In 1937 Carl Orff wrote “Carmina Burana,” a 25-movement song cycle/scenic cantata that became an instant audience favourite. My choir, Dalhousie Collegium Cantorum, is working on this piece in preparation for an early-April performance, and it’s a ton of fun. Even if you aren’t familiar with the entire work, you likely do know the epic first song, “O Fortuna,” which has become the modern-day representation of armies about to do battle.
One of the later movements of “Carmina Burana” is the very beautiful “In trutina.” It shows how exquisitely alluring a melody can be while using nothing but the notes you find naturally within the key:
The melody for “In trutina” is an arch shape, which means:
- it starts low;
- it wanders high;
- it hits a climactic high note;
- it moves down and ends lower.
It’s a lovely shape for a melody because the rising melody naturally generates energy and emotion. After the climactic high point, it allows musical energy to dissipate by moving lower.
If you like starting songs by working out a great chord progression, you might inadvertently be ignoring the importance of your song’s melody. This guide, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“, shows you how to avoid the typical problems that come from chords-first songwriting.
As you can see from the sketch below, a melodic “arch” isn’t a pure geometric representation of an arch; that would be neither desirable nor even possible. Every song melody is different:
The chord progression is particularly gorgeous as well:
D A9/E G Dmaj7 Em7 A11 D
The Melodic Arch in Pop Music
The melodic arch a very commonly-used shape, and songwriters of the popular music genres (pop, rock, country, folk, etc.) have often used this shape as a way of controlling the emotional energy of their tunes.
To that end, the arch need not be constructed so that the climactic high point is at the middle as we hear in “In trutina.” It often gets shifted much more toward the 2/3-point of the melody, as we hear in “It’s Only Make Believe“, written by Jack Nance, Conway Twitty:
In any case, the beauty of the arch is the emotional build. Depending on the chords you use, you can follow the melody with a chorus or a bridge, but it works well as a stand-alone design all by itself, as demonstrated by “The Rose” (Amanda McBroom).
Writing a Melody Using Arch Form
It’s nice when constructing a melodic arch to think about the chord progression, and having the entire arch represent a kind of journey where the chords have wondered away from the tonic for the upward part of the arch, and then using the downward part to wander back. Something like this would work well (4 beats per chord):
C F Dm G Em A D7 G | F C/E Dm C/E F C/E Dm C
To construct a melody over this progression, keep the following tips in mind:
- Start your melody relatively low in range.
- Think of your melody as being in 4 phrases, where the first two phrases mainly wander upward, and the 2nd (or perhaps waiting until the 3rd) phrase wanders back down.
- Don’t feel that each phrase must move higher. (In “The Rose”, for example, the 2nd phrase is a repeat of the 1st one.)
- Don’t feel that the climactic high point must happen at the start of the 3rd phrase. You could wait until later.
- A perfect arch will end where it started, but your melody need not do that. For example, in the progression above, you might start your melody on a low G, move up an octave-and-a-half to C or D, and then end on a low C, a perfect 4th above where you started.
An arch is just one possibility for a melodic shape, but even ones that don’t specifically use the arch will borrow its best feature: the ability to build song energy by moving higher. So even if you decide to not write an arch, you’ll still do well to think about giving your melody a distinctive shape, and by placing a climactic high point somewhere especially in the 2nd half of the tune.