Student’s Page

Songs about Life

Songs about relationships


How many cabs in New York City, how many angels on a pin?
How many notes in a saxophone, how many tears in a bottle of gin?
How many times did you call my name, knock at the door but you couldn’t get in?
I know I’ve been careless

I’ve been wrapped up in a shell nothing could get through to me
Acted like I didn’t know I had friends or family
I saw worry in their eyes, it didn’t look like fear to me
I know I’ve been careless (I took bad care of this)

Like a mixture in a bottle, like a frozen-over lake
Like a longtime painted smile I got so hard I had to crack
You were there, you held the line, you’re the one that brought me back

I know I’ve been careless (I lost my tenderness)
I’ve been careless (I took bad care of this)

How many cabs in New York City, how many angels on a pin?
How many notes in a saxophone, how many tears in a bottle of gin?
How many times did you call my name, knock at the door but you couldn’t get in?
How many stars in the milky way, how many ways can you lose a friend?

Further reading about how Paul Kelly’s relationships influence his songs can be found in David Leser’s essay Love is the Law and Alex McGregor’s essay My Cousin the Songwriter in the book PAUL KELLY — THE ESSAYS published by Shark Island Productions available on iBookstore.

Student activity 1: close study

  1. In pairs, consider each question in lines 1 to 3 one at a time and in order. What is the effect of each on the listener?
  2. What is the effect of all of them together?
  3. Note the use of caesura, the pause between the two parts of each line. What is the relationship between the two questions on each line?
  4. What do you imagine the question: How many angels on a pin means? Now look up the phrase on the Internet.  Does the information change your reading of the line? What is Paul Kelly saying about the persona in the song by using this expression?
  5. How does the music and Paul Kelly’s voice capture the punctuation in the song? Consider the brackets in particular.
  6. Each stanza of the song has a similar structure but modifies the pattern as the song progresses. Graphically represent the structure to demonstrate its development, noting its repetitions and variations.  Compare your representation with others in the class. Which is able to communicate the structure most clearly and accurately?
  7. Listen to the performance again and describe how the music varies for different parts of the argument.
  8. What do you think is the purpose of the persona’s argument in the song? How effective is it? Would you let him get away with it?


Refer to the film (26:28)

In music, the use of harmony and texture is integral to the success of the song, and in this performance, Paul Kelly’s band uses different techniques such as falsetto background vocals, the use of harmonica and a tight blend of tone colour to bring the song together.

Specifically listen to the backup singer who sings in a very high voice called falsetto. Do some research on this type of singing and see if you can find other artists who used this musical technique as part of their performance.

Consider how the concepts of music are used in the song. Provide a brief description of these aspects in your own words. e.g., the melody is sung at a high pitch and is a very repetitive shape which can be easily sung. 

  • pitch (melody and harmony)
  • duration (rhythm and metre)
  • texture (layers of sound)
  • performing media (instruments)
  • tone colour (quality of sound)

Using the outline below, plot out the structure of Careless, using clearly devised indicators for sections of the music such as Introduction (I), Verse (V), Chorus (c) etc and try to describe what is happening for each concept.

Section List of Instruments used
E.g.        I – Introduction Guitar plays accompaniment, solo vocal line etc

Understanding the importance of a memorable melody in music

As you listen to the performances of ‘To Her Door’ and ‘Deeper Water’ you will need to describe the way that Paul Kelly has composed each song and the ways that he has created the melody of each. The importance of this task is to understand that most successful popular, rock songs have very catchy choruses which can be easily sung and performed. These TWO songs are presented for study in this context. Although both are different in their lyric and focus, they utilise similar musical characteristics throughout.

Timings in the film noted here for your reference: To Her Door (10:02–13:30) and Deeper Water (40:12)


  1. What instruments are used to accompany the vocal of Paul Kelly?
  2. How would you describe the structure of the lyric and the way that the melody is composed and related to this? Is there a sense of repetition used?
  3. The three words resonate like an Anthem, with three notes descending easily, but combined with the words ‘out the door’ or ‘to her door’ they have become both iconic musically and lyrically. What makes such a simplistic but effective juxtaposition of music and text so powerful?
  4. What are the other instruments used as the piece progresses and how do these add to the musical performance?
  5. Look at the scansion of the text and the importance of rhyme and metre. Using the terms, verse, chorus, bridge etc, outline the structure of the song. Do you see similarities in the way Paul Kelly designs and scans the lyrics?


They got married early, never had much money
Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids
He started up his drinking, then they started fighting
He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids
She said: “I’m not standing by, to watch you slowly die

So watch me walking, out the door”
She said, “Shove it, Jack, I’m walking out the fucking door”

She went to her brother’s, got a little bar work
He went to the Buttery, stayed about a year
Then he wrote a letter, said I want to see you
She thought he sounded better, she sent him up the fare
He was riding through the cane in the pouring rain
On Olympic to her door

He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching
Walking in slow motion like he’d just been hit
Did they have a future? Would he know his children?
Could he make a picture and get them all to fit?
He was shaking in his seat riding through the streets
In a silvertop to her door


Student activity Music:

Write your own verse and chorus that would work with the melody from the song. If you have a piano or guitar in class, play the chords to accompany the song and get the rest of the class to sing and perform it.


  1. Listen to the delivery of the main verse and try to work out the rhyme and scansion — metre of the text.
  2. How is it similar or different in structure to the song ‘To Her Door’?
  3. Is there a similar use of musical repetition? If so, why do you think this is such an important component of being a successful songwriter?
  4. Why is the phrase ‘Deeper Water’ so easy to sing and so memorable musically?
  5. How many different notes are used in the composition of the melody of the chorus over the words ‘Deeper Water’?


On a crowded beach in a distant time
At the height of summer see a boy of five
At the water’s edge so nimble and free
Jumping over the ripples looking way out to sea

Now a man comes up from amongst the throng
Takes the young boy’s hand and his hand is strong
And the child feels safe, yeah the child feels brave
As he’s carried in those arms up and over the waves

Deeper water, deeper water, deeper water, calling him on
Let’s move forward now and the child’s seventeen
With a girl in the back seat tugging at his jeans
And she knows what she wants, she guides with her hand
As a voice cries inside him — I’m a man, I’m a man!

Deeper water, deeper water, deeper water, calling him on
Now the man meets a woman unlike all the rest
He doesn’t know it yet but he’s out of his depth
And he thinks he can run, it’s a matter of pride
But he keeps coming back like a cork on the tide

Well the years hurry by and the woman loves the man
Then one night in the dark she grabs hold of his hand
Says ‘There, can you feel it kicking inside!’
And the man gets a shiver right up and down
his spine

Deeper water, deeper water, deeper water, calling him on

So the clock moves around and the child is a joy
But Death doesn’t care just who it destroys
Now the woman gets sick, thins down to the bone
She says ‘Where I’m going next, I’m going alone’

On a distant beach lonely and wild
At a later time see a man and a child
And the man takes the child up into his arms
Takes her over the breakers
To where the water is calm
Deeper water, deeper water, 
deeper water, calling them on

After this, watch the section of PAUL KELLY — STORIES OF ME again and this time, discuss how the lyrics of the song are reflected through the type of music that is presented.