Every year I have the best of intentions to write a post or two regarding writing holiday music, good and early so that songwriters can actually use the information! And then, usually due to my own busy schedule this time of year, I don’t get it done. But I thought I’d write this quick one that, even if it’s too late for this year’s Christmas season, might be useful for Christmas 2018! 😉
A descant melody is one which is sung in partnership with a song’s (typically a hymn’s) main melody, like this famous one: the descant melody for the final chorus of “The First Nowell“, written by British composer Sir David Willcocks. The descant is the upper harmony line sounding higher than the melody.
The best melodies use lyrics as a guide. The ups and downs of tunes needs to reflect some aspect of what a song’s lyric is suggesting. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” explains how great melodies and lyrics work. Get it today, and you’ll get a FREE copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
Here are some basic elements that most descant melodies have in common:
- They typically happen during the final chorus, or the final verse in verse-only designs.
- They serve as a kind of harmony to the main melody.
- They extend the emotional reach of the chorus melody, giving a sense of finality to the final chorus.
That point #3 is an important one. Most song melodies, particularly hymn-like Christmas melodies, are structured to have a climactic high point near the end. And even in the absence of an obvious high point, we can hear the melody rising, then dipping lower for the final cadence:
Audiences pick up that climactic high point and feel it. It usually happens anywhere from two-thirds of the way along the melody, or, as in “O Come All Ye Faithful” shown above, much closer to the end.
So we usually add a descant to the final verse/chorus as a way of adding an even higher emotional moment close to the end of the hymn.
The biggest problem that composers/songwriters have with composing descant melodies is that they often ignore the need for melodic structure. A descant melody works in deference to the main melody, but needs to also have an enticing shape. Without shape, you’ve just got a sequence of notes that may or may not sound good at all. How you know that you’ve written a good descant is that it sounds good as a melody all on its own.
Listen to Willcocks’ descant for the final verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and, as a listening exercise, try to ignore the main melody. You’ll see that it has all the hallmarks of great melodies:
- It uses repetition (either exact or approximate) as an important structural element. Some lines get repeated, changing slightly, helping us to remember it.
- It uses a combination of steps and leaps as it moves up and down, in much the same way a main melody does.
- It sometimes moves with the main melody, sometimes in the opposite direction.
Just as a main melody will have its climactic high point near the end, the descant will usually have its climactic high point similarly placed, though not always exactly at the same moment as the main melody.
To write a good descant, you need to listen to it carefully without the main melody, and determine for yourself if it operates (and behaves) as a melody should. The biggest problem I hear with newly composed descants is that they sound aimless, wandering about with no regard for shape or standard principles of melodic composition.
Remember to use lots of stepwise motion, lots of repeating figures, and place the climactic high point near the end. That’s all you should need to come up with a descant that works well.
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Sometimes you’ll find that a song you’ve written will succeed even when it seems to violate some of the basic principles of good songwriting. It might be a melody that just lingers around one or two notes, when our instincts tell us that good melodies should have a nice up-and-down shape.
Or it might be a chord progression that wanders around seemingly aimlessly, when our musical instincts tell us that good progressions should target the tonic (key) chord.
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Or it might be lyrics that are hard to understand and hard to make a connection with, when we know that good lyrics usually touch our emotional soul and alternate between narrative and emotional.
When songs succeed despite violating the principles of good songwriting, the worst thing you can do is worry about those violations, and try to fix them. In fact, when songs work, it usually means that they are adhering to those principles in ways that you’re not immediately understanding.
So I usually recommend against analyzing your songwriting successes. When a song works, here’s what you do: turn the page and get going on your next one.
If a song you’ve written seems to be failing in some way, thats when it’s time to analyze it, and try to figure out what’s gone wrong. That’s when applying the principles of good songwriting will work for you. Knowing the basic principles of musical composition will usually point you in the right direction, and show you how to fix a bad song.
So when it comes to succeeding and failing with songwriting, take the following tips on board as your personal philosophy:
- Don’t analyze (or over-analyze) your own songwriting successes. If you appear to have broken some basic norms of songwriting, that’s fine. That’s not a problem to fix, as long as you like the song and it seems to be connecting with audiences.
- Analyze other songwriters’ successes. When you hear a song you like, try to figure out why you like it. Is it the chords? The lyrics? The melody? The groove? Identifying the things you like about a song helps you when writing your own. Because it’s someone else’s good song, you’re less likely to worry about the fact that it may have gone against the norms of good songwriting. That’s music for you!
- Silence your inner critic, especially at the beginning of the songwriting process. Being overly self-critical is a waste of time, and can kill whatever innovative direction your song is taking.
- Don’t confuse songwriting with production. A song that sounds bad may simply mean you need to hire a producer to help you. A song needs to be good before you take it to the studio.
- Have a healthy perspective on other people’s opinions. If someone dislikes your song, it’s not necessarily an indication that you’ve done something wrong. People can hate the songs you write, and that’s their right. Seek out and value seasoned professionals’ opinions, but remember that these are your songs. You get the final say on what they sound like.
