in bars 89 to 91, and both the instrumental and vocal parts arrive at the song’s emotional peak.