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Take a look at pop song lyrics, and you’ll see everything from straight-ahead, easy-to-follow, to something more abstract.
The easy-to-follow lyrics might be something like “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, Amy Wadge, Julian Williams):
When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?
The more abstract might look more like the lyrics for Yes’s “Siberian Khatru” (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman):
Sing, bird of prey
Beauty begins at the foot of you, do you believe the manner?
Gold stainless nail
Torn through the distance of man as they regard the summit
However you choose to write your lyrics, and whatever the final form might be, there’s a natural progression that happens. In general, that progression is the moving from descriptive, narrative-style to emotion-based reactions. But there’s more to it than that.
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Take a look at the following, and use it as a kind of checklist for your own song lyrics. Not every song will work this way, but if you’re having trouble with your lyrics sounding too random, or otherwise disorganized, you might find it will help:
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song (the verse, for example), should describe people, places, situations or circumstances. It’s impossible to completely eliminate emotion, and that shouldn’t be the aim. But the verse needs to be all about the scene, not the reaction.
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song should keep the emotional outpouring contained, spending most of its time laying a narrative foundation. Verse 1 should attempt to make it clear (either obviously or abstractly) what the song is about.
- As lyrics move through a verse, getting closer to the chorus, the emotional content might start to increase. It pulls an audience in enticingly to have the emotions start to build; it makes audiences want to hear what happens next.
- Lyrics in a chorus need to connect to the verse by offering an emotional reaction to the content of the verse. This is a crucial connection. The chorus needs to sound like (or “feel” like) the obvious result of whatever the verse has been talking about.
- Emotion at the end of a chorus doesn’t need to gently dissipate. You can end your chorus on an emotional high, and let Verse 2 be what brings things down again.
- Bridge lyrics work well when they alternate quickly between narrative and emotional reactions. Most bridge lyrics “reveal all.” You’ll build more emotional energy with the quick back-and-forth of “then this happened, and so I felt this emotion..”
The most important thing to remember about lyrics is that audiences want to hear emotional ups and downs. They don’t want all emotion all the time. If your lyric is simply an emotional outpouring from beginning to end, you dull the effect you’re trying to create.
So in your verse lyrics, be patient. Tell people what you’re writing/singing about. There’s lots of time to grab the listeners’ heart.
A well-paced lyric that has this sense of progression will pull in listeners and keep them listening.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
It’s a dangerous can of worms to open if you dare ask someone, “What is good music?” Most of the time, people misunderstand the question and think you’re really asking, “What are your favourite songs?”, or perhaps “What is your favourite style (genre) of music?”
There is an important difference between “What is good music?” (or “What is a good song?”) and “What are your favourite songs?” If you consider yourself to be a student of songwriting, even if informally, you need to know the difference between those two questions.
Bob Dylan has used a wonderful analogy for describing a good song, which is that it should be able to “walk by itself.” A good song has life. It has an identity, and it exists long after someone sings it.
To describe more fully what I mean by that, try to imagine the world before anyone had ever heard “Tutti Frutti”, “She Loves You”, or “Billie Jean.” Those songs quickly gained a life of their own. They now walk by themselves, as Dylan would say.
Why do we need to know the difference between good songs and favourite songs anyway? It comes down to recognizing that some songs are excellent even if they don’t happen to excite us personally.
As a songwriter, you need to be able to listen to and understand songs — why they work, why they succeed, and determine what you can learn from them — as an issue quite apart from whether or not you happen to like them.
To be able to listen to songs with that more objective viewpoint means being able to listen to, let’s say, a country song and recognize its excellence, even if on a personal level you happen to rather dislike country as a genre.
Objective listening means being impartial. It allows you to appreciate the excellence of a particular folk song, for example, even if it’s not a song you’d willingly otherwise listen to.
It’s tricky, of course, to recognize greatness in a song that you just don’t like. In fact, some might argue that it’s practically impossible to judge music on those kinds of objective terms.
But if you want to improve your songwriting abilities, objective listening is crucial. To practice and improve your skills with regard to this all-important notion of impartial listening, try the following:
- Choose a genre that isn’t normally one you like.
- Do some online research and find songs that have been top of the charts, proving themselves to be strongly influential for other songwriters in that genre.
- Listen to the song, and keep your personal judgements at bay.
- Try to imagine what someone who loves the song is hearing when they listen to it.
- Make mental (or actual) notes about what you as a songwriter can learn from these songs.
That final point is probably the most important one. Because if you’re not trying to actually learn from these songs, the exercise is pointless from a songwriting point of view.
You’ll find that if you can incorporate some ideas into your own music, you’ve done something important: you’ve (in a sense) created a new genre which is a mélange of whatever you used to write, mixed in with what you’ve learned by listening to other new-to-you songs.
That’s when your own songwriting can take an enormous step forward!
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Discover the power and excitement that comes from putting your lyrics front and centre in the songwriting process.
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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